"We are convinced we are making a difference for our kids."
Independence High School, one of 17 high schools in the Columbus public school system, is an urban high school in transformation. About one-third of Columbus schools have been designated as "site-based" or "shared decision-making" schools, and Independence is one of them. At the very core of the school's transformation is a complete rethinking and redesign of how available school time is used.
Independence is typical of many urban high schools. About 950 students attend the school, and minority students make up nearly 60 percent of enrollment (54 percent of the students are bussed for purposes of racial balance). About 30 percent of the 1992 graduates attended a college or university (including community colleges) immediately after graduating.
At the beginning of ninth grade, one-quarter of all students typically pass the state proficiency examination (required to obtain a diploma); by the end of the year, more than one-third have passed. Among the professional staff, both teachers and administrators, 45 percent have taught at Independence or elsewhere for 20 or more years.
In 1989, a school board task force recommended that the board should give some high schools, "Scout Schools," much greater responsibility to discover and shape, within a local context, creative and responsive solutions to the education challenges of the 1990s. Each high school was invited to submit a comprehensive plan for reform based on an agenda developed by a school task force, and in May 1989, Independence was one of five high schools in Columbus receiving the coveted "Scout School" designation.
Independence operates with the assistance of a Shared Decision-Making Cabinet (SDMC) made up of administrators, teachers, staff, parents, and students. The SDMC meets monthly to consider policy issues; program concerns, including curriculum, achievement and testing; staff allocation; budgets; and long range planning. To date, the SDMC has approved programs for teen assistance, attendance incentives, academic awards, student government, and in-school suspension. In addition, a comprehensive professional development program supports and updates staff.
How does time fit into the picture? Long before site-based management, school staff were concerned that student achievement was below average, student dropout and failure rates were rising, and discipline referrals, absenteeism, and truancy were increasingly a daily problem. As the SDMC developed new programs, according to school staff, it became apparent that these were add-on programs, and though somewhat successful, did not address the fact that school as we "know it" and "do it" is not meeting the needs of our students.
"We also came to realize that in the present structure and under the existing circumstances of up to six classes/180 students per day, staff can do little in the way of developing creative solutions to the myriad problems faced on a daily basis. For most of the staff, daily survival in the face of student apathy, absenteeism, truancy and so on leaves little or no energy for becoming involved."
Hence the SDMC took the critical step: with the support of the superintendent, the reform task force, and the school board, SDMC developed "PROJECT TRI," a plan to divide the school year into three trimesters and restructure the entire school day. Implementation began in September 1992.
PROJECT TRI divides the school year into three 60-day trimesters and organizes the school day into three two-hour instructional blocks. Academic classes meet for two hours each day for 12 weeks for a total of 120 hours of credit that meet Carnegie unit and Ohio requirements.
A key feature of the plan is that a teacher will usually teach two blocks each day. This reduces the typical academic teacher's daily class load from six classes and 180 students a day to two two-hour classes with just 60 students each day. Over the three trimesters, of course, the teacher still conducts six classes a year (involving 180 students). Nonacademic subjects (defined as unified arts, vocational and career programs, music, newspaper, yearbook, physical education and health) continue to be scheduled for one hour each day for 12 weeks.
Among the benefits that Independence High School expects to gain from the plan are the following:
Is it working? So far signs are good, according to project coordinator Beth Carnate. Student failure rates have dropped from 25 percent per course to 15 percent, she says. About 15 percent of all students made the honor roll in the old nine-week grading period; the proportion has increased to 40 percent or more in the new three-week grading period (students now receive reports every three weeks). "We are now completing our second year and are convinced we are making a difference for kids."
For additional information:
Independence High School
5175 E. Refugee Road
Columbus, OH 43232