Jesse Ross and Joshua Bustamante aren't all that impressed that, come this fall, they'll be participants in what might be the biggest secondary-education reform effort ever. But then the two San Diego High School honors students, enrolled in the lauded International Baccalaureate program, are exceptions at San Diego High, where nearly one out of every six students leaves school prior to graduating, and one-third of the junior class scored "far below basic" on the English/Language Arts portion of the state standardized test.
Overcrowded and plagued by years of bad test scores, San Diego High is one of three city schools undergoing a massive curricular and structural overhaul. On Sept. 7, the school will open not as one 2,700-student campus, but rather six small schools with no more than 450 students each. Ross and Bustamante, whose program of study demands things like 4,000-word researched essays and foreign-language proficiency, are the type of students planners of the new San Diego High hope will be not the exception, but closer to the norm.
This fall, three San Diego Unified School District high schools-San Diego, Crawford and Kearny-will be replaced by 14 limited-enrollment high schools. In addition to the six new schools at San Diego High, Crawford and Kearny will be split into four schools apiece. Each set of schools will remain on their original campus and co-exist as a so-called "educational complex." Students will share things like lunch periods and a football team but attend classes in their particular school's portion of the campus. Curriculum for each school will be based around a "theme"-law, business, performing arts or technology, for example, intended to get students thinking about life after graduation.
"They're doing something completely different from their system before," said Ross. "It's like, if the first system doesn't work for you, try something crazy."
But, he said, "I think the general consensus is nobody wants it to happen."
For those not familiar with the small-schools concept, it's a complicated scenario. Matt Malone, the young (just 33) and charismatic former headmaster of gritty South Boston's Monument High School-held up as a small-school success story-is on a two-year contract with San Diego Unified School District to oversee the conversion. Malone, here for just six months so far, recognizes the challenge. "It's doing away with the great icon-the American high school," he said.
Speaking at the Catfish Club community forum in March, Malone referenced 16th-century philosopher Machiavelli: "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."
Or, in layperson's terms: "We're either going to be great successes or great failures, but either way, we did something," he said.
This new shot at high school reform comes after years of bleak test scores under the district's Blueprint for Student Success education-reform plan. While the Blueprint has been cited as the reason for test-score gains in elementary grades, its effects have yet to reach high schools here.
Essentially, the small-school format tosses the Blueprint out the window, said Malone. "We've freed [teachers] from the bondage of the Blueprint," he said. "The blueprint's dead. We're looking now at innovative pedagogy to improve student achievement.... If something's not working, why do the same thing twice?"
San Diego isn't alone in its plans. There are 1,500 small high schools throughout the country already in place, their transformations funded by a guy who may one day be known less as the person who drastically changed personal computing, but rather the philanthropist who overhauled the nation's failing high school system. Since December of 2000, when it gave $8 million to 10 high schools in Ohio and Minnesota, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has poured close to $640 million into secondary-education reform, the money focused largely on getting school districts with crowded, under-performing high schools to divide those schools up into smaller, focused learning communities. The foundation calls this the school-within-a-school plan, under which what once might have been a 2,000-student campus (the ideal high school campus should be between 600 and 900 students) becomes a campus of five separate schools, each school steered by its own principal.
This gradual transformation has happened practically under our collective nose. Over the past three and a half years, Gates' money has funded small-school planning and development in New York, Boston, Oakland, San Francisco, Houston and Seattle. In New York alone, 42 small high schools opened last year, and another 60 will open this coming fall. The Associated Press reported last week that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who runs that city's public school system, plans to shut down 20 failing high schools and divide them up into smaller schools. Malone says that all of Boston's public high schools are going the way of the South Boston Educational Complex-the umbrella name for the campus that includes Monument High.
For some, this wave of education reform is happening a little too fast for comfort. San Diego Unified school board member John de Beck, a former teacher and high school counselor, fears that the 14 new high schools haven't been given enough time to get their programs into place. Even though there's been talk for the past couple of years about reforming several of San Diego's problem high schools, Gates' funding-$11 million to get planning and teacher training off the ground-came through only this past November. And while San Diego, Crawford and Kearny were put on the fast track when it comes to planning, 3,200-student Morse High School won't open its new small-school campus until 2006.
While de Beck insists he supports the reform effort in theory, "I'm disturbed with the ability to pull it off in time." His concern is whether the curriculum at each new school will live up to the promise of its theme-the "hook" that's supposed to get kinds interested in their education.
At the June 22 school board meeting, the board was presented with only four new courses for the 14 small schools, and a "small schools pathway" planning guide, detailing theme-related curriculum for each small school, that looked to be lacking in some areas. Crawford's school of Multimedia and Visual Arts has, for example, 21 courses either in place or in the works, but San Diego High's School of Communication lists only three specialized courses.
De Beck was hoping to see something a little more balanced this close to the schools' opening. "The point was if they were going to create themes, they had to create a curriculum to go with the theme," he said.
Malone said course planning is a work in progress and that schools will largely rely on existing courses. "There are already courses called "law,' so we don't need to create a new course," he said. "We can create units of study within [a course] but not across the board a new course."
Malone says teachers will work together to integrate theme-related curriculum into their classes. "A science-[themed] school might read A Perfect Storm [in English class], and while they're reading [it], they're also studying weather patterns in science class, and in math they're studying mapping skills so that there's an alignment-an interdisciplinary weave," he said. "The theme is not something that you specialize in; it's something that permeates the entire culture of the learning environment."
Mary Jo Asbury, the head principal at Crawford High School, who this fall will act as a mentor and advisor to the principals of Crawford's four new schools, said that curriculum integration takes time. "I think that will be something that's transitional," she said. "It's quite difficult to infuse a theme into every content area your first year, but I think each school is trying to [incorporate] theme-related material into a couple courses at each grade level so students know they're in a different school."
The new schools' best advice comes, perhaps, from someone who's already been there. Ben Daley, associate principal for academic affairs at High Tech High, the 450-student Loma Portal high school that started four years ago with Gates Foundation money-and last year saw 100 percent of its first graduating class go on to college- said the real planning comes when students hit campus.
"With a curriculum you just have to jump right in," he said. "We spent about nine months before the school opened, sitting in trailers outside the building trying to plan and the first day of school pretty much threw all our plans away. I mean, it is very fast, obviously-in June you have a 2,500-kid high school and all of a sudden in September you have four or five small high schools. But I'm not sure sitting around and talking about it would really be a better solution."