Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

Distributed December 17, 1993
Contact: Mark Nickel

Profiles of School Change

Central Park East Secondary School -- New York, N.Y.

One of the Coalition's best-known member schools is Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS), in New York's East Harlem. Created in 1985 as a school of choice, it focuses on the intellectual engagement and development of its 435 students - most of whom are from low-income families, and are African American and Hispanic. CPESS has created and relied on uncommon structures - many of which come down to ensuring that kids are known well by adults so that they may be taught well.

Students enter the school into multi-age grouped Division I (grades 7/8), and progress into Division II (grades 9/10). The two levels are further divided into houses of eighty students whose teachers enjoy common planning opportunities. Students take two courses - Humanities and Math/Science - which are presented in two-hour integrated blocks each day. Language and physical education requirements are fulfilled before or after school or at lunchtime. Every student engages in some form of community service work each week. Advisory groups of no more than thirteen students and one staff member meet daily so that there is an advocate and a comfortable support group for each student in the school. From there, students advance to the Senior Institute where they complete an individualized course of study requiring the compilation of a fourteen-part graduation portfolio. Each student must also present a final exhibition to a committee of students, teachers, and community members as a requirement for the diploma.

The school marks its own success in a variety of ways. Graduation and attendance rates are among the highest in the city of New York; the dropout rate is near zero. (The latter is particularly impressive when one considers that Hispanics and African Americans have a city-wide dropout rate over 70 percent.) Over 90 percent of the school's graduates move on to higher education, a growing number of whom are placed at some of the most respected colleges in the country.

Dr. George Wood writes about CPESS extensively in his 1992 book Schools That Work. "Amidst all the horror stories about inner-city schools, here is a school... that succeeds, both by conventional measures and by the clear indications kids themselves give. Two things make this possible: a sense of community that is built here, and a narrowed yet richer curriculum. These two things lead to students who care about their learning, themselves, and each other."

School Contact: Deborah Meier, Director (212) 369-1288

Croton-Harmon High School -- Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Croton-Harmon High School is the kind of school which has a long history of serving its students well. Indeed, the community has traditionally has looked on the school and its practices with pride; the school's average SAT scores, graduation rate and percentage of students going on to higher education have routinely exceeded the state average. The school and community, however, led by current superintendent Sherry King, refused to be satisfied and joined the Coalition hoping to push students to deeper, more active engagement. King has facilitated seminars and town meetings for parents, teachers and community members so that they might reconstruct what they want their children to know and be able to do.

The staff at the school works to incorporate community considerations into fresh educational practices. To give students a greater stake in their school and a stronger feeling of belonging, new governance structures have been collaboratively established - a Student-Faculty Congress and a Fairness Committee. To "personalize" the school further every student attends a weekly seminar with a small group of students and an advisor. To encourage students to become more involved in the community, a community service requirement was adopted and has been integrated into the curriculum. All special education students have been mainstreamed into regular classrooms where resource room teachers cooperate with other faculty to provide the necessary support for these students in the least restrictive environment.

Perhaps the biggest transformation has involved slow, careful change in some of the fundamental practices of the school - in classrooms and in departments - where connections are being drawn between disciplines in order to engage students in real contemporary problems and issues. Social studies students adopt an emerging country for a year and investigate past history and contemporary issues. In science, ninth grade students chart tide levels, moon risings and settings and then graph them to understand the relationship of the moon to tides. A mother describes how her son engaged their entire family in a physics activity:

"Our son had to create a maze only using paper and tape and a marble to learn about kinetic energy and momentum. The marble was supposed to run for 22 seconds. He was determined to get it, but the most he could get up to was thirteen seconds. Then his father got into it, and I went by and gave advice and then his brother came home and had a few recommendations. `Cutting the paper, your angles are too sharp. Put more in.' `Add another piece here.' `Reduce the slant.' Really it was all of us brainstorming and all of us using our minds well. Twenty-two seconds is a long time when you're using paper and masking tape and a marble. We found that out."

As the Wall Street Journal observed in a 1992 article, "[At Croton-Harmon] students engage in the kind of team problem solving and decision making they will encounter once they leave school."

The State of New York has taken notice of these innovations, making Croton-Harmon and nearly a dozen other New York CES-affiliates New Partnership Schools. These schools are charged with helping the state develop assessments to replace the State Regents Examination. For example, Croton's ninth and tenth grade English and Social Studies teachers this year replaced the Global Studies Regents Exam with combined exhibitions where students contemplated the current implications of their choice of three historical philosophers. For their efforts, the students received Regents credit. Parents and community members assessed whether they were able to convey succinctly the various philosophies and draw out the implications.

The community has been satisfied so far with the changes underway as gains appear in current measures. The Class of 1991 significantly outperformed the Classes of 1987-1990 on the SAT and a larger number of students qualified for Regents Scholarships to help pay for college tuition. Increasingly, students are being encouraged to undertake challenges. In ninth grade science, for example, virtually all the students passed the challenging state exam, including those who traditionally would have not even been encouraged to take the test. The mean score for the ninth-graders in 1993 was a tremendous 90 percent.

