A Bronx High School and the Battle Over Size

It is 8:45 on a raw spring morning in a hardscrabble section of the Bronx. Principal Charles Osewalt, the head of the Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies (MACS), one of the city's new small high schools, is standing at attention behind his cluttered desk, a telephone clamped to his ear, muttering about a chronically tardy senior. "Is Marcus there?" he says, speaking sweetly. There is a moment of silence, his face turns red, and then Osewalt starts to bellow into the receiver in tropes familiar to any parent of a teen. "Marcus! What are you still doing home? I called you 45 minutes ago and told you to get to school right now! Why are you still there?" There is a brief pause. Osewalt, 53, is accepting no excuses. "Get in here. It's 8:45! That means school starts in 15 minutes." There is another pause. "Marcus, turn off the TV. Stop listening to the radio. Hang up the phone and walk out your door." Pause. "The first stop when you arrive at school is my office." He slams down the phone and sags into his seat. Then he looks up, a smile breaking through his scowl. Another senior, herself struggling with chronic tardiness, has arrived at MACS, notebook in hand, with a full 10 minutes to spare before her first class. Osewalt jumps up. "Great to see you!" he says, pulling her into a bear hug. "Great job!"

Small, intense, academically focused and emotionally connected. It's a new—and exhausting—way of running a high school. But Osewalt, his 29 teachers and the 430 students say they wouldn't have it any other way. They're at the vanguard of the biggest wave of school reform to hit that classic American institution, the comprehensive high school, in 30 years. In the last 15 years state legislators and the federal No Child Left Behind laws have been swiftly remaking elementary education with the single-minded goal of getting more kids to their grade level in reading and math. But high schools, long plagued by low achievement and high dropout rates, have been subject to a host of reforms that have flickered and faded. Mayors in cities like New York, Chicago, Milwaukee and San Diego aren't waiting for a state or federal plan. For the last six years, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they've been replacing their large dysfunctional inner-city high schools with smaller ones that are specially designed to keep students from falling through the cracks. Although the results of the new small high schools movement have been mixed—attendance and graduate rates are up, while test scores have remained about the same—finding a way to get kids to stay in school, proponents say, is half the battle.

Critics say that creating small high schools out of large ones merely masks the real problem: coming up with a national consensus on what children should be learning in high school and making sure they learn it. "The size of the school matters less than the quality of the curriculum," argues Brookings Institution scholar Diane Ravitch, an educational historian. Although small high schools may be moderately beneficial for the most impoverished kids, who do better in a more personal environment, real improvement in high school won't begin "until we come up with a universal curriculum." But for many kids the advantages seem clear. "The teachers and administrators treat you like family," says MACS senior Anthony Delarosa. "They know when to hug you and when to put the hammer down."

No one thinks small schools are a panacea. Closing and reopening schools can be disruptive to the children who attend them—and often shunt the hardest-to-teach kids to other schools. The start-up costs are high, and small high schools cost about 5 percent more per student to operate. By some accounting students get less for the money. Small high schools offer fewer courses and foreign language options, and extracurriculars like a school newspaper, a marching band or a sports team are limited. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings says she's not convinced small high schools are the answer. As the economy becomes more global, says Spellings, "the pressure has never been greater for high schools to turn out a more highly skilled work force. I'm not sure we have a good solution, but I know we need them to do a better job than they're doing now."

Supporters, though, say small high schools are a crucial step in reducing the yawning achievement gap between middle-class whites and poor black and Hispanic kids. At their best, small high schools can become close-knit learning communities that help kids stay motivated. For underserved kids in high-needs communities, says Joel Klein, schools chancellor of New York City, which has been on the forefront of the small high schools movement, "converting big high schools into small ones creates a personal scale to schools. And that is critical for learning." But will this latest wave of high school reform make a meaningful difference in the lives of America's poor children, or will it end up on the scrap heap like so many other big ideas, enthusiastically embraced and quickly forgotten? And as small high schools become the norm, rather than the exception, will they be able to sustain the slender gains they've made? And if they do, will that be enough to keep pace with the requirements of a rapidly changing world?

