Sunday, September 01, 2002

Radical school conversion under way

West Clermont's new 'small schools' open doors

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        UNION TOWNSHIP - Never before has the first day of school at West Clermont School District been so nerve-wracking. Then again, never before has it been so monumental.

        After three labor-intensive years, West Clermont last week opened the doors to its restructured high schools, believed to be the first attempt by a suburban district to convert both its large high schools into smaller schools of interest.

        Educators nationwide are watching the bold initiative, which could very well change the landscape of American suburban education. Its two primary goals:

        • Greater academic achievement for all.

        • More personalized schools where every student is known well by at least one adult.

  Reasons behind restructuring of West Clermont high schools West Clermont's small schools (Statistics from 2000-01 school year)
  • The district's graduation rate is 80.9 percent.
  • 36 percent of the freshman class failed one or more classes.
  • 30 percent of the total high school population failed 2,100 courses.
  • 1,075 suspendable incidents resulted in high school students missing 2,012 days.
  • 56 percent of the district's students feel they are not treated with respect by their teachers.
  • 55 percent of the students feel students who get high grades are not respected.
  • 73 percent of the teachers do not feel that students treat each other respectfully.
  • 60 percent of teachers do not feel that students treat them respectfully and are subject to verbal abuse.
  • 58 percent of parents reported teachers do not contact them with news about their child's progress.
  • 290 students took the ACT; average score was 21.3 (slightly below the state average of 21.4).
        “West Clermont is absolutely in the lead of suburban districts in the United States in recognizing they're doing some things very well, but also that some things need to improve,” said Joe Nathan, director for the Center for School Change, a program at the University of Minnesota that helps educators to increase student achievement.

        “As an educator in public schools for more than 30 years, I'm deeply impressed by what they're doing there. They are courageous people.”

        And admittedly nervous.

        Although armed with research that proves this concept works, Tuesday was a day of high anxiety for administrators and teachers who birthed this re-invention of the ways teachers teach and students learn.

        Parents and the 2,800 students who took a leap of faith are nervous, too.

        “Five to 10 years from now, people will come from all over to nation to see what's going on there, to learn from it and to use it,” Dr. Nathan said.

        The two high schools, Glen Este and Amelia, are each home to five small schools that include core curriculum and specific classes centered on a theme. For example, Glen Este has the School for Scientific Studies and the School for American Studies. Amelia has the Business & Technology School and the International Baccalaureate program. (Seniors at both schools will finish in the traditional program.)

        Among ways small schools will differ from traditional schools:

        • One team of teachers will teach the same students throughout high school.

        • Work will involve more hands-on projects, although lectures won't disappear.

        • Students will see more integration of subjects. For example, they'll do an experiment for science class, but will write about the experiment in English class.

        • Students have to make some hard choices. No longer will they be able to take just any class or extracurricular activity.

        • Students will have fewer classmates - less than 300 in each small school.

        “They won't find themselves one of 1,400 kids,” said Michael Ward, a 33-year educator and West Clermont's superintendent since 1999. “One of our goals is to have more involvement in a personal way.”

        But motivating students to achieve at higher academic levels is the driving force behind small schools. The district believes all students, not just the brightest, can be challenged to do tougher work.

        Dr. Ward hopes another chapter has started in the transformation of an average district into an extraordinary place.

Above-average aims

        Students are most likely to be active participants in the learning process, research shows, when the course work is structured around their particular interests.