School Contact: Robert Kuklis, Principal (914) 274-2140

Fenway Middle College High School -- Boston, Mass.

Founded in 1983 as an "alternative" school for 200 at-risk students on the campus of Boston's English High School, Fenway Middle College High School has quickly established itself as an important part of the Boston public school system. In 1990, the school's move to the campus of Bunker Hill Community College allowed the school greater autonomy, and an opportunity to maximize their use of and commitment to the community and its resources.

In order to ensure that "students are workers," students at Fenway are enrolled in four 75-minute classes each day, with an advisory period three days per week. Longer time blocks and careful teachers attention promote sustained student engagement. Electives, often taught by members of the professional community, are offered twice per week. Rigid boundaries between the traditional subject areas have been carefully blurred so that students can see the connections between one discipline and the next in integrated courses like humanities and integrated math. In these courses there is an emphasis on dealing with real issues and real problems. Exhibitions and portfolios have replaced traditional pencil-and-paper tests, and "project weeks" give the entire student body a chance to do volunteer work in the outside community.

Despite the fact that the school was designed to support at-risk students, there is a strong sense of academic rigor. Over 70 percent of Fenway's graduates move on to two- and four-year colleges. But, as Teacher magazine notes in a March, 1992 article, "Students [also] experience another, less quantifiable kind of success at Fenway." They move ahead in life as healthier, stronger people, with a sense of responsibility. The students demonstrate their appreciation with their presence." In a school system with a city-wide dropout rate of 33 percent, Fenway's is 8 percent.

Author Steven F. Wilson has few kind words for the Boston school system in his 1992 book, Reinventing the Schools. But he takes time out to recognize Fenway's successes. "As this start-up school continues to transform would-be dropouts into determined students, other school leaders still committed to the traditional classroom may have to sit up and take note."

School Contact: Linda Nathan (617) 868-0072

Fairdale High School -- Louisville, Ky.

In his book Smart Schools, Smart Kids, Edward Fiske called Fairdale High School, in Louisville, KY "by any definition a tough place to teach," given the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the student body. The school was a center of racial tension in the 1970s; today it has a student population of whom nearly 80% may qualify for free lunches, and with 62% meeting the state definition of at risk - over two grades behind in reading. But Fairdale, a Coalition member since 1988, has gained strength and the respect of its peers as the school continues to work on a number of strategies to address these challenges. It is a place where, Fiske notes, teachers are "raising students, if not from the dead, then at least from deadly apathy."

Teaming is Fairdale's major thrust. At this school, the term refers to a group of teachers who choose to work together and share students so that they both know their students better and have more flexibility over time and content. Originally the Zephyr team was formed to deal with the high ninth-grade dropout rate. It had a dramatic effect. Previously, the school had "one of the highest dropout rates and lowest attendance rates in the county," described principal Marilyn Hohmann. Currently, less than 5% of students drop out, and attendance had risen to 92%, in spite of the high student mobility inherent in an urban district.

As teachers came to agree on the benefits for both teachers and students in teaming, the number of teams has grown each year. Today all ninth- and tenth-graders are on teams, as are over 100 juniors and seniors. Other advantages of teaming include the ability to integrate curriculum and to engage in longer-term, more student-centered activities. For instance, this past year one of the teams asked their students to investigate and generate solutions to the problem of the endangered spotted owl. Students researched, read, discussed, outlined various positions, graphed the problem, calculated area needed, figured the potential costs of possible solutions and debated which might be better. This year a team undertook a study of pollution in a stream near the school, and discovered toxic levels of chemicals. For their ongoing work, the class has received a commendation from the governor.

Teaming, however, is not Fairdale's only strategy. Teachers are experimenting with problem-centered learning, the development of broad-based, challenging essential questions and a new grading system. Teachers have established the Teacher Guided Advisory Program so that each of them know well a small number of students. Recognizing that, in Hohmann's words, "Parents must be put on board as full partners" in change, the school redesigned its decision-making structure, introducing the Fairdale School-Based Decision Making Council to allow students, teachers, parents and administrators shared control over the day-to-day operations of the building. Parents and community have responded to the call to take a greater role in the school and have received an expanded number of seats on the Council over the past five years.

Hohmann points out that in county surveys of teacher expectations, quality of academics, school-home communications, stakeholders' feelings of ownership in school, satisfaction and opportunities for leadership, the school scores at or above the county average. "It certainly wasn't that way four years ago," the principal notes wryly.

School Contact: Marilyn Hohmann, Principal (502) 473-8248

Sullivan High School -- Chicago, Ill.

A 1200-student urban high school is not the place one might expect to walk in on a group heatedly discussing the works of Camus, Nietzche, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. At Sullivan High School in Chicago, that's just what you might hear if you stumble into a Socratic seminar. Socratic seminars are discussions conducted with no more than fifteen students. Everyone participates in examining a common text which all have read to understand the author's intentions and the possibility of multiple interpretations. A facilitator asks questions initially, but participants have equal opportunity to direct the focus of the discussion.