Change has been a long time in coming. Twenty-five years ago a special federal education panel appointed by Republican President Ronald Reagan issued a report called "A Nation at Risk" that warned that a "rising tide of mediocrity" was destroying our schools—in particular high schools—and threatening the American way of life. What had gone wrong? Mostly, our schools were doing what they'd done since the turn of the century. Since the 1930s high schools had served as a kind of sorting machine: a small group of kids was educated to attend college; the rest were taught business skills and got a smattering of vocational training so they could take their place behind a cash register or on a factory line. Back then most educators believed that large high schools were the answer. They were more effective, reformers argued, because they offered kids a wider variety of courses. They were economical, too. By grouping thousands of kids under one roof, schools could educate more kids with a relatively small budget and keep local taxes low. Large high schools were also considered more democratic, since children of blue collar workers and white collar workers learned in the same building. Small high schools, wrote former Harvard University president James Conant in his best-selling 1959 book, "The American High School Today," represents "one of the serious obstacles to good secondary education."

But by 1983, when the panel sat down to write "A Nation at Risk," it was clear the world was changing. The manufacturing sector, which relied on low-skilled workers, was shrinking. At the same time that business began clamoring for more highly skilled workers, inner-city high schools—most of which by that time enrolled a thousand or more kids—stopped promoting the college preparatory track and began offering more "relevant" and "student-centered" electives, like banking, health and consumer education. While more kids—and especially more black and Hispanic ones—were getting high school diplomas, the skills they were bringing into the workplace were weaker. By the end of the 1970s only 20 percent of high school seniors could write a persuasive essay. Only a third could solve a math problem that required several steps. "A Nation at Risk" warned the country that communities and local legislators, who had historically run schools, were botching the job. The authors of "A Nation at Risk" recommended that states and the federal government step in to help high schools prepare an adequate work force for the future.

The report generated yards of headlines, months of soul-searching by the education community and proposals and counterproposals for reform. But Morris High School—and many inner-city schools around the nation—continued on what had been a protracted downward slide. The reason was money. New York was being battered by a fiscal crisis, and school budgets were getting slashed and slashed again. In 1975 an idealistic young substitute teacher at Morris, Joshua Zuckerman, got laid off during the fiscal crisis. When he was rehired in 1984, he could barely believe that the fortunes of battered Morris High School had fallen so low. The neo-Gothic building was in ruins; when it rained, the roof leaked so badly that water cascaded down the center stair. The auditorium was condemned and padlocked. Teachers routinely dodged chunks of plaster that fell from the ceilings. About a fifth of the kids were now labeled "special education," a designation that barely existed in 1975, and were given such poor instruction that some of their parents successfully sued the city for failing to provide an adequate education. Classrooms were often chaotic, and students roamed the hallways. The administration and the teachers, who were controlled by the powerful teachers' union, seemed unable to make any substantial improvements in the face of so much neglect and deterioration. "Some teachers were out the door at 3 p.m.," said Zuckerman. "Others tried hard to teach the kids they could reach—and they did so in the face of incredible odds."

As the city righted itself financially, Morris was given a face-lift. But new plaster and paint couldn't make a dent in the culture of failure that had taken hold there. Current and former staffers describe a fundamental disconnect between the teachers and administrators—who defined their jobs as running a school that offered instruction to all comers—and the students, many of whom were getting promoted year after year without learning basic literacy and math skills. "The school was run well. There were plenty of administrators and plenty of teachers," says Maj. Richard Noggle, a retired military officer who has run the junior ROTC program at the school for over a decade. "But they couldn't seem to reach the kids."

