Troubled Schools Turn Around by Shrinking Northwestern is one of the few large, comprehensive high schools left in Baltimore. Administrators hoping to boost flagging test scores are getting inspiration from schools that found success by becoming smaller and more career-oriented.
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Troubled Schools Turn Around by Shrinking

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Troubled Schools Turn Around by Shrinking

Troubled Schools Turn Around by Shrinking

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This morning, we mourn the demise of a great American institution - the comprehensive high school. It took years to construct all those imposing buildings that have seen so much teenage angst. And now many educators are convinced the big high school was a big mistake. They think smaller learning academies can better prepare students. The question is whether they're right.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Forty years ago, former Harvard President James Bryant Conant argued it made no sense to have thousands of small secondary schools. He pushed for the consolidation of those schools into big ones like this one -Northwestern High School in Baltimore, where NPR has done a series of reports this year. Conant thought that big, comprehensive high schools were the best way to educate the hordes of baby boomers headed for high school and college.

Now, four decades after this school opened, Northwestern is a dinosaur. It's one of only three remaining comprehensive high schools in Baltimore. Baltimore schools CEO Charlene Boston says the district is moving in another direction.

Dr. CHARLENE BOSTON (CEO, Baltimore City Public Schools): No zoned school - all schools of choice, and giving young people a chance to feel the relevance, understanding that they can go to the school that will help them to implement their career options and choices.

ABRAMSON: Northwestern has struggled for years to improve test scores, and the school has made progress. The graduation rate has improved. Students can pick from four schools within a school that offer a career path in journalism, law or other areas. But it hasn't been enough.

Unidentified Woman (Teacher, Digital Harbor High School): All right, everyone, I need you to go ahead and log in to Word, please.

ABRAMSON: Northwestern is supposed to be reborn and become something like this - Digital Harbor High School. Just a few years ago, this was Southern High School, an old-style, comprehensive school plagued by violence. The city spent millions to gut the building. They even renamed it, in order to exorcize the ghost of the old school and proclaim its new mission as a technology academy.

Unidentified Woman: Now yesterday, when you created the table on the categories of computers...

ABRAMSON: Each student in this basic technology class works at a desktop computer. Students can not only earn a diploma, they also get a certificate that could help them get a job in hi-tech. Principal Brian Eyer says that here, technology motivates kids who might otherwise drop out.

Mr. BRIAN EYER (Principal, Digital Harbor High School): Students want to come because of the gadgets. Once they're here, then we expose them to everything else.

ABRAMSON: The school looks great. Classrooms are full of light. The halls are clean - no trash, no students wandering around. It's too soon to say whether achievement is actually improving, but last year, students did meet federal standards.

Teacher Cheryl Colbert(ph) says Digital Harbor's advantage is the focus.

Ms. CHERYL COLBERT (Teacher, Digital Harbor High School): It's like a community in our environment. You know, we work together collaboratively, and we work together as a family, so that's what makes it different. You know, we're all here for the same mission.

ABRAMSON: But keeping that focus won't be easy. Digital Harbor has wrestled with the school district over resources. Jan Arnell(ph), the department head for technology, says many kids arrive here reading well below grade level. All of a sudden, they're supposed to start reading text on computer programming.

Ms. JAN ARNELL (Department Head for Technology, Digital Harbor High School): First two years, we had intervention classes to help bring up those students who need, you know, remediation. But North Avenue took that scheduling and additional time away from us.

ABRAMSON: North Avenue is home of the school district headquarters. Some teachers and administrators question whether North Avenue really is willing to pay the cost of this massive reform effort. Nevertheless, this district and others are running as fast as they can away from the big high school that many Americans grew up with.

Ms. ANDREA BOWDEN (Assistant Principal, Digital Harbor High School): It's not a matter of a bad model. It might have worked for you, but it's not working for most urban kids.

ABRAMSON: Andrea Bowden is assistant principal at Digital Harbor.

Ms. BOWDEN: All the research shows if a student has a passion and an interest - be it technology, sports, art, whatever - they're going to stay in school. The large, general high school hasn't worked in most urban areas, including Baltimore. That's why the idea is to break the schools into smaller components, with a more focused program.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

ABRAMSON: One of the arguments for the comprehensive high school was economics. Those big educational shopping malls were supposed to cut back on administrative costs. That would allow them to offer AP courses, arts programs and a football team all under one roof.

But those big schools created new problems - the violence and intimidation that comes when you bunch thousands of teenagers together. Nettie Legters of Johns Hopkins University says smaller schools actually reduce overhead.

Dr. NETTIE LEGTERS (Associate Research Scientist, Johns Hopkins University): And in a large - some comprehensive high school, you're going to have more security guards, you're going to have, probably, more coaches. You're going to have department heads. And because you've created a smaller environment that has fewer disciplinary problems, you don't have to put as much into some of those other adults who are non-instructional.

ABRAMSON: Legters is helping to run one of these smaller schools - Baltimore Talent Development High School. If you think that's a mouthful, imagine writing a school song rap.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) BTDHS we are all (unintelligible)...

ABRAMSON: BTDHS has none of the glitz of Digital Harbor. It's housed in a huge, former junior high complex in a rough neighborhood. This school focuses on boosting basic skills by providing extra instruction to freshmen. Kids who fail in ninth grade are very likely to drop out. Principal Jeffrey Robinson attacks attendance problems by posting attendance numbers in the hallway.

Mr. JEFFREY ROBINSON (Principal, Baltimore Talent Development High School): In order to reach attendance of 90 percent or better this semester, one cannot be absent more than eight days during the semester. And you're rewarded for having 90 percent attendance with a big trip, or a party or something with higher -with incentives.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

ABRAMSON: The interesting thing is that Northwestern High, the big comprehensive high school, does exactly the same thing. But the results here have been much more impressive. In fact, creating a new school with a new ethic boils down to simple things. Jasmine Harris, an 11th grader, says a lot of it comes down to people like the principal, Mr. Robinson.

Ms. JASMINE HARRIS (Student, Baltimore Talent Development High School): Oh, yes. Mr. Robinson keeps them in check. Keeps them in check.

ABRAMSON: Harris stands in the recently cleared cafeteria and gestures toward a sea of clean tables.

Ms. HARRIS: Look at the tables. He told them clean up, and look what they did. He got them kids in check.

ABRAMSON: So what are the chances that Northwestern High School can be reborn as an effective, small, career-oriented high school? Alan Golston has spent years trying to reform high schools for the Gates Foundation. He says Northwestern already has one strike against it because it has a history to overcome.

Mr. ALAN GOLSTON (President, U.S. Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation): New schools are just easier. What that means is that comprehensive high schools are more challenging, and that the level of supports that you need in these comprehensive high schools are significant.

ABRAMSON: Whatever the odds, Northwestern High School and others like it must embrace change. Baltimore hopes this will be the last year for its remaining comprehensive high schools.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can find previous reports from Baltimore's Northwestern High and learn what inspired this series by going to

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