On Research: Hopkins Helping Patterson H.S. Turn Itself Around Steve Libowitz ---------------------- Editor Within a year after receiving the U.S. Department of Education's largest ever grant to a research and development center, Hopkins researchers are rolling out an innovative pilot project they think can become the working model for the country's middle and high schools in the next century. The Talent Development model is one of the major efforts of the Center for Research for the Education of Students Placed at Risk, a partnership between Hopkins' 27-year-old Center for Social Organization of Schools and Howard University. In making the $27.7 million, five-year award, the DOE charged the center with researching and developing school reform programs that will transform schools serving students most at risk of failing or dropping out. "People realize a lot of schools are in trouble, but they don't realize how dramatic the reforms must be," says CSOS director James McPartland. "When a school is more dropping out than graduating, when attendance is about 60 percent, when only one out of five are passing simple state tests, that school's in crisis, not just in trouble." That was the situation at Baltimore's Patterson High School when it got the news two years ago that it was one of two city schools dangerously close to being taken over and run by the state. Initial efforts included serious controversies with the district, and Patterson parents, teachers and administrators did not at first come up with bold new ideas. Minor tinkering with reform at Patterson, and schools like it, is not enough, McPartland says. Major change is needed. Last fall, Patterson principal Bonnie Erikson got busy turning the school around, letting go recalcitrant teachers, shaking up the administration and moving toward rethinking its academic mission. At midyear it made CRESPAR a partner in its effort to reform itself along the lines of the Talent Development model. McPartland says Patterson provides a perfect laboratory to develop the high school model, which is less a brand new idea than a unique combination of programs proven successful in other academic environments. At the heart of the Talent Development model is the idea that all schools can succeed with a college prep curriculum. No longer will students be tracked out of demanding courses or looked at with low academic expectations. "At the high school level, we're trying to fundamentally change the climate away from students asking, 'Should I go to college?' or saying, 'I could never go to college' to asking, 'What college should I go to?' " McPartland says. "We want to begin in the ninth grade with the idea that school is a serious place where learning goes on, not a place where kids wander the halls and adults are mainly concerned with getting through the day," says CRESPAR researcher Will Jordan. Among the guiding principles in the high school Talent Development model is making the course work more relevant to students' experiences, goals and interests while providing a disciplined but caring school environment. To accomplish this, the model requires that high schools be organized into career academies, a generally successful idea that has most often been used within a school as an enclave for gifted students. Patterson is the first high school in the country to completely organize itself into these career-based schools-within-a-school. The Talent Development career academies are determined by faculty strengths and interests, McPartland says. At Patterson, there are academies for Arts and Humanities, Sports Studies and Health/Wellness, Transportation and Engineering Technology, Business and Finance, and a ninth grade Success Academy, which inculcates students with the idea of preparing for a career and guiding them toward choosing the academy they will enter in 10th grade. "Career academies exist here and there and have been out there for a long time," McPartland says, "but no one has figured out how to do it in a non-selective way. At Patterson it's the entire school organization." "The Patterson administration and CRESPAR agreed on the central idea that each academy should incorporate a college pathway, so it's not just vocational education, and students should strive to go to college, even if they don't make it," says senior CRESPAR researcher Edward McDill. Another component the Talent Development model brings to the pilot project is the organization of these academies into two terms of four 90-minute course blocks each, a growing national trend that has proven successful elsewhere. The longer blocks allow students to delve deeper into subjects, but they also increase the burden on teachers not used to writing such long lesson plans. "Our center is more than a consultant," McPartland says. "There are a lot of messianic speakers out there who are great at giving visionary speeches. But then they go away and leave schools to develop and implement the vision on their own." The Talent Development model provides a visionary framework for reorganizing the school day and the classroom configurations but its researchers realize that concrete, detailed classroom materials and resources are needed to implement the vision in ways that suit the peculiar characteristics of any given school. And Hopkins researchers show up every day to work together with the Patterson staff to develop project details, reinforce ideas and make changes when necessary. Sometimes, their involvement is more of the roll-up-the-sleeves variety. "Being a partner with a school means doing some of the staff work and grunt work and being there regularly to pull your share of the load," McPartland says. "There has to be follow-through from researchers." Indeed, the CRESPAR folks have been there with Patterson. They met all summer with the Patterson faculty committee to get ready for the school year, performing all sorts of tasks from scheduling staff development days to helping to prepare the school's new faculty handbook. They also created a guidebook for the 90-minute block schedule. The task that Patterson and CRESPAR has undertaken is a huge one, they admit. "We're trying to break down organizational barriers and start turning the numbers of dropouts into standouts," McPartland says. He says his hands-on involvement has made him feel part of the Patterson family, but insists that while Hopkins has created what he considers an excellent education model, it is the faculty and staff at Patterson--and those at other urban schools who can adapt the model to suit their specific needs--who will make the reform effort work. "I used to wonder if this degree of school reform was really possible," McPartland says, "but I now know it is because I see how it's already working at Patterson."
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