  Amelia High School
  • Business & Technology School - Modeled on the structures and quality practices of corporations of the 21st century.
  • Creative Arts & Design School - Allows students to master core academic subjects while pursuing an interest in one of the four fine arts disciplines - music, drama, creative writing and visual arts.
  • International Baccalaureate - An internationally recognized, standardized program that offers rigorous studies in traditional areas of coursework.
  • Math, Science & Technology School - Students will engage in an in-depth study of engineering, industrial technology or medical sciences.
  • School for World Studies - Students will learn how they may make an impact on local, national and international issues.
  Glen Este High School
  • Communications & Technology School - Focuses on communications and technology as they relate to broadcasting, journalism, writing, public speaking, visual arts and design, and computer technology.
  • Human Kinetics & Wellness School - Fosters the holistic development of the mind, body and spirit of students.
  • School of American Studies - Focuses on world cultures, contemporary issues and the processes that shape societies and people's everyday lives.
  • School of Scientific Studies
- Designed to nurture with students the innate interest in living things believed to be present in all humankind.
  • West Clermont Institute of Performing Arts - Students pursue their passions in the performing arts - music, dance, drama and art - as they master core academic subjects.
        They achieve at higher levels, both on standardized achievement tests and other measurements.

        They become active learners, freeing teachers to emphasize higher levels of learning and critical thinking.

        They attend class more regularly, have fewer discipline problems and have higher graduation rates

        Kasey Foster, a 16-year-old junior in Amelia's Creative Arts and Design School, is thrilled with the new plan. Last year, she said, students weren't challenged and many rules were broken. She expects that to change this year.

        “We've got more rules and more people watching.”

        For more than a decade, restructured high schools have been found in large, urban school districts trying to claw their way out of academic doldrums. Cincinnati Public Schools, for example, opened two small school programs last year and five this year.

        West Clermont, however, has test scores that many districts would envy. This 9,000-student district, 20 miles east of downtown Cincinnati, ranks in the Continuous Improvement category on the state report card that measures academic performance.

        The staff and community faced a big psychological barrier: “We're already pretty good. Why should we change?”

        But Dr. Ward refuses to settle for average.

        “One out of every five students who enters our freshman class doesn't graduate. That's absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “There's lots of evidence we don't have average students. We don't have average teachers. So why average performance?”

        Pinpointing problems in each school, administrators asked teachers three years ago to research the best education practices around the country.

        “Anything that's worth doing has to be sustainable and has to be created and owned by the stakeholders,” Dr. Ward said. “It wasn't a top-down thing. Superintendents come and go.”

        The district's early work caught the attention of the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has provided $1.3 million to help convert the schools.

The teachers

        While a small cadre of teachers understood the need for change, a much larger number questioned its value, Dr. Ward said. Getting them involved in the process was key.

        Katie Hauer, a 14-year teaching veteran, was an early detractor. Now she's coordinator of the School of American Studies at Glen Este.

        “I would have characterized myself as a skeptic, not really wanting to get involved, thinking the status quo was working OK. Life is good. I'm in the middle of my career,” she said.

        Then she was placed on the team researching best education practices. In February 2001, she visited the Grand Prairie (Texas) Independent School District near Dallas, where one high school had been converted to a small school.

        “You have all of this in your mind conceptually,” she said, “but to actually see a school trying to do something made me think, "Wow, this is really possible.' ”

        Teachers voluntarily put in unpaid hours in designing small-school proposals. Many grew attached.

        In one case, the 10 teachers from the School for Scientific Studies wrote Dr. Ward, offering to give up their $6,000 in summer pay to buy computers and laptops. Dr. Ward refused to accept their offer, saying he would find a way to buy the equipment.

Rivalries, misconceptions

        After tossing out several options, the district finally settled on 10 schools, five at each high school. For some students, that meant leaving behind friends to switch to the school they wanted.

        Like old habits, old rivalries die hard. Though just three miles apart, the rivalry between Glen Este and Amelia is as intense as any district with multiple high schools.

        Dr. Nathan, a frequent visitor to the district, was fascinated to watch the rivalry unfold at parent meetings. “Some were talking about how the idea of having their kids go to the other high school in the district infuriated them. One parent said, "We hate that other high school.' ”

        Amelia parents complained when the district printed a Small Schools brochure with purple on the cover. That's one of Glen Este's school colors.

        Nearly 10 percent of students - 252 - switched campuses. Dr. Ward was encouraged last year while meeting with Amelia and Glen Este students in focus groups. They told him, “If you keep our parents out of it, it'll be just fine, Dr. Ward.”

