By Alan Prendergast
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When freshman students enter West High School this fall, they won't feel lost in the big building. They'll take all of their classes on one floor, and instead of 35 students per class, there will be just 25. In this way, the students will get to know their teachers, the teachers will get to know each of them, and they'll feel an attachment to the school that will make them want to stay, work harder and eventually, graduate.
At least that's what teachers and administrators are hoping to accomplish by breaking West, with its 1,700 students, into "smaller learning communities," a structure that many large urban schools across the country are adopting.
Because West has one of the highest dropout rates and one of the lowest graduation rates in Denver, teachers, parents and community members have been talking for five years about ways to fix the school. After poring over research on how to help underachieving schools, they concluded that smaller class size is what works best.
But there are many ways to make bigger schools seem smaller. For instance, Manual High School developed a school-within-a-school concept last fall by breaking into three smaller schools, each with its own administration and academic focus. Teachers and staffers from West traveled to Chicago, New York and Boston to visit big schools that have gotten smaller and borrowed ideas from those places to suit their own needs. They chose not to duplicate what Manual had done, because they wanted to maintain the current administrative structure of one principal and three vice principals.
They also wanted to focus on a unique problem at West: Almost 85 percent of the students there are Latino, and many of them are recent immigrants from Mexico. Many leave the school to move back to their native country, says West High science teacher Richard Vigil, while others never feel a connection and simply drop out.
"The kids who come to our school are very bright. So if our kids are bright, maybe we're not doing what we should be doing," Vigil says. "It's the kids who don't come who have an impact on the whole school, so we have to find a way to include them in the school environment and make them feel connected, and that's what smaller learning communities will try to do."
Most of the students who leave West -- 148 dropped out last school year -- do so during their freshman or sophomore year, so the teachers and administrators wanted to focus on engaging them during that crucial period.
"I personally think that ninth grade is the hit-or-miss year," says Julia Fliss, a ninth-grade English teacher at West. "If you don't start out with a good foundation freshman year, it's downhill from there."
Everyone at West knew something needed to change if they were ever going raise the school's 51 percent graduation rate, but the need became even more pressing when West was rated unsatisfactory by the state because of its scores on last year's Colorado Student Assessment Program. So last spring, West's Collaborative Decision Making committee voted unanimously to create the smaller learning communities.
Beginning in the fall, freshmen will be divided into four or five "houses," meaning they'll attend smaller classes with the same students and teachers. The Freshman Learning Community will have its own literacy coach, two full-time counselors, one dean and two support staffers. Improving student literacy will be the primary goal, but freshmen will also concentrate on core subjects and begin to decide which specific areas -- such as math or the arts -- interest them.
"When freshmen first get to high school, they become friends with upperclassmen who teach them how to slide by and ditch classes," Fliss says. "So before these kids even have the chance to succeed, they fail. The whole idea with the Freshman Learning Community is to create a more nurturing, cohesive environment between teachers and students, and among students. We'll take the third floor and turn it into a freshman academy, and they'll paint the walls to create a sense of ownership."
The move to smaller learning communities will be phased in over three years. In fall 2003, tenth-graders will be grouped into a community similar to the ninth-grade version. But they'll also take courses that will prepare them for the third and final phase of the project, in which academies with different disciplines will be offered to eleventh- and twelfth-graders. Students might choose to enroll in a technology academy, a science academy or an academy for arts and humanities.
West's reform isn't just about changing the structure of the school, however; it's about changing the substance of the education. "Research tells us that you can't just change the structure of a school and expect things to improve; you also have to look at the quality of the educational environment, and the quality of learning at West needs to change," says Heidi Hursh, a teacher at the school's Center for International Studies. "A lot of previous reforms have failed because they changed the structure and nothing else."
West may move toward a teaching style known as differentiated learning, in which students are allowed to learn at their own pace and in their own style. Educators are also discussing "looping," in which kids remain with the same set of teachers throughout high school. The subjects that will be offered in the junior- and senior-level academies have yet to be decided, but teachers have already agreed to use an interdisciplinary teaching approach.