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Reforming high schools has moved to the forefront of efforts to improve the American education system, and Scott High School junior Dennisa Mathis knows she's part of an experiment to do just that.
The 17-year-old Toledo student had two years of traditional public high school, but at the beginning of this school year, both Scott and Libbey high schools were restructured to house four autonomous "small schools" within each building.
Each separate "school" at Scott and Libbey offers a different career focus.
Similar changes were put in place at Allen County's Lima High School and a total of about 450 high schools nationwide.
The switch to smaller schools is part of an effort by Toledo Public Schools to raise high school graduation rates. At Libbey High, for example, the graduation rate was only 43.6 percent and Scott High was 66.2 percent for the 2002-2003 school year, the most recent year for which statistics are available from the Ohio Department of Education.
Some other TPS high schools, such as Rogers High with an 86.2 percent graduation rate and Start High with an 87.1 percent rate, fared as well or better than most suburban and rural school districts statewide.
Dennisa said she and her Scott classmates have gotten more personal attention this year, leading more students to want to succeed than in the past.
"When you get to know your teachers, you want to pass their classes because you want them to be proud," she said. "Plus, before, no one was really thinking about what they wanted to do with their lives."
For Toledo Public, the small- schools redesign is just the start. Superintendent Eugene Sanders said every Toledo high school will enact some kind of reform over the next several years.
"Every high school must have some rigorous reform to raise academic standards," he said. "I know [the state and federal governments are] talking about students taking more meaningful courses. I personally think we, as a state, are in a fairly decent position."
Mr. Sanders acknowledged that there comes a point where schools are enacting "reform for the sake of reform."
Changes for grades nine through 12 nationwide - although not always as obvious as the small-school restructuring - are expected to continue.
Officials on state and national levels want high schools to increase graduation rates as well as offer more challenging courses that will better prepare students for college and careers.
A coalition of 13 states - including Ohio and Michigan - confirmed plans last week to require tougher high school classes and diploma requirements.
Jon White, superintendent of Bedford Public Schools, said like other schools in southeast Michigan, the district has made efforts over the past several years to add advanced placement and honors classes.
"I don't want to imply that we can't do better," Mr. White said. "What I want to imply is that we are working hard to keep pace with reform efforts to improve high schools."
In Michigan, the number of 2004 high school graduates who met or exceeded state assessment scores for the Michigan Educational Assessment Program increased in all five testing areas: math, reading, science, social studies, and writing.
"These results show that we're on the right track, but we need to keep working hard to help all of our students master the skills they need to get jobs in today's economy," Gov. Jennifer Granholm said.
But the Democratic governor is under fire for proposed budget cuts that include $500 in extra college scholarship money promised to students who passed all of the tests on the middle-school version of the MEAP. This year's senior class would be the first eligible for the additional money, which was passed by Governor Granholm's Republican predecessor, John Engler. The state's Republican-dominated Legislature has vowed to fight the proposal.
Last month, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft publicly called high school in the state too easy and insisted that tests should be more rigorous.
J.C. Benton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education, said the state's high school curriculum has improved and that students are being tested at more rigorous levels than ever.
High school sophomores will take the new five-subject Ohio Graduation Test from March 14 to 27. They must pass to graduate.
"This test is based off of material expected to be learned by the end of 10th grade," Mr. Benton said. "We now have a standards-based education system with clear alignment."
But a recent study by the New York-based Manhattan Institute for Policy Research may support Governor Taft's claim. The study found that only 31 percent of public high school students in both Ohio and Michigan are ready for college.
"That is the percentage of students who entered in the ninth grade and left high school with the skills and qualifications to be able to apply to a four-year college," said Marcus Winters, a Manhattan Institute research associate.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed $800 million to fund 2,000 small schools nationwide, also criticized high schools last month, saying the system is obsolete.
Jan Kilbride, Toledo Public's assistant superintendent of high school education, said it's too early to know if the change to small schools will make a difference in standardized test scores at Scott and Libbey.
"One of the things we wanted to do is get away from a general education," Ms. Kilbride said. "We are trying to focus kids into a field." She added that every high school in the district is adding more challenging courses.
Teachers at Scott and Libbey said they have seen major improvements in behavior and attitude.
"The big change I see is that everybody knows everyone else and things get done more efficiently in small schools than they do in a large institution," said Allen Burns, a math teacher in Scott's Allied Health School. "They knew they were part of a change, but the students like the small-school atmosphere."
But there is conflicting research on the effectiveness of separate, smaller schools operating inside a large building.
A study released Feb. 15 by WestEd, a San Francisco-based nonprofit research firm, said the small-school concept showed promise in increasing graduation and college readiness. Gates Foundation paid for the study.
But Aimee Howley, a professor and coordinator of Ohio University's educational administration program, said other research suggests schools within a school do not have the same results as an actual small school.
"Large schools are cheaper to build, but smaller schools produce more graduates," Ms. Howley said.
School officials in Toledo and Lima have hopes for the small schools, but they admit small schools won't be a quick fix for problems like dropouts and poor test scores, which are generally felt hard in urban settings.
Karel Oxley, superintendent of Lima schools, said the district's high school students are more focused this year since starting the new concept and since moving into a new building. The school received $991,000 over three years from the Gates Foundation to transform the school.
"The theory and the philosophy is to build stronger relationships with students and they would have the same teachers over their same four years at Lima High School," Ms. Oxley said. "The goal is to better prepare students. When we start 400 students as freshmen, we want to graduate 400 students."
She noted that of those 400 freshmen in the class of 2003, about 275 graduated.
A review of graduation rates by The Blade supported what many educators have maintained: An overall lower percentage of urban students graduate than their suburban and rural counterparts. In Woodmore and Ottawa Hills, for example, 100 percent of seniors graduated in 2003. In Toledo Public high schools and at Washington Local's Whitmer High, 70.4 percent and 76 percent of students graduated that year, respectively.
Other Toledo-area school districts are following the trend of adding more difficult classes, including college-level courses, but many superintendents aren't endorsing radical reform.
"There is this tendency to paint everyone with the same brush that makes statements about every high school, and I don't think that's the case," said Hugh Caumartin, superintendent of Bowling Green City Schools, where the graduation rate is 96 percent. "I think you always have to strive to do better and in some of our urban settings, there are some real challenges [such as] high dropout rates."
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