Good things come in small packages; at least that's the trend in high school education these days.
Yet although many city school districts are trying to increase students' performance levels by making the switch to smaller high schools,a recent study is showing results that might not be as promising as many reformers had hoped.
High schools that have broken up into career academies,or small schools with career themes,have had little or no impact on high school graduation rates,college education,or employment outcomes,according to a report conducted by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation.
The report,released in December 2001,is part of a 10-year study begun in 1993,said Dr. James Kemple,senior fellow with the MDRC,based in New York City. The study examines academies' results one year after high school graduation.
The purpose of career academies,to increase student-teacher involvement and push more students toward college,came to fruition in the short-run,but did not seem to make any differences overall.
“In the end,kids who enrolled in an academy were no more likely to graduate or go on to college,” Kemple said. “It was short-term progress that didn't seem to translate into long-term benefits – didn't seem to hurt students,but didn't seem to benefit them either.”
Although Kemple said the results are preliminary,and other studies still are being conducted,this report suggests career academies need to make some changes.
But school districts all across the country now are turning to career academies,or some form of this model,to improve their high schools.
The comprehensive model of the American high school,which has been implemented for almost 50 years,now is in shambles,said many education reformers who gathered to debate the issue at a high school forum in Washington on Oct. 4.
Each year,one in 20 students drops out of high school,and in many poor urban and rural areas,drop out rates are over 50 percent,according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Also,although about 80 percent of all high school graduates will enter college,over half will be required to take remedial courses once there.
“The comprehensive model tried to accommodate many different kids with different needs under the same roof,” said Thomas Toch,a writer-in-residence at the National Center on Education and the Economy. “Today,we want to educate all kids at the same level,in preparation of college. We need a very different model – a model smaller and more personal.”
Sarah Beam,principal of Amelia High School in Clermont County,Ohio,decided to combine her school with Glen Este High School,a neighboring school in the county,to form 10 smaller,interest-oriented academies.
Administrators were motivated to make the switch to smaller schools because of their students' performance levels,Beam said.
“We've been looking at ways to improve,” she said. “They (performance levels) weren't low,but we're certainly not satisfied with mediocrity.”
Since the academies opened in August,Beam said she has seen positive changes. But students might have mixed reviews about the switch.
“Some students are very excited about this…but we have some students that,you know,change is hard for,” she said.
One model for high school reform,the Talent Development High School with career academies,is among the most widespread in the country,with 45 high schools in 13 different states.
The model incorporates a theory of creating schools within schools,and so far,has been concentrated within large urban districts.
“The typical large urban high school is in a crisis,losing half its students to drop outs,” said James McPartland,director of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University. “Our goal is to help reform these worst case situations.”
The Talent Development model separates the freshmen students from the rest of the high school. The ninth grade becomes an academy,which then is grouped into teams. Each team consists of about 150 students,and there usually are four teams.
“Ninth grade is often the place where poor attendance and course failure lead to high drop out (rates),” McPartland said. “We need an intensive ninth grade transition year.”
The rest of the high school then is separated into career academies,he said. Students are allowed to choose which academy they wish to enter based on their interests. Most academies' career themes range from business and technology to the arts.
Schools' curricula also are highly stressed within the model,ensuring students are given accelerated work,but at the same time,extra time and help,McPartland said.
The Talent Development reform model puts teachers and students on the same team,said William Morrison,chief executive officer of Talent Development High Schools Implementation Center at Johns Hopkins.
And the differences in a Philadelphia school now implementing the model show the results of this team,he said.
Strawberry Mansion High School switched to career academies during the 1999-2000 school year. After the first year,ninth grade students continuing to the 10th grade increased by nearly 50 percent from the previous year,according to School District of Philadelphia reports.
The attendance rate at Strawberry Mansion also increased by 4 percent between the 1998-1999 and 1999-2000 school years.
“In schools that are doing this model,you're getting the small school effect of this personalization,” Morrison said. “Kids understand that adults are working with them,and,at the same time,adults feel the same way.”
Primarily located in Philadelphia,the Talent Development model reforms existing schools,but Morrison said they also are planning to open a new school in Baltimore next year.
Some high school administrators,however,said the career academy model is not self-sufficient.
The career academy schools that have not yet produced long-term results are failing to do so because they do not emphasize the most important parts of the model,said Thomas Payzant,Boston Public Schools' superintendent.
“Changing the way teachers teach and changing the relationships between teachers and students are the two key levers to this,” he said.
The Boston Public School District is not following the actual career academy model,but is forcing its 12 large public high schools to become small learning communities by next September.
Eventually,Payzant said he hopes each small learning community will be autonomous,working within its own budget and taking care of its own staffing.
“Small schools have a lot of promise…if you take advantage of what the new structure allows,” he said.