Success at Patterson High expands trend Academy: With help from the Johns Hopkins University and federal funds, Baltimore high schools move toward academies with vocational themes.

The Education Beat

August 28, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

ACTING ON THE proposition that smaller is better, Baltimore is quietly breaking its unwieldy high schools into smaller academies, each with a teaching team and vocational theme.

With technical help and on-the-scene advice from researchers at the Johns Hopkins University, Patterson High School began the trend last year. Three others -- Lake Clifton-Eastern, Douglass and Northwestern -- will make the transition this fall or next spring. (Some high schools have academies with vocational themes, but only Patterson has been fully converted.)

All four of the schools making the change have been declared failures by the state Department of Education and ordered to revamp. The schools-within-a-school approach they've chosen is the first major reform in high school education since "comprehensive" schools were established a half-century ago. They were to be all things to all students. Instead, they are administratively cumbersome and uninviting. They suffer from high absenteeism, and the urban high school dropout rate, particularly in the ninth grade, is staggering.

Educator Theodore R. Sizer, in a new book, "Horace's Hope: What Works for the American High School," refers to the "extraordinary gap between common sense and common practice" in the typical American high school.

The year-old Patterson experiment, closely watched around the city, was a qualified success. Hopkins, using some federal funds, now is helping spread the academy movement to other troubled city schools. But Hopkins is not calling the shots. The teachers are doing most of the planning.

Eighty percent of Lake Clifton-Eastern's 102-member faculty came in early this week for a retreat at Harborview Marina. The teachers expect about 3,000 students (800 of them freshmen) when school opens next week. It's no easy task distributing them to seven "schools," each a self-contained "learning community" with a vocational theme, a "managing administrator" and a separate entrance. (A security nightmare, Lake Clifton is the nation's third largest high school building, with more than 100 exterior doors.)

Dressed in shorts and T-shirts, the teachers hardly had time yesterday to pause for a box lunch. The experience of completely reshaping a school "is changing the attitude of my faculty," said Stanley E. Holmes, the Lake Clifton-Eastern principal. "You can feel the enthusiasm."

Confusion over 'service learning'

Jean Thompson reported in these pages yesterday that nearly 19,000 Maryland public school seniors have yet to complete the up to 75 hours of civic and social voluntarism required uniquely by Maryland as a condition of high school graduation.

Educators call it "service learning." Others call it "mandatory voluntarism," a wonderful oxymoron that ranks up there with "military intelligence" and "family vacation."

But when the standard was adopted in 1993, educators very quickly stopped calling it "community service." The reason is that community service is what you do in lieu of prison. It's an involuntary activity too many teens know all about.

The school people didn't want their requirement, an educational activity designed to bring schools and kids closer to communities, to be confused with the punitive requirement of the criminal justice system. Nor did they want schools to be doing the work of probation offices.

But to this day there is confusion. Teens who have been sentenced to community service ask if that time can be counted as service learning, thus killing two obligations with one stone. It's a logical question. Incidentally, many students don't know that supervised political activity can be counted as service learning. The campaigns, now in full swing, provide an opportunity for some of the 19,000 laggards.

Democrats favored in education polls

Speaking of politics, the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup education poll, released yesterday, found that Americans perceive the Democratic Party as more interested in improving public education than the Republican Party, by a majority of 44 percent to 27 percent. The margin of error in the 28th annual poll is 3 percentage points.

Pub Date: 8/28/96

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