RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
School districts across the country are breaking apart their traditional large high schools. But once districts have thrown out the old the question is, what do they offer instead? For one school district in Colorado, the answer is: just about everything.
As part of a series on small innovative high schools, NPR's Larry Abramson went to the Mapleton School District near Denver.
LARRY ABRAMSON: When Charlotte Ciancio grew up in the Mapleton schools, the system had a dropout rate of over 50 percent. When she came back to be superintendent of schools here in 2001, she knew that had to change.
Ms. CHARLOTTE CIANCIO (Superintendent, Mapleton School District): We've had that graduation rate for years. We just never really talked about it. So I knew that that was happening here. My brothers and sisters graduated from school here.
ABRAMSON: In fact, Ciancio decided the entire 5,500 student system needed a shakeup, so she toured the country looking for models and for partners. She had one guiding principle.
Ms. CIANCIO: In Mapleton the kids were not to be used as guinea pigs. Then anything that I implemented here had to have proven practice, and had to be research-based.
ABRAMSON: With that in mind, Charlotte Ciancio threw the deck of cards up into the air and has reshuffled every school, creating 17 distinct programs. They are as different as schools can be.
Ciancio takes me on a tour of the seven small high schools that have replaced the district's single large high school.
Ms. CIANCIO: This is a new technology high school, and it is a project-based school. The students work in teams to achieve their projects.
ABRAMSON: Welby New Tech, with 286 students, was the only building the district could afford to rehab. There are computers everywhere. Classrooms are large enough to permit team teaching.
Bill Nelson, in his second year of teaching here, says the program is tailored for kids who want to learn on their own.
Mr. BILL NELSON (Teacher): And I'd make lectures and get up and talk in front of people for 30, 40 minutes back in Iowa, and I can do that. But if I talk more than 15 minutes, these kids, they want to get busy. They want to do something. They won't listen.
Ms. SYLVIA LUERA(ph) (Student): We're talking about (unintelligible). So, like, we're doing - we're talking about how it - if we're against it or with it? So we had to do a PowerPoint supporting our opinion.
ABRAMSON: That's sophomore Sylvia Luera.
This school is based on New Tech High in Napa, California - one of the schools Charlotte Ciancio visited while on the search for models.
Okay. So that's nice for self-motivated techies, but where do you go if you're more of a traditional learner?
Ms. CIANCIO: All right. This is York International. It's a K - it will be a K-12 school. It's currently a K-9. We have freshmen here.
ABRAMSON: Just three miles north, Ciancio walks into a building that housed a struggling junior high just two years ago.
Ms. CIANCIO: This is a uniform school, so the kids are in uniform dress code.
ABRAMSON: And compared to Welby New Tech, everything here is more buttoned down. Once again, Ciancio says she is responding to a demand in the marketplace.
Ms. CIANCIO: This is a traditional delivery school. It's an International Baccalaureate candidate, so people who are very involved with their kids and looking for more of a private-like experience would be here.
Unidentified Man: You know, Lenin comes along and he's just like, hey, we're all going to be equal. Its' going to awesome. These czars that are holding you down, we're going to all be equal and work together and it's going to be a beautiful thing.
ABRAMSON: The lessons, like this one on the Russian Revolution, look more traditional. Kids are sitting in desks, following the teacher. As Ciancio puts it, there's lot of pencil-paper activity.
Mapleton is trying to offer school choice on steroids. That assumes families are taking advantage of the variety that's out there.
Why did you choose (unintelligible)...
Unidentified Student: I don't know. My cousin comes here, so that's why.
ABRAMSON: Other kids tell me they want to leave this school because they don't like the uniform. Ciancio acknowledges some people choose simply based on convenience, but she's working on spreading the word so families can make more informed decisions.
The startling degree of choice here slaps you right in the face when you enter the old Skyview High, which once served 1400 kids.
Ms. CIANCIO: If you walk down this hall, we'll be at the Montessori pre-school. If you go upstairs, we'll be at Academy, and in that hallway is all MESA.
ABRAMSON: MESA is the Mapleton Expeditionary School for the Arts - perhaps the most progressive offering in Mapleton's educational department store. Michael Johnston is the principal.
Mr. MICHAEL JOHNSTON (Principal): We wanted to demonstrate that what - that progressive education could do a successful job of preparing poor kids and kids of color for college.
Mr. CHRIS CARITHERS (Teacher): All right. Here's what we're going to do.
ABRAMSON: You see that approach in Chris Carithers' class on Voltaire's "Candide."
Mr. CARITHERS: All right. So what I want to do is want to here what you believe before we find out what Voltaire believes. Are you an optimist or are you a pessimist? As a reminder - optimists, you think life is inherently good; people are inherently good and things will work out for the best.
ABRAMSON: Here, students will explore the Enlightenment by taking on topics like free will and destiny as personal issues.
The wide variety of colors in Mapleton's palette has attracted plenty of attention and garnered lots of foundation money. The Gates Foundation kicked in $2.6 million. But all these choices have not gotten standardized test scores out of the cellar.
Ms. CIANCIO: Oh, they're terrible. Oh yeah, they're embarrassing.
ABRAMSON: There are small signs of progress, but overall Charlotte Ciancio's reforms have yet to deliver on the promise of higher achievement. Like others experimenting with small high schools, Mapleton still can't say whether small is beautiful.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you can learn more about innovative trends in high schools at npr.org.
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