Johns Hopkins Magazine
Johns Hopkins Magazine Current Issue Past Issues Search Get In Touch
  A Whole Different Approach

Hopkins researchers led by sociologist James McPartland have come up with a model for turning around the most troubled urban high schools. In places from Philadelphia to Hawaii, the Talent Development program is getting results.

By Lavinia Edmunds
Illustration by Stuart Bradford

Located in a deteriorating area of Philadelphia, Germantown High School once fit the stereotype of the dangerous urban high school -- out of control. The grand columned central building, built in 1915, was gray and dirty. More than a few of the 1,300-plus students passing through a metal detector in the entrance doorway were detained for drugs or weapons. During class time, more students loitered in the halls than in classrooms. Ninth-graders, who had failed classes as many as four times, created disturbances for those few who wanted to learn.

But perhaps most problematic, in this era of educational reform, when state assessments can determine the fate of principals and treatment from the district administration, more students were failing than passing. The school couldn't hold onto a principal to try to effect some change -- until Gloria Pelzer arrived in the fall of 2001. Pelzer was familiar with the problems of troubled urban high schools, having previously served as a "facilitator" or teacher coach at one of the city's toughest high schools.

Pelzer knew that if she were to survive, and her students were to prosper, she needed a major, comprehensive plan. There were a number of high school reform packages out there to choose from, and she took a close look at many of them. "Some might solve the instructional problem, but what about my discipline problem? There might be a new structure for the school, but how would that help my ninth-graders who seemed most in danger of failing?" Pelzer asked at the end of a recent school day. Dressed for action in a black business suit and silver tennis shoes, she is petite, exuding energy and determination.

Talent Development High Schools, a model under development over the last decade by Johns Hopkins' Center for Social Organization of Schools, emerged as her first choice. A comprehensive whole school reform, it addresses problems ranging from large class sizes to ninth-grade reading lists and the need for study skills. And it provides on-site support in the form of coaches as well as curriculum. By spring 2001, with assurance from Pelzer that she would commit to leading the school for more than the usual one-year term of her predecessors, 80 percent of the teachers at Germantown agreed to sign on.

The model is largely the brainchild of Johns Hopkins sociologist James McPartland, PhD '68, an unassuming man with a long-standing dedication to making public schools more responsive to disadvantaged minorities. He has been tackling the problem of inequity in education since he was a graduate student of famed Hopkins sociologist James Coleman during the 1960s. McPartland worked on the 1966 "Equality of Educational Opportunity" report. Known as the Coleman Report, it was commissioned by the U.S. Office of Education and surveyed 600,000 schoolchildren and teachers nationwide. It is considered to be one of the most important research studies of the 20th century in showing the unequal educational opportunities offered in impoverished, mostly African-American, neighborhoods.

In his research, McPartland scoured the literature, seeking to identify elements of a model urban high school and to understand why students drop out. He believed that school systems should provide the step-up students in impoverished areas need to succeed. In 1994, he started a team at Hopkins to invent new forms and practices for troubled high schools. He recruited talented teachers from public schools, as well as social scientists with imagination and skills who could apply theory to practice in real schools. The first phase of the project, which focused on school organization, was launched at Patterson High School in Baltimore in 1994. As other schools followed, instructional pieces were added. The Talent Development High School model is now in place in more than 50 high schools across the nation, from Hawaii to Louisiana. CSOS employs 25 people -- such as curriculum writers -- at Hopkins in Baltimore and about 75 in the field as coaches and coordinators.

Elements of Talent Development are now widely used in high school reform nationwide, says Bob Embry, president of the Abell Foundation, a major funder of education reform in Baltimore. Embry notes that high school reform has received short shrift, as the focus has been on early education. Even now, against the backdrop of the No Child Left Behind Act initiated by President George W. Bush, he says, high school reform is "most difficult and has gained least support" compared to the reforms sweeping through elementary and middle schools.

Says McPartland, "Often the [approaches] are to invest all your resources in the early years so you can prevent failure. Schools are going to continue to need help even if they have a good early program. Even though the average [disadvantaged minority student] is three or four years behind coming in, we think we can accelerate these students' growth so that they can gain two years for every year they are there. We are convinced that it's not too late in high school to catch up."

