Patterson scores high on reforms Reorganized school: The turnaround in morale, attendance and appearance has been called dramatic. Credit goes to the creation of five self-contained academies.

April 03, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's Patterson High School, a public embarrassment three years ago, has undergone a transformation in the past seven months that surprises even those who planned the reforms.

Reorganized from the ground up last fall, the sprawling East Baltimore school is noticeably more orderly and much cleaner. From all indications, teacher and student morale is on the rise, and a decline in the dropout rate has officials scrambling for portable classrooms in anticipation of a 300- to 400-student enrollment increase next fall.

Dozens of "ghost" students -- those registered at Patterson but not actually in attendance -- have been purged from the Patterson rolls, and the school has made a religion of regular attendance.

"It's been a dramatic turnaround," said Roger Wrenn, a longtime Patterson coach. "We've still got a lot of problems, but we've come a long way from what we were."

People inside and outside the 1,800-student school attribute the change to the creation of five self-contained academies, each with its own administration, counseling staff and separate entrances marked by movielike marquees. The entire 700-student ninth grade is a Success Academy, while the other four are career-oriented: arts and humanities, business and finance, sports and wellness, and transportation and technology.

"The academies have allowed us to form smaller, caring learning communities," said Principal Bonnie Erickson. "Since students choose their own academies, they have a sense of ownership."

Mandy Mincher, an 18-year-old senior, agreed. "They seem to care more about us," she said. Kimberly Gray, 16, who is taking health, world history, English and anatomy in the Sports and Wellness Academy, said Patterson is "better than it was last year. Everybody I've talked to likes it."

Other schools in Baltimore had pioneered the school-within-a-school idea, but Patterson was the first to convert an entire school and to make each academy genuinely independent. It did it with a large assist from a team of researchers from the Johns Hopkins University and technical aid from the state Department of Education, which three years ago had declared Patterson a failing school and ordered it to shape up or be taken over.

"I have to say that being identified for reconstitution helped Patterson get the attention and resources needed to change," said Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, who added that the school "is the model for high school reform in the city."

James McPartland, who heads the Hopkins center that has guided Patterson's reform, said the school's turnaround, after a purge of many of the school's alienated teachers, "was obvious the first week or two after school opened last fall. We believed in what we were doing, but we didn't know it would happen so fast."

Dr. McPartland said much work remains to improve Patterson academically, "now that we're getting a handle on atmosphere and attendance."

The school has the largest attendance zone -- stretching from the eastern edge of the city where it is located to Preston Street downtown -- of any of Baltimore's "comprehensive" high schools. Many students are tough behavior problems in danger of dropping out. One afternoon last week a group of teens was smoking what appeared to be marijuana near one of Patterson's entrances.

Patterson enrolls nearly 400 special education students, some of them in classes twice as large as required by state and federal regulations. Still, Sister Kathleen Feeley, the special education administrator for city schools, said Patterson "is getting its act together."

Within the academy framework, Patterson is doing other things that most city high schools aren't:

There are no bells. Students attend four 90-minute periods a day.

There are no department heads. Instead, each academy has teams of teachers assigned to 150 to 180 students. The teachers act as counselors and attendance monitors. They telephone students -- not parents -- when truancy is noticed, and every student is tracked every day. Three years ago, the school had no idea who was on its rolls, and students roamed the hallways at will.

"There is zero tolerance for class cutting," said William Morrison, the Success Academy principal. Added Sylvia Houser, a special education teacher in the Success Academy, "We're able to reach so many more kids than we would have in the past."

The academies are so autonomous that they put out their own daily bulletins and compete for the best academic and attendance records. "Please don't let up on the phone calls until June 18," stated a Success Academy bulletin last week. "A day in school is a life and death matter for urban students."

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