Jenny LaCoste-Caputo | San Antonio Express-News
An unprecedented effort to re-create high schools is under way along the South Texas border, where just 52 percent of students graduate in four years.
Six high schools debuted the new approach this fall, and four more are in the planning stages. In five years, a total of 18 schools from Brownsville to Laredo will implement the high school redesign project, affecting more than 31,500 students.
The program, First Things First, requires students to choose an area of study for their four years of high school.
It will provide a more personalized educational experience by creating small learning communities at each high school, and assigning each student a family advocate.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is underwriting the program to the tune of $12.1 million. New Jersey-based Institute for Research and Reform in Education, which developed First Things First, is providing training and support.
The border is a crucial testing ground. Nearly 90 percent of the roughly 363,000 school-age children in the region come from poor homes, and 40 percent come to school speaking little or no English — both contributing factors to the low graduation rate.
At Weslaco East High School, Principal Sue Peterson welcomed 500 ninth-graders three years ago. This year, the school has 335 seniors. Her school is one of the six participating in the high school redesign program.
"We know we have a problem when we have 500 incoming ninth-graders, and then four years later, where are they?" Peterson said. "But it's not just about dropouts, it's about being college ready. Too many of our kids are taking remedial courses when they go to college."
Proponents acknowledge the program is an experiment, but note it has helped schools in Kansas City, Kan., and, closer to home, at Houston's Lee High School.
Supporters also say it's something of a corrective measure at a time when school districts — especially in Texas, where high school football is nearly a religion — aren't likely to turn back from building bigger and bigger traditional high schools.
Steve Amstutz, principal of Lee High School in Houston, said the connection between teachers and students is the linchpin of the program. His school on Houston's southwest side faces tough challenges, including this year enrolling 200 students newly arrived from other countries. His students speak 40 different languages and hail from 70 different countries.
The fastest-growing minority group on campus is made up of refugees from African nations, Amstutz said.
Now in its seventh year with the program, Lee High School has seen gains. In 2001, Amstutz's students scored at the seventh percentile in reading on a nationally norm-referenced test. Now, they score in the upper 20s.
"That still stinks, but it's a lot better than it was," he said. "We're making steady progress."
A six-year evaluation of schools in Kansas City, where First Things First is in place at all grade levels, found it had significant impact. After four years, researchers with Youth Development Strategies, Inc., a nonprofit research organization based in New Jersey, found higher reading test scores at all levels, higher math scores at elementary and middle schools, higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates.
How it works
In South Texas, teachers, administrators, students and parents all had a say in what the small learning communities would focus on.
At Weslaco East, students can choose one of six areas of study: health science; technology, media and communications; design and engineering; government, law and criminal justice; arts and education; or business and finance. Peterson rearranged classes so each learning community has its own wing — much like a college setup.
Jim Connell, president and co-founder of IRRE, said small learning communities foster a close-knit feeling and ensure that several adults know each kid.
"There are structural reasons to do this, to get to the smaller numbers, and then there are functional reasons," Connell said. "Here's an area that these kids have some interest in, and the adults in the area have an interest in, too."
Another telling statistic? Six years ago, Amstutz needed eight police officers on his Houston campus full time. Today, he needs one.
"Now teachers know these kids and know them well over a long period of time," he said. "We feel that's the pretext for doing good instructional work."
Students will see teachers for two or three years, much like what happens at a small school. Because all the school's English teachers are spread throughout several learning communities, for instance, no one teacher will work at only one level, which means they'll see the same kids again in 10th or 11th grade.
Teachers from all disciplines also meet together regularly, a switch from traditional planning in which all the math teachers meet together or all the science teachers meet together.
"You've got teachers committed to improving their practice and you've got them sharing the same kids," Connell said. " Instead of one person responsible for screwing a screw in over and over, you've got a team of people responsible for building a car."
Family advocacy also is critical. Each teacher, librarian, counselor, coach and, in some cases, principal, has a group of about 15 kids they are responsible for shepherding through four years of high school.
The groups meet once a week and get to know each other and share problems or concerns. The advocate contacts each student's parents and becomes a liaison with the school.
At Weslaco High School, JROTC instructor Roberto Rodriguez said the family advocacy component and the small learning communities mean every student will have the benefit that kids in programs like JROTC or athletics get.
"There are a lot of kids that teachers didn't know in the past. They were just a number, just paperwork," he said. "Having someone know your name and know what you're going through makes a difference. I've seen it work."
Facing new challenges
Major change doesn't come without opposition. Officials with the Texas Education Agency's Region One district said they've had to do a fair amount of convincing to get some school leaders and faculty on board.
Originally, seven border high schools were to open under the redesign this year, but the school board in Edcouch-Elsa ISD pulled its lone high school out of the agreement.
Some veteran teachers also have balked at the changes, which included going from a schedule of seven classes a day to block scheduling, which consists of 90-minute classes on alternating days.
"A lot of the older teachers are concerned. They've seen so many changes come and go," said Carlos Garza, a theater arts teacher at McAllen ISD's Memorial High School, which is scheduled to make the switch in 2008. "We're getting a lot of training on this, though. I think it's going to be interesting to try something new."
The new program also stumbled over football after IRRE researchers explained how the schools would need to redesign their schedules.
Because athletic programs, especially football, often get their own class periods in Texas public schools, scheduling academic classes, as well as figuring out how to keep from pulling athletes out of their small learning communities to go to practice, became a problem.
"This was something we had never encountered. It was a learning experience for us," Connell said. "We got beat up a little over that."
The compromise was to pilot different models at the six high schools on the border and four high schools in Austin, which are also implementing the program this year. At Weslaco East, for example, football players meet every other day during a class period. On the days they don't meet during class, they come to school early to meet with their team. Austin uses a similar model.
Connell agrees that sports often keeps kids in school. But, he said, all kids need to benefit from the kind of attention focused on athletes.
"The fact is, not all kids are athletes. Even though there are more kids in extra-curricular activities here (in the Valley) than in any other district we've seen, it's still less than half the kids," he said.
Baltazar Herrera, 15, a football player at Weslaco East, often has to be at school at 7:20 a.m. for football practice. He's not a fan of the scheduling change.
"The classes seem really long," he said. "They're 90 minutes, and that seems like a long time to spend on one thing."
Baltazar's mom had a different take, he said: "She likes it. She said it sounds a lot like college."
Cassie Torrez, 15, said she enjoys the new way of doing business and she thinks classmates who don't like the changes will come around. She especially likes the once-a-week meeting with her family advocate.
"Our group leader told us she was our mother away from home," Cassie said. "I like that concept."
Kent Ewing, Austin ISD's executive director for the office of redesign, is convinced the new approach is making a difference in his district, where the stakes are high. All four high schools in the program — Reagan, Travis, Lyndon B. Johnson and Johnston — are struggling, and Johnston is facing closure if test scores don't improve.
"At Johnston we're seeing a huge improvement in attendance," Ewing said. "You can just feel the difference on campus. Everything is more focused."