College & Workforce Readiness

To Stem Dropouts, Urban Districts Switch Strategies

By John Gehring — August 11, 2004 6 min read
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An increasing number of urban districts are scrapping traditional high school grade structures, changing their retention policies, and devising more flexible routes toward graduation to address high dropout rates.

Educators in Baltimore, Boston, Houston, and Rochester, N.Y., say they are particularly focused on the 9th grade, a year when many students drop out or fall behind by failing to accumulate the credits necessary for promotion.

The energy around rethinking and reshaping high school policies is being driven by a bevy of studies, and ample firsthand experience, showing that traditional ways of doing business are failing. A report released this past spring by the National High School Alliance, a Washington-based network of organizations that work to improve high school achievement, found that the graduation rate for urban districts hovers around 50 percent.

In Boston, Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant has proposed overhauling the 9th through 12th grades in the 60,000-student district, which has a growing pool of “overage” freshmen, who often drop out.

Currently, high school freshmen are required to repeat the entire year if they fail English or mathematics, even if they have passed other courses. Last year, Boston had about 400 overage freshmen, out of 5,700 9th graders.

Mr. Payzant wants to give students more time to work at their own pace. A new graduation policy, which he proposed June 9, would end the strict retention of students who fail some classes. The superintendent also is calling for more “pathways” through high school that would allow students to graduate in three, four, or five years.

The Boston school committee, which supports the change, is expected to take up the proposal next month.

In Baltimore, where almost 40 percent of 9th graders drop out, the school board voted this spring to reduce the number of credits freshmen must have before being promoted to the next grade. Under the new policy, students must accumulate four credits—in the core subjects of English, math, social studies, and science—to be promoted, rather than seven.

Role of Research

In part, Baltimore school leaders said the change was an effort to respond to research showing that when students make it past 9th grade, they are far more likely to graduate than students who have been held back.

The Houston school board in May changed course from an earlier policy that required high school students to pass core academic subjects in each grade before being promoted. The district’s new rule gives students until the end of their high school careers to pass core requirements. (“Houston Shifts on High School Promotion,” April 21, 2004.)

And in New York state, the Rochester district just concluded the first year under a new design in which most high schools have converted to a grades 7-12 setup and most elementary schools have added a 6th grade.

Superintendent Manuel Rivera pushed for the popular changes in the 36,000- student district to improve student achievement and relieve crowded middle schools, where suspensions were rising and test scores languished.

“The basic premise of high school was designed a century ago to educate about 10 percent of the population,” said Joseph A. DiMartino, the director of secondary school redesign at the Educational Alliance at Brown University in Providence, R.I., which collects research and promotes efforts to redesign high schools nationwide.

“We’ve gotten the model to work for about a third of the kids, but everyone has come to realize that the charge now is to educate everybody,” he said. “We can no longer do it in the regular structure that exists.”

From career-themed “academies” where students learn about professions such as health care to “twilight” high schools with flexible hours designed for older students who are working, the range of ways in which districts are thinking more creatively is growing, said Naomi Housman, the coordinator of the National High School Alliance.

“There is not just one right model,” Ms. Housman said. “Districts have to respond to what’s going on in their district.”

Flexibility, Stability

Rochester attracted national attention four years ago when then-Superintendent Clifford B. Janey proposed allowing students to set their own paths toward graduation over three, four, or five years. (“Rochester Plan Adds Flexibility to High School,” Aug. 2, 2000.)

The plan, which the district adopted in 2002, responded to the criticism that four-year high schools reward students largely for “seat time” and do little to help struggling students or more advanced learners. Most Rochester students still graduate in four years. But some do take five, district leaders said, and not just remedial students. An increasing number of students are using a fifth year of high school to take advanced courses and even to take classes at a college.

When Mr. Rivera became superintendent, he saw that district middle schools overflowed on average with 1,000-plus students. Not enough students in grades 6-8 were reaching state standards. More than 8,000 in-school suspensions were handed out in middle schools three years ago.

Mr. Rivera quickly found support from the teachers’ union, the school board, and parents for his plan to move to high schools spanning grades 7 to 12, and to add a 6th grade to most K-5 schools.

“What began as an effort to address overcrowding became a much more comprehensive look at our entire school program,” Mr. Rivera said.

It’s too early to say whether the changes have made a significant difference, Rochester district leaders say, but initial evidence points to higher test scores and fewer discipline problems.

Adding 7th and 8th grades to high schools has also helped address what researchers call “pipeline” issues—the transitions students make between levels of schooling. The 9th grade year, in particular, is where most students who drop out begin their slide.

In Rochester, students now spend more time with the same teachers, and the jump to high school has become less difficult, educators there say.

Mike Robinson, a former Rochester principal who is now the district’s chief of school development and operations, said it used to take several months for 9th graders to get acclimated to high school. Transitions are now less jolting for students, he said, and the focus can be turned more quickly to academics.

“By going 7 through 12, we pick up three months of instruction,” he said.

Students in grades 7-9 attend a “foundation” academy, and 10th through 12th graders are in a separate “commencement academy” in the same building.

Mr. Rivera added that under the new grade configuration, about 5,000 students who would have left for separate middle schools after 5th grade—along with 8th graders who would have moved on to a high school— were able to stay in the same building.

“That kind of stability has to pay off in terms of performance,” he said.

New ‘Pathways’

In Boston, the superintendent’s plan addresses the problem of students who are overage for their grade and have too few credits by making students 18 or older and still 9th or 10th graders eligible for alternative courses to prepare for work or community college.

Mr. Payzant wants to allow students who have failed some courses to advance to the next grade with their peers while they work on those they flunked.

He proposed several curriculum “pathways” that would give students and teachers more flexibility in choosing coursework. Under one pathway, for example, students would take four classes in English, three in math, three in science, two in world language, and an art elective.

But with the approval of district officials, a school would be able to develop its own, comparable set of courses. Students would have to meet district and state standards, including passing Massachusetts’ exams, to graduate.

There is unanimous support on the Boston school board for the changes, said its chairwoman, Elizabeth Reilinger.

“This is part of a long-standing commitment to really deal with pervasive problems at the high school level,” she said. “We recognize that schools are having some real issues with students’ feeling disenfranchised. We wanted to create some kind of flexibility to allow students to learn and progress at their own pace, but still meet standards.”

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