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The dropout dilemma 

Will smaller schools fix the problem? Sierra High intends to find out.

click to enlarge SUNNIE SACKS

From the outside, Sierra High School looks like a suburban office park -- brick, low, lean and clean. The building is about 20 years old, built when this southeast Colorado Springs neighborhood ballooned and Harrison District 2 needed a new school to house all its teen-agers.

Inside, polished hallways stretch a city block long. Near the principal's office, a group of students videotapes a news spot. On the second floor, the counseling office is packed with kids.

Sierra, population 1,190, looks like the typical American high school where teen-agers come together and learn, participate in band and sports, go to prom, and prepare for college and a successful adult life. But like many American high schools, Sierra is struggling to keep its students in school through graduation.

Dropout rates recently became a hot topic after the New York Times reported the centerpiece of President George W. Bush's much touted "Texas Miracle" -- claims that his methods of educational reform revolutionized schools in Texas while he was governor -- was just a mirage.

The article revealed that dropout rates had gone dramatically underreported in the Houston School District, then operating under the direction of now-U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

And, in the case of some schools, the graduation rates had been trumped up intentionally to meet the goals of the state's reform agenda. The model for President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education reform plan turned out to be no better than most American school districts. Houston's high schools, like many across the country, were graduating only 60 to 70 percent of students who entered the system as ninth-graders.

Dropout rates, it seems, are American education's dirty little secret.

In Colorado Springs, dropout and retention figures mirror the national problem. Colorado Springs School District 11, with 33,000 students the city's largest school district, graduates about 61 percent of students who enter their schools as freshmen. And Harrison District 2, Sierra High School's home district, graduates slightly less than half the number of students who start out as ninth-graders.

While some of that attrition can be explained by students moving to another school district or to another state, or by students who enter alternative programs and earn GEDs, a large percentage are kids who drop out unofficially or unnoticed, and thereby, do not figure into the dropout rates calculated by the Colorado Department of Education (see chart, page 18).

"I call them disappearing kids," said Harrison District 2 Assistant Superintendent Larry Sargent. "We've been able to reduce the number of disappearing kids at Sierra but not as much as we would like so far. We've been losing about half. This year was much better."

Sierra Principal Bryan Wright, who came to Sierra from Racine, Wis., just two years ago, agrees.

"Our CSAP scores have risen," said Wright. "But when you look and see 350 kids coming in at the ninth-grade level and only 200 graduating four years later, you're not doing enough."

Unusually candid

Sargent and Wright are unusually candid about the dropout and retention problem at Sierra, and maybe that's because they have a radical plan to turn things around.

In November 2002, Wright submitted a proposal to the Colorado Small Schools Initiative, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and received a grant of $15,000 to explore a plan to create smaller learning environments within Sierra High School, or "schools within a school."

Working with Sargent, Wright envisioned three focused career academies, each with its own staff, to be housed inside Sierra High School's existing building.

The idea was submitted to the Harrison school board for approval last spring, but the board asked Wright and Sargent for more data on whether these types of programs are working elsewhere before approving the change. The initial $15,000 was spent visiting programs in Racine, New York City, Chicago and Denver.

"The school board decided that we needed more time to get prepared," said Sargent. "We didn't yet have the complete consensus from faculty that we wanted. The board just wanted us to slow down, and they wanted to see more examples of schools where this really works."

Since then, Sargent applied for a federal grant from the Smaller Learning Communities Program (SLCP) of the U.S. Dept. of Education and recently received $46,000 to plan Sierra's transformation.

"What we'll be doing during the planning year, this year, is to look at some other smaller learning community programs that are successful," Sargent said. "We'll start to design our own career academies, including scheduling, how teachers will be assigned, and how we're going to link our counseling programs to the career academies.

"We'll also be planning and identifying things that we might want to have staff training on."

While in the planning phase, Sargent will also reapply to SLCP for a second stage implementation grant of up to $250,000, pending board approval of the plan.

click to enlarge Sierra High School Principal Bryan Wright - SUNNIE SACKS

In December, Colorado Springs small schools consultant Billie Donegan will present the case for change to the Harrison District 2 school board. Donegan, who previously taught in Dallas public schools, has worked on small schools initiatives in Baltimore, Minneapolis and elsewhere.

The idea, says Sargent, is that with smaller groups of students, Sierra could improve student-teacher relations and parent-teacher relations, could strengthen bonds among students in each of the academies and could improve behavior in the schools.

In the end, the hope is that a transformed learning environment will help to create an equally transformed dropout rate.

Theme-based schools

Small schools initiatives have hit the news big time in recent months as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has turned its attention to improving American high schools.

Last month, Gates contributed $51.2 million to create 67 small, theme-based public high schools in New York City, as part of a continuing effort to break up monolithic high schools and turn their buildings into campuses of several schools with 500 students or less. New York has already opened a number of similar schools, including Harbor School, focusing on maritime culture; the Bronx Academy of Health Careers, a partner with Montefiore Medical Center; and the Bronx Academy of Letters, a program focusing on classic literature.

The Colorado Small Schools Initiative (CSSI) was initially funded by a Gates Foundation matching grant. Within the state, the organization acts as a consultant for larger schools, like Sierra, that want to break into schools within schools.

