insights (2005-45)

Transforming Knox High Schools

"Smaller is better” is becoming a watchphrase among educators when it comes to the size of public high schools. While many top students thrive in the impersonal setting of a large high school, there’s mounting evidence that too many average or less motivated students get lost in the shuffle and end up either dropping out or failing to be prepared for college or a place in the 21st-century knowledge economy.

To foster more personalized, nurturing relationships between teachers and students, many big city school systems are devising ways to create what are referred to as smaller learning communities within a large school setting. Typically, multiple academies of 400 or so students, each offering a specialized curriculum, are formed under the same roof that once housed a monolithic high school of 1,500 or 2,000.

Superintendent Charles Lindsey is clear that Knox County schools have got to start moving down this path as well. “The high schools that we see today are going to be a thing of the past in about five years…. Unless we move to an academy approach, we’re going to be left behind,” Lindsey said in an interview.

But building support for and then effectively implementing such a transformation represents a daunting challenge. And after failing to gain support for other initiatives he favors, such as year-round schools, Lindsey is proceeding cautiously. “The first thing we’ve got to do is to educate our school board, our teachers and the community as a whole,” he says. For starters, he and Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Donna Wright are leading delegations of school board members on visits to schools in other cities that may serve as models—one in New York City last month, another in Portland in January.

Wright also stresses that “we’re going to have to build the capacity for the change, getting teachers reoriented and a lot of other preparations. So we need to start small, with a pilot at a single site, because if we tried a systemwide initiative, we’d be defeated before we started.”

Getting the resources even for a transition, let alone a transformation in a school system that’s been strapped for funding, is a big part of the challenge. In Indianapolis, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributed more than $5 million for the conversion of five large high schools into modular academies within their walls. And the Atlanta Public Schools recently got a $1.4 grant from the Gates Foundation to start planning for a similar conversion.

But as strong a proponent of small school settings as the Gates Foundation has become, Lindsey and Wright aren’t sanguine about getting any funding from it here. The reason is that the foundation has been focused on large urban school systems with much higher proportions of disadvantaged, primarily minority students and higher dropout rates than Knox County’s.

Still, our Knox school chiefs are convinced that the small learning community or academy model is equally applicable here—and in suburban school settings as well as the center city. “Wherever you look, you’ll find disenfranchised kids who haven’t formed an attachment to the present model and who need someone who’s making sure they stay the course and get what they need,”

The new West Knox high school on which construction work is due to start next year would appear to lend itself to becoming a pilot for academies. Its design calls for instructional pods that could readily house them within an overall construct that would allow for fielding athletic teams and supporting extracurricular activities on a consolidated basis.

While the school isn’t due to open until 2008, Lindsey stresses that a lot of formulative work remains to be done, with extensive community involvement. In his October newsletter, the superintendent envisions offering students a choice between four academies: One stressing humanities; another, math and science; a third called a career academy in which students would spend part of their time off campus learning about a career area; and a technical career academy in which students could get a jump start into their chosen field by earning a high school diploma and a two-year technical college degree in conjunction.

Those bear a lot of resemblance to the way Indianapolis’ high schools have been restructured. But, as quoted in the Indianapolis Star , a school official there says, “If you’re only changing the structure of a school without changing the methods on instruction, you are simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” While the Gates Foundation’s literature claims that “small schools have shown to increase graduation and college-going rates,” it goes on to say that “the difference comes down to buy-in. Small high schools are more effective in eliciting the help of all teachers and administrators in developing a mission and using it as a guide to educate students. Students typically feel more engaged in these schools as well.”

Small academies within large high schools is one of the elements of the Every School a Great School initiative that has become County Mayor Mike Ragsdale’s mantra. But it’s not one for which the Great Schools Partnership he created has earmarked any funding. So one of the school system’s biggest challenges will be getting the resources needed to do it right.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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