Dr. Beverly L. Hall's goal when she became the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools in 1999 was to transform the struggling K12 school system into one of the nation's leading urban districts. Hall targeted the youngest students first, implementing a standards-based curriculum at the elementary school level. In 2003, 75 percent of fourth-graders met or exceeded the state standard for reading, and 67 percent met or exceeded the state standard for math, up from 47 percent and 43 percent respectively in 2000.
New Schools of Carver
Off to a good start, Hall set her sights on reforming the district's struggling high schools. In 2003, APS's graduation rate was 54 percent, nearly 10 percentage points below the state average. After looking at several research-based school reform models, Hall decided to have the district test the small school approach at its Carver campus, which had a 36 percent graduation rate in 2005.
Since over 40 percent of the students that lived in Carver's school zone either dropped out or turned to private schools for their high school education, APS worked closely with the community during the planning and implementation phases to increase buy in. APS conducted informational sessions with the Atlanta Housing Authority to win the support of the school board. Plus, APS worked with the existing PTSA to organize Carver's current students and their parents into focus groups, and it used surveys to gain input from everyone from the faculty and staff to community members.
Now called the New Schools of Carver, APS broke down Carver High School into five schools, each with no more than 400 students, beginning with the 2005-2006 school year. All of the New Schools of Carver share certain resources, but each school employs its own principal, guidance counselor and teachers. Using themes to hook the students, incoming freshmen choose which one of the New Schools of Carver they will attend: School of Technology, School of Health Sciences and Research, School of the Arts, and Early College. Carver High School's existing 10th- through 12th-graders make up the student body of the fifth school: the School of Entrepreneurship. Though the four main schools will add a grade each year until they meet capacity, the School of Entrepreneurship will lose a grade each year until it phases itself out.
Changing the Culture
But changing the high school's structure is only part of the equation. "A lot of districts spend a lot of time thinking through restructuring their schools, but it's really about changing the culture and the instruction," says Robert Atterbury, associate superintendent for high school transformation. To create that culture, APS revamped its student services, creating an academic and social safety net. Not only does the counselor proactively work with students to ensure that they stay on top of all of the necessary course and test requirements, but the school pairs each student with an internal mentor using the school's advisory program and an external mentor, such as a graduate student or a business owner, based on the school's theme.
"Part of our design is personalization, which means we really focus on dedicating the core group of adults to intimately knowing the academic, social and emotional needs of the students," says Charlotte Spann, program administrator for high school transformation. "We are really pushing the schools to build a culture that nurtures the child, that provides them with a rigorous instructional program and exposes them to a variety of opportunities, college campuses, internships and work experiences. All the schools have the same Georgia performance standards that drive the curriculum and the same graduation requirements."
A New Instruction Model
For the academic component of the restructuring, APS changed the way in which the high school teachers deliver instruction, discarding the typical lecture- driven, isolated approach in favor of inquiry-based instruction and a collaborative, interdisciplinary model, which is common in K8 schools. To ensure that all of its educators embraced the new instructional model, APS declared all teaching positions vacant and required its teachers to reapply for their jobs, and the district searched the nation to find principals who could serve as strong instructional leaders, guiding and supporting teaching and learning on a continuous basis.
In order to increase the teachers' comfort level with collaborative, inquiry based instruction, APS taps a wide range of professional development resources, from Project GRAD to the Southern Regional Educational Board. Any new hires undergo a rigorous two-week induction period. The Institute for Student Achievement in New York, the district's primary partner, provides the foundation for the district's professional development, which includes bringing the teachers and administrators on study tours of effective small schools in other states, conducting in-house professional development sessions and pairing each school with an instructional coach.
It will take two more years to see results for the New School of Carver's four main schools; however, the School of Entrepreneurship has demonstrated impressive results with the new approach. Just one year after the change, the graduation rate rose to 61.4 percent, closing in on APS's 69 and Georgia's 71 percent graduation rates in 2006.
In fact, the approach is so successful that APS is in the process of transforming all of its high schools using either the small schools or the small learning communities model, which creates a school within a school. Using a plan created by the McKenzie Group, an education consulting firm that was acquired by the American Institutes for Research in 2004, the district will restructure its schools in waves of two or three each year until it completes the transformation in 2010.
Finding the Funds
Transforming all of the district's high schools is not cheap. The McKenzie Group estimated that it will cost APS $52 million to implement the entire program. Although the district will need to reallocate its existing staff and resources to cover the bulk of the cost, it uses grants to pay for one-time expenses, such as purchasing curriculum and professional development. When the Gates Foundation saw the results that APS achieved with Carver High School using a shoestring staff and budget, it contributed $10.4 million to off-set the administrative costs involved with transforming the remaining schools. Plus, the community created a local education fund, whose board includes the mayor as well as the heads of major organizations in Atlanta, which works to secure local dollars to support the initiative.
"It is a very expensive endeavor, but in the grand scheme of things, it's not," says Kathy M. Augustine, deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "If we can graduate a minimum of 90 percent of the young people who enter our ninth grade on time, who are ready then to go into postsecondary institutions or the entry-level workforce and not to prison, then this is really not as expensive as one might think."
Start-up costs aside, Atterbury, who participated in a similar high school transformation program in San Diego, asserts that it is only marginally more expensive over the long term for districts to use the small schools approach with their high schools: "Yes, you have four principals, but in the past, we had the principal and three vice principals."
"The struggle with a small school is that people want a small school to act like a big school and offer the full depth and breadth of offerings that a comprehensive high school has," Atterbury continues. "That's the compromise of a small school-it can't be all things to all kids. But I would venture to say that the reason why our high schools have failed some of the kids is because they've tried to be all things to all people, and they don't do a very good job of any of it."
Jennifer Maciejewski is a freelance writer based in Georgia.