In the mid-'80s influential school reformers began to conclude that Conant was wrong. Large high schools left students alienated and made both students and teachers more apathetic. Comprehensive high schools needed to be refashioned into learning communities on a more human scale. New York City school administrators tried to bring some of those new ideas to Morris, with limited success. In the early '90s the 1,600-student school was reorganized into four 400-student "houses," each with a dean, a guidance counselor and a social worker. Responding to a drum beat to reduce class size, a popular but unproven reform measure, administrators began running the school in two shifts: one that started at 8 a.m. and an even earlier shift that started at 7:30. They tried afternoon classes and Saturday classes, too. A few years later, when terms like relevance and accountability were becoming popular buzzwords in educational circles, houses were replaced by themed "academies"—freshman at Morris were assigned to sports, journalism and military academies, for instance, that were supposed to match their career interests. The academy system, says former Morris assistant principal Sharon Woody, was a disaster. "It made the kids harder, not easier, to track. You could never tell which adult was responsible for which students." Morale among the staff plummeted. On any given day, about 40 percent of the students and about 20 percent of the teachers called in sick. Even when it seemed that the fortunes of the school couldn't dip any further, they did. In 1997 a student smuggled a .25 caliber pistol past the school's metal detectors and shot a friend by accident on the fourth floor.

As the new decade dawned, the fate of Morris High school—and thousands like it—would be changed by an unlikely force: a retail executive turned school superintendent who lived 3,000 miles away in Washington State. Thomas Vander Ark, a father of two, spent five years as superintendent of the economically mixed Federal Way school district near Tacoma before being hired by what would become the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gateses were on the verge of making an investment in education. Vander Ark's job was to figure out what they should spend it on.

At that time it was no secret to school superintendents that more kids started high school than finished. But states and the federal government didn't ask for accurate numbers, and high school principals had little incentive to count exactly how many kids got lost along the way. Vander Ark knew the number was high. But it wasn't until 2000, when he attended his daughter's high school graduation, that he began to reflect on how many kids actually dropped out. He sat in the dark, listening to the scratchy refrains of "Pomp and Circumstance," counting the number of diplomas being handed out and realizing that out of the 600 kids who had started in his daughter's freshman class, only 400 were graduating. "On my watch, 200 kids in each of our four high schools—maybe 800 to 1,000 kids—had fallen out of the system," says Vander Ark. "We never thought to keep track." By 2001 educational researchers, notably Jay Greene from the Manhattan Institute, had begun to pinpoint America's staggeringly high national dropout rates: overall 30 percent of adolescents were dropping out of high school. Among poor, black and Hispanic kids, the rate was one in two.

In 2003, armed with $51 million, the first installment of what would be $136 million in Gates money, Bill Gates, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein and Vander Ark stood on the stage of Morris High School and announced that the city, which had been experimenting with small high schools for 10 years, would be making a sweeping commitment to them. Most of the large and notoriously dysfunctional high schools in New York would be replaced by smaller ones. Morris would be replaced by five brand new schools: the School for Excellence, the High School for Violin and Dance, Bronx Leadership Academy, Bronx International High School and the Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies. "For too long we have relied on an outdated model to educate our young people," said Gates from behind the refurbished podium that day. "New York City is demonstrating how we can bring our schools into the 21st century to make sure that all students, not just a select few, are prepared for college and the working world."

Klein, a small, bespectacled former Justice Department lawyer, had thrown his support behind the handful of fledgling small high schools in New York in part because their philosophy dovetailed with his own core beliefs: that high school should prepare all kids, regardless of their background, for college. Klein was convinced that small high schools could improve dropout rates by, he says, "offering them education on a human scale."

What does education on a human scale look like? It means that on the first day of school in 2003, Charles Osewalt, the newly minted principal of the newly minted Morris Academy of Collaborative Studies, stood next to the metal detectors at the entrance of the neo-Gothic building collecting phone numbers from the 100 or so MACS student and their parents. He told them he'd be in touch. "Me. Personally. Calling them to tell them about their child's progress. And to answer any concerns they might have about what was going on during the day." Osewalt, a former English teacher at another sprawling New York City high school, had worked for a time with a nonprofit educational consulting firm called New Visions for Public Schools, then was given the autonomy to run his own school. For him that meant knowing every kid and knowing where to find every kid's parents.

