A Tale of Two High Schools

Principal Alejandro Ortiz addresses the group at a parnet's meeting on Commpact at Bassick High School on December 15, 2010. Photo: Lindsay Niegelberg / Connecticut Post   Read more: http://www.ctpost.com/default/article/UConn-steps-in-to-help-Bassick-High-turns-things-924367.php#ixzz1O21zxeRj
Principal Alejandro Ortiz addresses the group at a parnet’s meeting on Commpact at Bassick High School on December 15, 2010. Photo: Lindsay Niegelberg / Connecticut Post 

Warren Harding High School has clear hallways, new academies and a new principal who stands at the front door each morning to greet students. Bassick High School has committees, 15 of them, that some would say are working at breakneck speed to reinvent the school’s culture and curriculum by the fall.

Both schools, buoyed by federal School Improvement Grants — $2.2 million at Harding and $2.1 million at Bassick — are racing to reverse rotten test scores, sorry attendance records and graduation rates that not too long ago pegged them both as “Drop Out” factories. They are among 14 schools in the state to get the grants. They have three years to turn things around, yet the approaches being used at the schools are radically different.

Harding’s approach is from the top down. The district hired Global Partnership Schools, a private firm to “restart” Harding. Its first order of business was to establish order.

After a fall semester of determining what needed to be done, the new Harding was unveiled on January 31. Longer periods were introduced, classes and teachers were shifted around, and new rules dictating how students pass through the halls were instituted.

All of the changes, said Joseph Garcia, a senior vice president at Global, were needed to get the school to a point where the firm can now begin to improve teaching and learning.

At Bassick, the district turned to the University of Connecticut‘s Neag School of Education‘s CommPACT model for help. CommPACT — an acronym for Community, Parents, Administrators, Children and Teachers — allows teachers and administrators to work in so-called “cadres” to determine what’s best for their school. There is a cadre examining why some students had to repeat ninth grade, one looking into literacy programs and one examining technology. The model is already in two of the city’s elementary schools, Longfellow and Barnum.

Some expected CommPACT to sweep into Bassick and make changes. But Michele Femc-Bagwell, the director of CommPACT, says that’s not the way the model works. Change, she says, has to come from within.

To keep receiving the SIG grants, both schools have to show progress. In some areas, the two approaches appear headed in the same direction. At Harding, ninth-graders are grouped into one part of the building as an academy and have little contact with other grades. Bassick seems headed for a similar model.

Still, some clearly favor one approach over the other. Gary Peluchette, president of the Bridgeport Education Association which is considered a partner in the CommPACT model, said changes planned at Bassick seem more sustainable. At Harding, Peluchette doesn’t see the same level of buy-in from the teachers.

“I think the teachers, while they are happy with some things, they feel very beat up by the whole process at Harding,” said Peluchette.

Pedro Noguera, a school reform expert from New York University, who did a study of what ails Harding two years ago, said there will be no significant reform at any school without the staff’s commitment to change.

“Nothing works, no reform will work without complete buy-in by the staff,” he said.

But there is impatience with the pace of change.

“I understand what they are doing, but other students, they don’t know,” said senior Juliemar Ortiz, a member of some of the planning committees.

Still, going slowly may actually help Bassick, because the high school can learn from Harding’s mistakes, she said.

At Harding, Myles Gordon worries more about his schedule and ability to get into his locker than some of the other changes at his school. He likes the clear hallways but also wonders where all the kids who used to hang out in the halls went.

“Were a bunch of kids expelled or something?” he asked his assistant principal when she stoped by his class. “There’s a big chunk of kids that just aren’t here.”

THE NEW HARDING

And that’s true. There are fewer students at Harding.

According to Garcia, Harding identified about 100 students over the age of 18 who had poor attendance records and few credits earned toward graduation. The students and their families were informed of other educational options, such as Harding’s Virtual Academy, Bridgeport at Night, or Adult Education. Garcia said several enrolled in one of these options and one has even graduated from the alternative school.

Courtney Baldwin, a junior, has noticed other changes. He doesn’t know much about common planning times or effective teaching strategies, but he has noticed his school has a new reading lab and new SMART Boards.

“I am not sure if (Global Partnership) inspired it or anything like that but, like, I haven’t seen any fights in the hallways. I really like it,” he told the Board of Education at a recent meeting.

Ny’Asia Winter, a Harding sophomore, likes the new principal, Kevin Walston, who, regardless of the weather stands at the school’s front entrance greeting students as they file through metal detectors. She’s also noticed more students actually attending classes.

Joyce A. Hennessey, an assistant principal, of Global, transferred to Harding from Bassick before the start of school. Hennessey was put in charge of the New Scholars Academy, which houses Harding’s 360 freshmen. Her job is to keep them in school and on track to graduate.

“I am trying,” said Hennessey. This year she knows of only 30 out of 303 freshmen who are failing core classes. Along with Gear Up, a state program that helps students prepare for college, a mentoring program and tutoring programs to help at-risk students, Hennessey said she has been able to introduce ideas of her own. She proposed an alternative program for about 20 freshmen who always came to school but never actually went to class. They now stay in one room all day and teachers come to them. She also started a student council.