The first component of the Talent Development model (and one that many schools start by taking alone, before implementing the rest of the package) is to break the school up into an "academy" structure, with a ninth grade "Success Academy" kept separate from upper classes -- an opportunity to build cohesion and establish more personalized relationships between students and their teachers and administrators. The goal: Making sure students don't get lost in the crowd. "The ninth grade is key," notes McPartland. A recent study by CSOS researchers Robert Balfanz and Nettie Letgers revealed that ninth- graders in non-selective, large urban high schools like Germantown have as great a chance of eventually dropping out as they do of graduating -- 50/50 odds. "Most kids come to high school poorly prepared," says McPartland. "Many may be reading and doing math four years behind grade level."

In Talent Development's ninth grade, schools implement a block schedule aimed at quickly closing their skills gaps. Rather than following a standard seven-period day of 45-minute classes, students spend 90 minutes in each class. In the first semester, most students (except the few at grade level) take a "double dose" (90 minutes each) of math and English to focus on remedial work, in addition to Freshman Seminar, which teaches basic organizational and study skills, and an elective. During the second semester, they pick up the standard ninth-grade English and algebra classes. The longer classes give teachers time to delve into subjects in more depth, explains McPartland, and to implement a greater variety of learning techniques -- such as "cooperative learning," in which students divide into small groups to study or solve problems together -- to better engage their students.

Once they advance to the upper grades, students can choose from one of several "career academies" -- "learning communities with a career focus that enroll 250-350 students," McPartland explains. All students receive college preparatory training and work-based learning experiences. "The idea is to give kids some meaning and direction for their career goals," he says.

A critical piece of the reform is teacher support. "You can't just wish teachers to teach without building support systems," McPartland emphasizes. Class coaches, trained at CSOS and assigned to be on site at each school, "help teachers in all aspects" -- everything from teaching a model class to fetching a light bulb for a malfunctioning projector, he adds. Unlike the "master teachers" found in many public schools, these coaches are meant to be teacher allies, pure and simple. They don't formally evaluate teachers or report on their progress or problems to administrators. That's something that Germantown English teacher Erika Palmer says she appreciates, adding, "My coach tells me what to improve and what is working."

The fully implemented program costs each school about $250,000 a year (breaking down to $300 per student), which covers a team of on-site coaches, materials, and assistance from CSOS. Most schools defray these costs using grants and federal money that has been designated for "low-performing schools" through the U.S. Department of Education.

McPartland contends that Talent Development prepares students for success, rather than recycling the failure that has been following them through middle school. "Often, school [systems] don't realize how far behind their districts are. They say, 'Well, we want to give them high standards right off the bat.'" Says McPartland, "We want to give them the high standards too, but we are going to be successful at it."

Gloria Pelzer, principal of Philadelphia's Germantown High, says she's seen a "drastic" postive change in school climate since implementing the Talent Development model. Principal Gloria Pelzer had embraced Talent Development as a solution to Germantown's complex problems, and was prepared to implement it in spring 2002. Pelzer recalls that some teachers were apprehensive about moving out of their rooms to accommodate the ninth-grade "Success Academy" because it had to be physically separate from the upper classes. Some also worried about switching from the short 50-minute "talk and chalk" lecture mode, as Pelzer puts it, to 90-minute periods. Nevertheless, they worked together on committees to develop topics of three academies for upperclassmen: Communication, Arts, and Technology; Business, Health, and Sports; and Law and Aviation.

Now completing the second year of the program, the school greets visitors with a green sign over the entrance that proclaims Germantown as a Talent Development High School: "Success Unfolding."

"You learn more," says ninth-grader Andre Fisher, of his block schedule. Last fall, he and his classmates played catch-up to bring their skills up to grade level. He took Strategic Reading, Transition to Advanced Mathematics, and Freshman Seminar. All three courses had been developed by curriculum specialists at CSOS. Now, during the second semester of his freshman year, Andre is taking the standard math class that used to frustrate most Germantown ninth-graders -- and he is gliding through.