        He suspects some students left the district because of the restructuring. Still, high school enrollment is 2,800 this year, about 100 more than last year.

        Dr. Ward even heard some parochial school parents say, “Why send our kid to a small parochial high school when they could get the same education at West Clermont for free?”

Getting the idea across

        Although work began three years ago, the public only started hearing details a year ago. Among the biggest hurdles was to convince parents and students of two things:

        • These are not vocational schools.

        • Students are not being asked to make a career choice at age 14.

        “This is about teaching core curriculum subjects through student interests,” Dr. Ward said. “Performing arts students can still have all they need to attend college and major in engineering. It's about appealing to student interests as a vehicle to get them to learn.”

        Carl Siegman of Pierce Township isn't convinced.

        “It seems most schools are more of a specific field than a broad base,” Mr. Siegman said. “I'm 47 years old, and I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. I feel sorry for those kids having to make this decision this year.”

        The Siegmans encouraged their daughter, Laura, to enroll in the International Baccalaureate program at Amelia.

        “I was going to go to Business & Technology because I want to be a stockbroker when I grow up,” the 14-year-old freshman said. “But if I want to go to New York University, it would be easier to get in with an IB diploma.”

        Dan Sweatt wishes the district had left well enough alone. The 15-year-old sophomore is enrolled in Glen Este's Communications & Technology school. If that program had been at Amelia, he would have settled for a different one to remain at Glen Este.

        “I do not agree with making you choose what campus you want to be on,” he said. “Learning is number-one priority for me. However, I don't think I would learn as well and have as good of a time if I weren't with my friends.”

        The first day went as he expected.

        “It's a little weird. There are no bells except at the beginning of the day and the end of the day. A couple of kids I know are looking to switch schools.”

        The district allows students to switch schools once this year - no questions asked.

        Dan, like many students, has a scheduling glitch that needs to be worked out. He's also unhappy that he can't take drama.

        “If I took it, I would have to stay after school, and I couldn't play football. I'm starting varsity as a sophomore, which I wouldn't trade for anything because I've worked too hard to get here.”

        Scheduling appeared to be the biggest problem last week at both schools. Some classes were much bigger than anticipated. Some students had schedules that called for multiple lunch periods and back-to-back gym classes. Some students didn't receive bus assignments.

        “We will continue to find problems and resolve them as we move into next week,” Dr. Ward said, “but we are confident that this is the right thing to do.”

        To measure success, the district created a database last year after every freshman and sophomore took standardized tests. That will form the base line to study whether student performance improves. Outside researchers will also conduct student interviews to determine if the high school climate has improved.

Hard work pays off

        Earlier this year, some board members wondered whether all this work would be done on time. They're satisfied now.

        “There are going to be some issues over the first month or two,” said board member John Gray. “I just hope people have enough patience to let us get those worked out. It would have been far easier for us to continue the status quo, but we would have been shortchanging our kids.”

        The process was, at times, painful for the five-member board. Like last January, when the board voted to combine Amelia and Glen Este band, chorus and strings programs, offering them at the end of the school day. After hearing from passionate parents and students on both sides of the issue, Board President Jo Ann Beamer choked back tears as she cast the deciding vote.

        To this day, it remains the hardest decision that board member Jeff Burgess made.

        “A lot of people still don't understand what it's about. We'll get people emphatically against small schools, but when you talk to them and they realize what it's about, then they understand it,” Mr. Burgess said.

        The many nights and weekends put in are still fresh in the minds of both teachers and administrators.

        “All of us have worked so hard, we're right on the edge,” said Dr. Ward, who's been logging 14-hour days the last three weeks. “We've worked harder than we ever have in our careers. But we'd do it again.”

        There will continue to be bumps along the way, Dr. Ward said. That's why the restructuring is a five-year implementation to get all of the kinks worked out.

        One thing is certain: the restructured schools are in West Clermont to stay.

        “This is no experiment,” Dr. Ward said. “This change is predicated on substantive research on schools. There'll be no going back.”

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