Basically, according to CSSI, a small school should have a maximum population of 400 students. But size isn't all that matters. Small schools should rely on the extensive research that has been conducted to design curriculum, hire and train personnel, and build leadership, if they are to succeed.

The fundamental premise, says CSSI, is that "in contrast to large, factory-model schools, small schools can create a more intimate learning environment that is better able to address the needs of those within the school." Smaller schools, advocates say, are safer schools where teachers are more likely to know their students personally, where parents are more likely to become involved in their children's education, where community partnerships are easier to forge, and where the dynamics that lead to dropping out can be more effectively neutralized.

Research shows that when compared to large schools (1,000 or more), small schools tend to have better attendance, lower dropout rates and strong academic results for low-income and minority students.

But research also shows that certain pitfalls must be avoided.

Small schools should not be viewed as a panacea. In fact, education reformers point to failures, cases of downsizing gone wrong, and offer specific recommendations on how to proceed when undergoing the change from large to small.

"The last thing small-school proponents want to see is a future in which school downsizing ends up on the dead fad pile, with students not reaping benefits from it, funding agencies declaring it a bust, and school personnel across the country remarking wistfully, 'Oh, we tried small schools, and they didn't work,'" said Kathleen Cotton, a research associate at the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory in her research paper, "New Small Learning Communities."

Cultural expectations

Barriers to change loom over the process of turning a large high school like Sierra into a group of smaller learning academies, all under one roof.

Looming large are cultural expectations about high school, our collective, if selective, memory of high school as a place with a unified "spirit," the high school of football games, first romances and proms. And all high schools have sacred cows -- like sports teams, jazz band or orchestra -- that parents, students and teachers fear losing if the school changes its basic structure.

Melva Hall, a guidance counselor at Sierra, is deeply concerned about losing students before they have graduated. Hall's office is a swirl of activity and color, its centerpiece a giant collage of photographs of past and current students at the high school.

Regarding dropouts, Hall cites many factors that lure kids away from school.

"One thing that happens is called the age of 16," she said. "The law requires that kids go up to that age. But a lot of kids, when they reach 16, would rather get a job and make money than go to school."

Hall oversees a program at Sierra in which every senior in the school fills out an application to a college, to show that there is a higher education program out there for everyone, whether it is a technical school, a community college, a state university or a private college.

The idea is also designed to instill in the culture of the school the understanding that it's worthwhile in the long run to stick around and graduate.

"We should walk into this school with the attitude that every one of these kids belong in college," said Hall.

But the obstacles are huge. Problems at home, societal and economic barriers, and peer pressure all contribute to a high dropout rate, as does the transient population that passes through Sierra.

click to enlarge Larry Sargent, Harrison School District 2 Assistant Superintendent - SUNNIE SACKS
  • Sunnie Sacks
  • Larry Sargent, Harrison School District 2 Assistant Superintendent

"We have a lot of revolving door, a lot of kids in and out of the schools," said Hall. "I've been at a graduation where they've asked kids to stand up who have been in D-2 schools from kindergarten through senior year, and seven or eight kids stand up."

Hall is a bright, enthusiastic talker whose dedication to students is evident. When asked how she feels about Sierra changing from one large school where all students are mixed together to smaller academies within the school, she grows quiet, but only for a moment.

"Change is scary for anybody," she says. "But anything that can happen here that will keep kids in school, that will help them to succeed and find a career that satisfies them, I'm supportive of it.

"I just don't want the spirit of the school to change. I don't want the spirit of Sierra to go away."

Not locked into a career

Wright and Sargent are fully aware of the obstacles they face in turning Sierra High School around.

Sargent, for example, cites parents' concerns.

"You'll have some parent objections," he said, "like 'we won't have school spirit.' Or the concept of career academies, some parents will say it's too soon [in high school] for students to identify what career they want to go into."

Sargent and Wright are prepared to address each of those concerns. All students, they emphasize, will still have to meet the district's requirements for graduation. Just because they choose a focus doesn't mean they are locked into that career.

The Sierra plan, as it stands now, calls for three academies: a school focused on math, science and technology; an arts and humanities-focused school with emphasis on service careers; and a school with a business and government orientation. Additionally, a fourth school would provide special services to students from all the schools -- gifted and talented programs, Advanced Placement classes, band, choirs and other activities.

"We looked at Manuel High School in Denver," said Wright. "They broke down into three completely separate schools, and we knew we didn't want that at Sierra -- three different principals, everything.

"We want to maintain our culture; we don't want to become three separate schools, but three smaller schools all within one school."

Getting that word out to the community will be an important factor in the school's changeover. And faculty concerns must be addressed as well.

"Usually as you get more tenure, you get a better choice of what you want to teach," said Sargent. "Some faculty members have concerns that under the new arrangement they would have to teach lower grade levels as well as advanced classes. They would need more preparation to do that."

That's why the $46,000 planning grant and the planning year are essential.

"The grant will help us develop a model with complete schedules, outlining administration relationships, all the details that faculty have questions about," said Sargent.