He arrives at class with his 30-member "team" of classmates, which will stick together all day and attend the same classes. There is an easy camaraderie among them. Pelzer believes that the team approach helps to build confidence among students and improve that intangible, all-important school climate. But Andre isn't so sure. He says he would like to mix with upperclassmen and others: "They got us locked up here. I see the same people I went to middle school with."

Math teacher Lorenzo Hayward, irrepressibly sunny, greets the class wearing a purple polo shirt marked with the Talent Development logo in white. The lone sign above the blackboard reads: "Today is a Great Day to Learn Something New." He keeps an eye on everyone, gently urging them on to the task at hand, a preview test of the Terra Nova, Pennsylvania's state assessment to be given in two weeks. "You get one minute to get your name on paper -- starting now!" he tells the class.

Sometimes, maintaining a positive attitude in the face of students with limited skills is difficult, Hayward admits, noting that his students showed major skill gaps during the first semester. One student, for example, did not understand the concept of borrowing. When he explained this essential skill and she finally was able to grasp it, she cried out of relief, Hayward says. He and other teachers at Germantown say that success usually comes in small doses -- a letter grade gain here, a new word learned there. One teacher related the progress of one student this way: "He doesn't get the highest grades, but his attendance is fantastic. He only earned a C this term, but that's better than the D first semester. Now he's trying even harder."

When teachers need help, they come to the Talent Development room on the first floor, where the school's three CSOS-trained curriculum coaches gather when they are not giving model classes or working with teachers. These coaches are in constant contact with CSOS curriculum writers -- expert teachers, recruited from the ranks of urban schools, who are continually refining their courses based on input from the field.

Alta Shaw is one such curriculum writer, who creates the text and context for "Strategic Reading," the course that aims to bring students up to grade level in reading. Burrowed in her office just across from Hopkins' Homewood campus, she is passionate about coming up with reading assignments that will capture the imaginations of students who have fallen through the cracks.

One challenge is finding reading material that appeals to ninth-grade interests but is written at the average reading grade level of the students, fifth grade. Chicken Soup for the Teenaged Soul is the hands-down favorite, while classics on many ninth-grade reading lists (such as Richard Wright's Native Son) are too advanced to be included. Shaw has found one of the most popular required reading books to be One More River to Cross, an anthology of biographies of African-Americans -- including former congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Malcolm X, and astronaut Ron McNair -- that is written at the fourth-grade level. Teachers have told her that outside of Florida, many students haven't heard of McNair. So Shaw is adding details for discussion in a revised edition of the curriculum, which she's currently working on. She flips through a notebook tagged with pink Post-it notes -- reflecting comments and feedback from teachers and students -- to show the changes being incorporated. "I am really giving the teacher more context," Shaw says. "It makes it easier to be creative and teach."

Moving from traditional high school lecturing in front of a class for 45 minutes to a longer, more interactive teaching style can be a difficult transition for many teachers, Shaw has found. She and her colleagues have prescribed the order of lessons for Strategic Reading and broken activities down, beginning with 20 minutes of "reading showcase" where the teacher reads aloud. Then comes 20 minutes of a focus lesson, which is the more traditional teacher-delivered lesson; 30 minutes of student team literature, where students work in teams of three or four to discuss the books; and 20 minutes of self-selected reading.

"The biggest problem [in most classrooms] is too much lecturing," says CSOS English language arts coach Doug Elmer, who has been assigned to Germantown High. "Research shows that the attention span [of students] is 20 minutes." On this afternoon in April, Elmer has been called upon by teacher Susan McCann to conduct a model class on "Romeo and Juliet" for her ninth-graders, using a student team approach. The students break down into groups of four. Elmer has carefully placed at least one higher-achieving student in each group. Once the teams are seated together in different parts of the room, he builds up to the game "Shakespeare Jeopardy." "Quotable Quotes for $100!" he calls out, as hands fly up in a rush to answer. At times during the contest, students are yelling, on their feet, excited to answer. They show command of the text and characters and enthusiasm for the game but appear to be nearly out of control. At first, McCann sits quietly on the sidelines, occasionally reprimanding students for talking too loudly or out of turn. But as the game gains momentum, she offers encouragement, and helps Elmer select students to call upon for answers.