Sullivan High School, a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools since 1990, first began using the Socratic seminars as a graduation exhibition requirement in 1989, when they were investigating what it might mean for students to demonstrate their competence. In order to prepare students for such a rigorous exercise, seminars are conducted at all levels of the high school to push students beyond passive memorization to active thinking.

Two views of the classroom help illustrate this process. At the beginning of the ninth grade year a small group of students reads a section from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The teacher poses questions, coaches them to respect each other's ideas, to return to the text to provide support for their point of view. The students enjoy the exercise but are not at all adept at listening, at moving beyond personal opinion to the text as a source of support for their viewpoints. At the end of the year, a group of seniors conducts a seminar using the Melian Dialogue from the History of the Peloponesian Wars by Thucydides. The Melians ask the Athenians what is to be gained by invasion. Students relate the text to two others: the United Nations Charter and a short story by Leo Tolstoy entitled, "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" All of the ten students are Hispanic or African American. All come prepared with their texts heavily annotated. Clearly they have done their homework. An audience of teachers, parents, and university professors listens to their discussion and eventually evaluates their participation as a component of the graduation requirement. A lively discussion ensues. Various interpretations and links between texts are suggested. All conduct themselves with thoughtful respect for others. After some lively debate among the raters, all pass.

With the seminars as a cornerstone of curriculum and assessment, Sullivan has seen the benefits on standardized assessments. For the Class of 1988, the first class exposed to the seminars in some form for their entire four years, test scores jumped 10-20% across the board, which encouraged further implementation. The results continue to demonstrate the value of the strategy.

The school continues to broaden its Essential School philosophy, expanding the use of exhibitions in classrooms, holding Socratic seminars (led by teams of teachers) on a monthly basis, focusing further on student-as-worker and developing new collaborative activities. The entire freshman class takes part in interdisciplinary history and English, and this year, the school pressed forward with a comprehensive team approach to the sophomore curriculum, and further expanded the assessment program to ensure that students are achieving mastery of the school's educational objectives.

School Contact: Pat Anderson, Principal (312) 534-2000

Thayer High School -- Winchester, N.H.

In 1981, when Dennis Littky arrived at Thayer Junior/Senior High School in the rural town of Winchester, New Hampshire, the 400-student, grade 7-12 school was a prime example of the struggling high school. A decade later, the school has been at the center of a whirlwind of change and some controversy, resulting in a book, a made-for-TV movie, and numerous articles, all of which suggest Thayer has done a remarkable job in changing the way students are educated there. The school even hosts one of the most innovative professional development opportunities available today, the monthly interactive satellite broadcast "Here, Thayer and Everywhere."

Much of the newfound attention centers on the teaching and learning going on within the school. Teachers work in grade-level teams, with common planning time and shared students. The team sets the structure of the day depending on the activities in which the students are involved. Every student attends a daily advisory period of 10-15 students. The curriculum is structured to give students a clear understanding of what they should know and be able to do at the end of each unit, semester, course, year and at graduation. Formerly segregated special education students are mainstreamed into regular classrooms. A senior apprenticeship program has also been established to give students the opportunity to explore their interests within the community.

Thayer students are accustomed to tackling real challenges. After studying water pollution in the town's water supply, students were able to convince the community to adopt building and water control policies. In 1992, Thayer students determined that students in Coalition schools needed their own conference where they could both educate themselves and participate in the discussion about school reform. A number of students from five states converged on Winchester for the first annual students' conference. In 1993, the conference tripled in size and was replicated elsewhere around the country.

The staff at Thayer has been equally innovative in taking charge of their own professional development. In order to combat the isolation of their location, they received grants to host an interactive distance learning professional development series for staff in Coalition schools. In the last two years, staff have videotaped changes in their school that represent many of the major challenges in the restructuring process. "Here, Thayer and Everywhere" and its new counterpart "MathWatch" are shown via satellite or on tape at 400 sites around the country, and have enabled Coalition schools nationally to learn from each other.

The results of the teachers' persistence speak for themselves. In 1981, before the school became involved with the Coalition, the dropout rate was 10%, and only one-in-ten moved on to higher education. A decade later, the dropout rate had been cut to just over 1%, and 65% of Thayer High School graduates were continuing on to higher education.

What were the secrets behind this remarkable transformation of a rural high school? They go beyond the principal, the man they call "Doc." As a 1990 Boston Globe article noted, "If [Dr.] Littky were simply an appealing maverick who had a special rapport with students, his story would have little relevance.... But Littky has taken some concepts that school reformers have been talking about for a long time... and put them to work in transforming a small, poor rural school from an educational basket case into a place where students and teachers seem excited about what they're doing."

School Contact: Dennis Littky, Principal (603) 239-4381