A radical departure

If the school board agrees to Wright and Sargent's plan, Harrison District 2 will become the first district in Colorado Springs to attempt such a revolutionary and comprehensive plan for an existing high school.

What's happening at Sierra is an internal transformation of the school itself and the way it approaches education -- with a long-term goal of offering every student in the school a superior education, lots of personal attention and the opportunity to graduate.

That's a radical departure from the current approach of offering a patchwork of programs aimed at helping kids who are likely to drop out or those who have already dropped out, most headquartered outside of the traditional classroom.

School District 11's dropout program, for example, offers a variety of alternative programs like night schools, self-paced schools like Tesla Educational Opportunity Program and charter schools.

James Miller, D-11's counselor for alternative programs, says the district's way of reaching at-risk kids has recently shifted.

"Up to this point, there were three counselors like myself who checked up with students who left the system, either for attendance, family issues, etc., and we would try to catch up with them and refer them to the variety of programs out there," said Miller. The variety of programs included charter schools, Job Corps, programs at Pikes Peak Community College, "things that could entice kids who've left the system to get their GED or their diploma."

click to enlarge Melva Hall, Sierra guidance counselor
  • Melva Hall, Sierra guidance counselor

"A lot of kids are not aware of the things that are out there," he said. "We try to say, hey, it's not too late."

Recently, the district has taken what Miller refers to as " a different route." D-11 set up a storefront school at the Citadel Mall that offers online instruction under a system called NovaNet.

Miller says NovaNet is not just for teen-agers who have left the system, but also for students who have fallen behind and need to catch up. They can earn credits to graduate, for instance, if they are seniors and only need a few credits to finish. Currently about 70 students are enrolled.

District 11 also has three charter schools which, while not specifically designed to retain students who might otherwise drop out, often serve that function, taking on students who don't function well in the larger, more impersonal high school settings.

Many options, one goal

Recently, a group of prominent Latino leaders in Colorado Springs announced plans for a charter school plan for District 11 aimed directly at dropouts. Among that group are Jose Aponte, executive director of the Pikes Peak Library District, and Joe Garcia, president of Pikes Peak Community College.

The proposed school will be another storefront-type center, offering online instruction and connections with the business community, managed and developed by a company out of Akron, Ohio, called White Hat Management, a for-profit school management company.

Their goal is to reach students who have dropped out and bring them back in to complete their diplomas and find jobs.

Van Schoales of the Colorado Children's Campaign says that while that's an honorable goal, schools like the White Hat model are not necessarily what at-risk students need.

"One of the arguments that the White Hat folks make is that they are providing a service that nobody else does. The school districts are not doing it. They say they're getting kids off the street and taking the cost off the state's back," said Schoales. "I don't have a problem with that if, in fact, there's some value to be gained from going to those schools. But there isn't a lot of evidence that if kids sit in front of a computer and do reading and writing exercises, they can improve their literary skills.

"The at-risk schools that tend to work are those that are highly personalized and relentless in their efforts to work closely with families," said Schoales.

The programs that succeed, he says, are those that offer more personal attention, more direct interaction with teachers and better instruction, not less.

And while charter schools and small schools might look alike on the surface, there is a deep divide between proponents of those separate camps.

President Bush, for example, who is a strong supporter of charter schools, has tried to defund the Department of Education's Smaller Learning Communities Program (SLCP) each year since he has been in office.

"It's funny, but this program has become a political football," said Schoales, referring to SLCP, "because one of the main supporters, David Obey, is a prominent Democrat."

Oftentimes, says Schoales, charter school supporters and proponents of small-schools initiatives are perceived as political enemies, though the goal of both is the same.

"At the Colorado Children's Campaign, one of the things we're trying to do is to bring together a coalition of people here in Colorado to say, hey, it really isn't a partisan issue. It's about making better schools."

Eye on the prize

At Sierra High School, meanwhile, Principal Wright is keeping his eye on the prize.

"The lower-level kids need a goal to shoot for," said Wright. "I want to tell them, 'Go out there. Become an X-ray tech. Make good money doing something useful.' Half our kids don't even know what an X-ray tech is. We want kids to know that there are jobs out there that are legal and respectable and that they are within reach."

More importantly, he adds, kids need to know that they have a future in school.

"What we're trying to tell kids is that we want every student to realize that they can go to college, whether it's Pikes Peak Community College, CU Boulder or the University of Chicago," he said. "Our kids have not been told that they can be successful in college. And [in the past] we've dismissed a community college education as unworthy. At Sierra, we tell our kids, 'We're proud of you if you go to any college.'"

Wright acknowledges that it's a steep climb getting from a school that graduates about half its students to a school where everyone succeeds, but he's determined.

He has implemented a mentor program of community members who meet with ninth-graders to try to instill goals and give them exposure to the work world. He has instituted a program that matches ninth-graders with seniors to help them learn the ropes of high school success. And he continues to work diligently on refining the plans for Sierra's transition to the schools-within-a-school plan.

"I have teachers who have been supportive. I have a board that has been supportive," he said. "All I have to do now is provide a clearer focus. If we can do that, we'll rock 'n' roll."

  • Will smaller schools fix the problem? Sierra High intends to find out.

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