Osewalt credits his religious faith with giving him strength for what he sees as his mission: teaching poor kids. His task is formidable. Most of his students entered the school reading and doing math at a sixth-grade level. Almost a quarter of MACS students come from homes where English isn't spoken. A third have a special education designation or emotional problems. Many come from unsettled, sometimes chaotic households. Some are living in temporary housing or shelters. A handful are continually exposed to drugs and violence.

Osewalt hand-picked his staff. Studies show—not surprisingly—that teachers matter. But what makes a good teacher is hard to quantify. A teacher who has tons of experience and lots of credentials won't necessarily get better results in the classroom. The old Morris High School was proof of that. Instead, researchers had found that good teachers were people who tended to do well in college themselves and who had strong communication skills. So Osewalt staffed his school with newbies who were "passionate, committed, intelligent," he says. "And above all, flexible. Flexible like water."

They needed to be. Students have to pass five statewide tests and participate in a twice-yearly "roundtable" where each kid delivers an oral presentation to teachers, parents, administrators and members of the community. To give MACS kids a fighting chance, the teachers had to make themselves available at all hours—not only for regular classroom instruction and after school review but for weekend enrichment sessions and evening homework help by phone. "In my old school," says senior Arlin Paredes, 17, "if I failed a class, oh well." She shrugs. "But this school, I get plenty of help. And I've needed it." The teachers had to be nimble, too. Not long ago, when the 10th graders were examining themes in Sandra Cisneros's novel "The House on Mango Street," a read-aloud turned into a brawl: a student stumbled over a simple word and another student mocked him. "We stopped talking about themes in fiction," says English teacher Laura Ardizzone, a Harvard-educated Teach for America recruit, "and started talking about persistence, resilience and how it is better to try and fail than to give up."

Osewalt invested some of the money from the Gates Foundation to provide each of his teachers with laptops on which they keep careful files on the attendance, grades and daily participation of each student. He hired instructional coaches to help his inexperienced teachers solve thorny problems—pedagogical or social—that were slowing the students down. Twice a week teachers attend 45-minute brainstorming sessions, complete with written agendas, aimed at making sure none of the children are falling behind. Which is why, when junior Tiffany Lewin started missing school, two teachers, a teaching coach and a dean, quickly met to discuss her absence. Because the school is so small, Lewin's English teacher, Laura Geary, taught her last year as well and has a solid impression of her potential. "Tiffany can do the work, but her frequent absences are holding her back," explained Geary. "Is she on target to pass the semester?" asked the teaching coach, Keely Ball, who was leading the meeting. Geary checked her laptop. "She's just on the edge. More regular attendance would help her keep up." A few suggestions were bandied about, and in the end another teacher volunteered to call the Lewin family in for a conference to see how to get Tiffany to show up for school.

In the five years since MACS was inaugurated, the school has in many respects thrived. Attendance hovers around 80 percent. Last spring 80 out of the 100 original class members received diplomas—and throughout the city, the small high school graduation rate is about 20 percent higher than that of large high schools.

Success comes at a cost: the burnout rate for staffers at small high schools is staggering. Osewalt is staying put—but being personally responsible for 400 adolescents means he routinely works 15-hour days. Three of the five new principals at Morris have already moved on. And test scores? MACS students bested the city average, but at small high schools across the city and across the nation measures of student achievement have flatlined, and some schools have even seen dips in math scores. As the economy falters and foundation money for small high schools becomes more scarce, some cash-strapped communities say high schools on a human scale may become a luxury their communities can't afford. For his part, schools chancellor Klein says New York won't turn back. He's opening more small high schools and launching plans to begin breaking large, troubled middle schools into small ones. Osewalt says he's happy to share what he's learned. In order for poor kids to thrive in school, it's crucial to weave a strong safety net around them. In many cases, its all they've got.

A Bronx High School and the Battle Over Size | Education