"It can look chaotic," says Elmer, after class. "But teams help the average student who may not come to the fore during a traditional class to participate. I've seen huge leaps in core skills. We've gained momentum as the year has gone by."

Discipline problems still surface as a major obstacle to achievement at Germantown High. At the end of class, a student makes an insensitive comment to a classmate who has arrived late. The tardy student erupts in a spate of cursing. Elmer promptly escorts her out of the room and addresses her in the hallway. The student, having already been disciplined that morning for another rule violation, tells Elmer that she was in a bad mood, and teasing from her classmate further aggravated her. Elmer has her stay after class for five minutes; she calms down a bit and leaves saying that she will try to participate in the class next time.

"I've learned to never get in a power struggle with a student in front of the class because you never win," Elmer says. He notes that students growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods such as the one surrounding Germantown must deal with a range of seemingly intractable problems, including drugs, broken homes, and incarcerated parents. Inevitably these problems can play out in the classroom.

Students with the most severe behavioral and/or academic problems are referred to "Twilight School," which runs three hours after regular school hours. It offers intensive doses of remedial work, along with discipline and counseling -- what Pelzer describes as "nagging and nurturing." The goal is to keep these most at-risk kids from dropping out. Ninth-graders who fail the first semester receive more individualized instruction. They may attend school on Saturdays or after hours to make up credits. Before repeaters were given additional direction and support, says Pelzer, some had failed ninth grade as many as four times. Many of these students were severely disruptive in class, making it difficult for teachers to reach students who really did want to learn. Now, says Pelzer, the students who are removed from class have an increased motivation to work hard in order to get back to regular school, and teachers have an easier time maintaining order.

James McPartland with students from Baltimore's Patterson High, the first school to implement portions of the Talent Development model, in 1994. There are early signs that these methods have been effective, at Germantown and elsewhere. Among ninth-graders at Germantown, pass rates for English have improved from 47.2 percent before Talent Development to 72.2 percent as of February 2003; for math, pass rates have increased from 43.4 percent to 56.4 percent; and in social studies from 43.3 to 58.6 percent, according to figures from the Philadelphia Education Fund, a nonprofit education group that is closely tracking progress at the five high schools using the model in Philadelphia. Among these schools, one out of three ninth-graders showed two years of gains. Officials at the fund emphasize that students are passing more courses due to improved instruction, not to watered down requirements.

And a recent independent evaluation by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation cited "a consistent pattern of improvements in math and English course completions and promotion rates" in the first three schools that began working with Talent Development.

Results like these are not lost on Philadelphia school officials, who are currently working with the Philadelphia Education Fund and CSOS to add two more ninth grade academies to city high schools. The city's chief academic officer has selected two key ideas of Talent Development -- curriculum coaches and ninth-grade academies -- to be incorporated into the city's high school reform efforts for next year, across the district.

"Talent Development is really significantly changing the opportunity to learn for these students, particularly ninth-graders," notes Rochelle Nichols Solomon, past senior program director at the Philadelphia Education Fund. Solomon, active nationally in high school reform movements, was recently hired to direct technical assistance for the Carnegie Foundation's Academy for Educational Development. As significantly, she says, "it's providing support for teachers. We talked to faculty at these schools and they feel the environment is under control."

For Pelzer, even as Germantown casts aside its negative image, the job of principal remains more demanding than ever. In a typical 12-hour day she deals with a range of challenges, from figuring out strategies to increase scores on the state's new testing program to disciplining a couple caught kissing in a school closet. But she is encouraged by what she sees as a "drastic" positive change in school climate, compared to the first day that she arrived. The teacher retention problem that has plagued other urban high schools doesn't seem to be appearing this year at Germantown, she says.

"Last year, teachers had a lot of complaints about the ninth grade. This year they are not complaining. They're satisfied. They feel the kids are cooperating and learning. In all areas, we are seeing improvement."

Lavinia Edmunds, who is based in Baltimore, writes frequently on issues pertaining to education.

Return to June 2003 Table of Contents

  The Johns Hopkins Magazine | The Johns Hopkins University | 3003 North Charles Street |
Suite 100 | Baltimore, Maryland 21218 | Phone 410.516.7645 | Fax 410.516.5251