School & District Management

Urban Network Touts Virtues Of Small High Schools

November 08, 2000 4 min read
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In its largest gathering to date, the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform drew 300 educators, parents, students, and school activists here for its first national conference on urban high schools.

Anne C. Hallett, the executive director of the Chicago-based national network of school improvement groups, credited the timely theme of the Oct. 26-28 conference for a better-than-expected turnout.

Anne C. Hallett

“High schools are obviously way overdue for attention,” Ms. Hallett said. “This meeting is about encouraging the very nascent high school reform effort going on in this country.”

But the large audience, which represented an impressive cross-section of the urban school landscape, also reflected the group’s continuing growth.

When it began in 1993, the Cross City Campaign had affiliates in Chicago, Denver, and Philadelphia. Today, it has 10 full-time employees and has expanded to Baltimore, Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle. Ms. Hallett hopes Houston and Oakland, Calif., will be added soon.

The group also has a broader mission. Originally founded to champion community control of schools, it now covers a range of school issues, including accountability, parent organizing, and school climate.

The conference, for example, addressed racism, a need for smaller schools, minority achievement, and turning around large failing schools.

In the future, look for the Cross City Campaign to study ways to end academic tracking, improve teacher training, organize parents, and raise the quality of school data that communities receive.

And expect a varied array of participants. “Our theory of change is that insiders from school districts and outsiders, like parents, must be involved,” Ms. Hallett said. “That’s one thing people like about our meetings.”

While the meeting may have been large by Cross City Campaign standards, one of the most common themes was small—small schools, that is.

In formal presentations and informal discussions, conference-goers expressed strong support for breaking up large, impersonal high schools and replacing them with smaller, more student-centered sites. Small schools could be in their own buildings or take the form of carefully designed schools-within- schools.

“I’m tired of hearing that small schools are not a systemic change,” Michelle Fine, a psychology professor and education researcher at the City University of New York Graduate Center, said in a speech here. “It is if big cities help them, rather than crush them.”

She argued that small schools must be given autonomy when they begin, and not later as a reward for improvement. Another mistake, she added, is being too incremental about making conversions to small schools.

“You cut too many deals if you try to make everybody happy,” Ms. Fine warned.

Joyce Coppin, the superintendent of Brooklyn high schools in New York City, talked about her experience in redesigning large urban high schools— some with more than 3,000 students. “The small-school model works,” she declared.

But when a district carves up a large school into schools-within- schools, she added, each new school needs its own space and administration. As for the perfect size, 800 to 900 students are not only manageable, but provide for diverse staffing and academic programming, Ms. Coppin argued.

“At 200 or 300, it’s almost impossible to provide a high-school-type program,” she cautioned.

The subject of high school freshmen also received a lot of attention here.

While not everyone agreed, many educators at the meeting argued that the best way to address the high dropout rates and low levels of academic preparation that plague 9th graders is to create separate schools for them. At the least, they need separate and distinct learning settings within schools, advocates of such an approach said.

Kathleen Freilino, the principal of the 1,250-student James F. Rhodes High School in Cleveland, said the creation of a 9th grade academy at her school had led to dramatic improvement.

Ms. Freilino, who took over the school in the 1996-97 school year, said just 88 of the 698 students in that year’s freshman class graduated four years later. The school’s 9th graders also had one of the city’s highest suspension rates.

Today, 9th graders take classes in the first story of the three-story building, away from the upperclassmen. Class periods have been extended to four 90-minute classes a day, thus cutting down on disruptions and allowing more time for core subjects, Ms. Freilino said.

A “recovery program” was instituted to help Rhodes High 9th graders reach grade level, and an evening program serves students who were at risk of dropping out. And 9th grade teachers are no longer responsible for other grades. With obvious enthusiasm, Ms. Freilino noted the changes since such measures have taken effect. For starters, she said, the school’s annual suspension rate fell from 1,100 four years ago to 300 last year. The 9th grade recovery program has since been eliminated because it is no longer needed, and only about 40 of the 9th graders out of a class of around 360 were held back last year.

Most of them are expected to catch up by the end of this year.

—Robert C. Johnston

A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2000 edition of Education Week as Urban Network Touts Virtues Of Small High Schools


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