The lunchroom environment has also changed. One recent Friday in the cafeteria, where last fall there was an all-out food fight, Hennessey, without warning, stood on a chair and handed out $1 coupons that are redeemable at the cafeteria snack bar to 40 students she saw modeling good behavior.

Hennessey said one advantage to the restart is that her whole academy is on one floor, which allows teachers to get to know the students. It also cuts down on passing time between periods.

Other academies in the building include communication and technology, law and international studies, and health and environmental studies. Each has its own colors, hallways, assistant principal, guidance counselor and climate specialist — a title given to individuals hired to help keep the hallways cleared and interact with students. They also free up the assistant principals to focus more on being an instructional leader.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Carmen McPherson, assistant principal of the Law and Public Service academy, pointing out a number of students who used to spend the day in the hall who were now in class working. She counted at least eight students in Leah Rosen‘s English 10 class, who used to be chronic cutters.

In an English 11 class, student Danae Phommachanh, who was trying to interpret a Langston Hughes poem, said at first she thought the changes to Harding were terrible because students’ schedules were all messed up. Now she thinks the changes are helping. “Being in one part of the school all day saves a lot more energy,” she said.

Donald Kubie, a business teacher, said he has been through several administrations. It’s too soon to say if Global has staying power, he said.

“I pray that it does,” he said. “They are doing the right things. The follow-through seems to be better. We’ve talked about small learning communities before but we never followed through like we’re doing now.”

Not all teachers are thrilled with the changes Global has made. Peluchette said there could be more than 100 contract violations at Harding over issues such as schedules, class sizes and the lack of prep periods for teachers. Several teachers were upset they had to move their classrooms to accommodate the new academy system.

Garcia said Global has strong views about what makes effective schooling but is not deaf to things that the faculty at Harding have brought to the table.

“One of the reasons that the energy is in the building is because we have engaged the faculty,” he said. “We have not done it in the same way Bassick is going about it, but it isn’t a process of essentially mandating. I think it’s been a collaborative process guided by what we know about effective schooling.”

Garcia said there is more to come. “It’s all about leveraging what we have done to do deeper work,” he said. “If you walked into a classroom at Harding right now, I am not sure the instruction would be entirely different from what you might have seen prior to restart.”

The next focus will be on instruction. Also, Harding plans a summer bridge program for rising ninth-graders to introduce them to the expectations and figure out where they are academically.

“I know when we leave in two years,” Garcia said, “more ninth-graders will be on track for graduation.”

REBUILDING BASSICK

The hunger for change at Bassick High School can be heard in the voices of teachers.

Walter Brackett, who teaches English, is leading an instruction cadre that is wading through literacy programs. The team will eventually report to a steering committee on the best ones that will help students reading below grade level. After that, they’ll tackle math.

His cadre is one of 15 groups charged with inventing a better Bassick. “Let’s face it, the reason we are in this boat is because our scores are low and we have this huge achievement gap,” he said. “Somebody’s got to do something about closing it.”

In the discipline cadre, English teacher Katrina Pacific said her group is looking for sustainable ways to keep students in class and out of the hallways.

Jerry Coleman, a graphic arts teacher, is trying to design a class schedule that will provide for more learning time, less passing time and common teacher planning time, though he acknowledges the idea isn’t universally loved. Most of these ideas percolating through the school won’t be launched until the fall. Some students say the first issue they want addressed is the school’s appearance.

In a letter to CommPACT director Michele Femc-Bagwell, Stephanie Lugo, a senior, called the school, which was built in 1929, boring and dull.

“Bassick High School should be known as something good,” Lugo wrote. “When we walk in this school no one cares that this is a school.”

Femc-Bagwell enlisted a service learning class at the school to spend April break painting murals on the walls. To further enhance the way the school looks, home school coordinator Debbie Wong asked parents, alumni, community members and even a night custodian to walk the school and identify what makes them feel welcome and what needs to change.

Parent Rosemarie Brown, who has a freshman and junior at the school and took the walking tour, said appearances are important. The school needs paint and better cleaning, but also needs community support, she said. It’s why she started to go to parent meetings. She’s also offered to help plant a garden outside.

Rejinee Reese, 17, a Bassick senior, said things are slowly progressing. “Teachers are more excited and stuff. I am excited,” she said. “Last year I feel I didn’t take enough with me into my junior year. I will take more with me into senior year.”

Bassick Principal Alejandro Ortiz, who was reassigned from Central High, said his aim is to make Bassick a place anyone would want to send their children. He said rather than compete with Harding, he regularly meets with Walston and realizes they are coming up with the same kinds of ideas, such as separating the grades and creating small learning academies.

Patti Foley, a state Department of Education consultant who oversees how the federal grant money is being used, visits both schools as often as once a week. She said they are both showing progress. “I feel good where they are. I definitely, definitely see positive changes at both schools. Mind set is where it starts and at both buildings, teachers all seem to want same thing,” Foley said.

To sustain that feeling, she added, teachers — and the public — need to see some quick wins. “The key is to stick with it,” she said. “Any major change takes three to five years, but you need to see growth.”

Source: CT Post. Reprinted with permission.