Schools make headway

City students show progress at 'innovation' highs

May 21, 2008|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun reporter

Last year, Tashera Savage squeezed her father's hand and held onto his gaze as he lay dying of a gunshot wound outside her house. Such a profoundly troubling experience could easily have derailed the city high school junior.

"I thought it was something I would never get over," she said. But her small high school rallied around her. Her teachers cried with her, and her classmates stayed close to her. Savage will walk across the stage at the Academy of College and Career Exploration High School (ACCE) graduation next week , not only a survivor but ready to go off to a four-year university in Louisiana in the fall.

The school she credits with helping her get so far is one of five new innovation high schools begun about four years ago as an experiment to find a replacement for Baltimore's troubled comprehensive high schools. This month, two of those schools will graduate their first classes, and the results are demonstrably better than those at the comprehensive high schools their students could have chosen.

At ACCE, 88 percent of seniors were accepted by colleges, and nearly half of them by four-year colleges. Most students hope to attend if they can put together enough financial aid. Savage, for instance, is hoping to find enough money to go to her first choice, Grambling State University in Grambling, La., but if she can't raise the funds, she plans to go elsewhere.

The success of these high schools, the principals, teachers and students say, lies not in a quirky educational fad but in something as simple as a faculty that has bonded with the 400 or so students who attend each school.

"Our kids have someone who can help them on a personal level. They have a connection with someone in the building," said Jeffrey M. Robinson, principal of the Talent Development High School in West Baltimore.

In interviews, the administrators and students at ACCE described their Hampden school as a family. The small size of the high school allows students to get a lot of attention, and in a city where teenagers often need their teachers to provide more than academic guidance, students say this school has kept them connected.

"There are a lot of kids who were about to drop out, and they didn't because these teachers care about them," said Katie Zimmerman, the valedictorian. Back in eighth grade, Zimmerman thought she would go to City College, but when she visited she found it too large and impersonal. She chose ACCE, despite the fact that she would be one of the few white students there.

The schools have lower dropout rates, better attendance and fewer discipline issues than the city's comprehensive high schools, according to a study released this year by the Urban Institute. On average, students in innovation high schools scored between 14 and 30 points higher on the Maryland High School Assessments than in other city high schools - not counting the selective schools such as City College. In addition, they attended school between 9 and 22 percent more days per year, the study found.

Students at ACCE said they came to the school four years ago almost on a lark. At the time, Baltimore was in the midst of a major reform of its high schools. With help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and local philanthropic groups, the school system was dividing its large high schools - with enrollments of about 2,000 - into two or three schools. At the same time, it was allowing groups to open charters and innovation high schools.

The innovation schools had a little more autonomy than the average school but less than a charter school.

Beginning five years ago, the city schools stopped assigning students to their neighborhood high schools. Instead, eighth-graders in the city were asked to choose the high schools they wanted to attend. And there were dozens of choices. Some, such as the Polytechnic Institute and Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, require minimum grades and test scores, while most others were open to anyone who wanted to sign up.

Zimmerman and her classmates said the first years of ACCE were sometimes difficult. The school struggled with the violence at a neighborhood high school in the same building, with differences among students and with a move across town to a new location, students and faculty said.

Of the 150 students who started four years ago, only 95 will graduate together, said Cheyanne Zahrt, a 12th- grade administrator. Many students switched schools when ACCE moved to a new location in Hampden. Others decided they wanted to get a GED or find an alternative route to an education, but only two or three of the original 150 can't be found, she said.

In a city with a dropout rate estimated from 40 percent to 60 percent, the school's ability to hold on to its students is unusual.

The innovation schools often have mandatory after-school activities, require students to do community service and oversee the college application process. ACCE students also must do an internship all day every Wednesday during their 11th-grade year.

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