Big steps in small schools

Reform: City educators feel positive about the effects of the breakup of Northern High School a year ago.


Nearly everyone agreed that a drastic change was needed at Northern High School, a place that recently had come to symbolize all that was wrong with the city's neighborhood high schools.

The school, which had been through four principals in five years, had gang-related violence and nearly as many dropouts as graduates. The teaching staff felt powerless.

So last summer administrators decided to do something just short of shutting the doors. They created four schools by dividing the building into two facilities and creating two additional small high schools in different locations.

Even the name was retired.

After nearly a year of reform, the new high schools, by most accounts, are better. Loitering students no longer block the hallways. Attendance is up significantly, and staff members believe violence has decreased. But the hardest work - improving teaching and learning so that students graduate with a meaningful degree - is just beginning, many educators said.

Among the smaller schools that have been created is Dr. Samuel Banks High School on east Northern Parkway, which has fewer than 300 students - about 2,000 fewer than the former Northern High.

Banks is part of the vanguard of a local and national movement to break down large high schools that typically have thousands of students and replace them with smaller schools of 700 to 800 students. Nearly every one of the city's neighborhood high schools are slated to undergo such a reorganization over the next several years with some students diverted to different locations.

"It is better," said Tiara McCullegan, a 10th-grader at Banks High School. As a ninth-grader, she attended Northern.

"There is less chaos, less noise, hardly any fights."

Tiara contrasts the recent school year with that of a year ago. "I wasn't able to concentrate," she said of Northern High. "Now I can pass my classes."

With 264 students, Banks is tiny by comparison. It is so small that Principal Jimmie Jones, a retired Army colonel, had the time to call parents each time their child didn't show up for school or was chronically late getting to classes. On occasional Saturdays, he even taught a handful of students who had not been turning in their homework regularly.

The school is one floor of an old junior high school, so small that Jones can cover all the hallways in a few minutes. And with 13 teachers, faculty members have been able to become quite familiar with each other and their principal.

Biology teacher Sharon McClain taught at Northern for 20 years and was ready for a change when Jones hired her as one of the few experienced teachers on his staff. Ten of his teachers were new to the profession.

The going has not always been smooth at Banks, McClain said. Because the school was put together so quickly last summer, she received a hodgepodge of biology materials. And that made planning science experiments difficult.

But despite some frustrations, she said, having smaller classes and a calmer environment has been a great change.

"You are able to mold the kids you have and set them on the right path," McClain said. And she was able to teach an Advanced Placement class. "That is wonderful. I love it - keeps me on my toes."

The goal of smaller, more intimate schools like Banks is to create environments where students get to know teachers and have a greater sense of community. Proponents say that smaller schools bring about higher academic standards, a more rigorous curriculum and a greater sense of purpose for students who might otherwise drop out.

The breakup of Northern was a prototype for what will take place at Lake Clifton this summer and perhaps Southwestern next year. The best chance for reforming these schools, believes departing Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo, is to begin a school by admitting only ninth-graders who are untainted by the culture of a troubled neighborhood high school.

Russo, who will leave the district at the end of the month, started a technology magnet high school at Southern High in South Baltimore last year. Incoming ninth-graders were separated from the rest of the school's 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders and given a new curriculum. Over the next three years, the school will be completely renovated and become Digital Harbor High School.

But Russo said the situation was so bad at Northern that she decided she had to move quickly. That meant putting ninth- and 10th-graders in Banks, and continuing all four grades at W.E.B. Dubois Senior High and Reginald Lewis High, the schools created at the Northern High School building. Some entering ninth-graders moved to a building at Robert Poole Middle School, where a small ninth-grade class of about 50 was added.

About 250 other children - many of them with behavior problems - were transferred to an existing alternative high school, Harbor City High School.

`Sense of urgency'

"Northern was driven by a sense of urgency that doesn't exist in other schools," Russo said.

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