Reforms revitalize failing N.Y. high schools

December 08, 2003|By Judith Graham | Judith Graham,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - There is no reason for Bill Gates, the world's richest man, to come to the center of the impoverished South Bronx, except to see a remarkable education experiment.

Here, on streets littered with broken glass, in an old five-story building with security guards clustered around its main entrance, a dysfunctional high school is being rehabilitated.

Morris High School was one of many failures in the Bronx School District, which serves some of the most disadvantaged urban areas in the United States. Fewer than one-third of Morris' 1,600 students made it to graduation. Three out of 10 students, on average, didn't show up each day. The majority of its students, many of them immigrants, arrived reading at the second-grade level or below.

Now educators from Los Angeles to Boston, as well as Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, are visiting this campus to learn how the five small high schools housed within Morris' walls are working with some of the highest-risk students in New York City - and achieving a measure of success.

Gates visited in September to announce $51.2 million in grants for 67 small, theme-based high schools in New York, the largest single contribution his and his wife's Seattle foundation has made to an urban school system. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation noted studies showing the benefits of small schools, including higher graduation rates.

In many ways, the Morris campus symbolizes New York City's wave of public high school reform, which calls for establishing 200 small schools, with no more than 500 students each, over the next three to five years.

New York has been experimenting with small schools since the 1970s. But educational change on an unprecedented scale is occurring, with schools being created in greater numbers and more quickly.

School districts in big cities nationwide are undertaking similar reforms. Chicago has opened nine small high schools over the past two years, and 12 more are on the drawing board.

Still, New York's plan is the most extensive. The Bronx has launched 31 small high schools during the past three years, more than any single district in the country.

"Bronx schools were a disaster area. ... It was time for massive change," said Peter Steinberg, director of the Office of New and Small Schools for Region 2 in New York City, which includes most of the Bronx.

For the foreseeable future, Bronx administrators expect to establish 10 new small high schools a year, all on campuses of existing, failed institutions.

Even among high-risk students, the kids at Bronx International, a school on the Morris campus, stand out. All have come to the United States in the past four years, and most don't speak English.

Thirty countries and 22 languages are represented in Morris' fourth-floor hallways, which the three-year-old school and its 230 students call home.

There are four small high schools like this one in New York, dedicated to working with recent immigrants. A new organization, International Schools Partnership, is working to create similar model schools across the country, said Shael Polakow-Suransky, Bronx International's principal.

On a recent morning, social studies teacher David Gribben worked on a class project built around the theme "What is America." Each of his students is getting a disposable camera to photograph scenes that symbolize America. Their results will be displayed at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.

Gribben's class embodies what Bronx International is trying to do with its still-developing curriculum:

Foster interaction: Six groups of four students were bent over tables, discussing their ideas for photographs.

Mix kids from different cultures: That makes English the common language.

Make learning relevant: The project encourages students to explore their evolving perceptions of the country they now call home.

Link learning to the community: Students were excited that their friends and family would be invited to the exhibit's opening.

Personalize instruction: Some students will be more successful at drawing or photographing their ideas than they will be at writing, given limited literacy skills.

Early results at Bronx International point in the right direction. Attendance is 94 percent, and more than 90 percent of students pass their courses, despite higher standards. Student retention is 93 percent.

"It's a little scary how fast things are going, because this is really deep work," Polakow-Suransky said. "But it's urgent that we move ahead."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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