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High school redesign

South Side High School doesn’t look as if it is undergoing renovation, but it is. A redesign aimed at improving student achievement began with this year’s freshman class and – in just the first two months of school – is already showing success.

It’s the structure of learning – not the building – that’s changed at South Side, Elmhurst and North Side, where the freshmen initiative is under way with varying degrees of success. Teachers at Northrop, Snider and Wayne voted down the contract waiver required to accommodate a schedule change, but they need only to look to South Side to see why they should get on board. After assigning all ninth-graders to three-hour, yearlong math/science/English units, the school is seeing fewer students failing, more students making the honor roll and the number of discipline referrals cut by more than 60 percent.

Until this year, all freshmen followed the same four-block schedule in use at all Fort Wayne Community Schools high schools, where students are assigned to four 85-minute classes for 18 weeks each. The new schedule cuts the core classes to consecutive 55-minute courses for an entire year, with teachers grouped to serve the same students and share information about how they are doing individually.

Liz Bryan, project coordinator for FWCS’s high school reinvention program, said it amounts to more than a schedule change. The initiative, supported by a five-year federal grant of $3.2 million, is aimed at breaking down large-school barriers and making students feel like more of a community. With the schedule change, they spend most of the day with a small group of fellow students and the entire year with the same three teachers. In addition, there are activities planned exclusively for freshmen – a cookout before the school year began, football tailgate parties and others.

“Our high schools are big,” Bryan said. “We haven’t done a good job of holding their hands and helping them through it. The highest rate of failure is with freshmen, and if you lose them there, you’ve lost them altogether.”

At South Side, teachers were assigned based on their strengths. A science teacher who taught mostly upper-level courses was tapped to work with freshmen because of his rapport with students, Assistant Principal Mark Bailey said.

The effort to make a personal connection to every student is apparent. Administrator Nicholas Gray spends time several days a week dropping into each freshman class block to check up on students. He walks through the classroom, sometimes joining in a class discussion, other times leaning over to whisper a greeting or words of encouragement to a student.

Bailey credits Principal Thomas Smith with demanding administrators and teachers not only show results but show the data to back them up.

They can. At the end of the first grading period, only 10 percent of this year’s freshman class was failing English, compared to 30 percent a year ago. The percentage of students earning honor roll-status with a 3.6 GPA or above increased from 11 percent to almost 16 percent. The number of referrals for discipline problems fell from 474 to 188.

“We’re seeing immediate, positive effects for our kids,” Bailey said.

The early data back the success for students, but teachers offer their own glowing reviews. One 16-year veteran described this year’s class as her best teaching experience yet.

While some of the efforts to draw freshmen together outside of class are in place at all six high schools, the schedule remains a sticking point for the three holdouts. Bryan conceded that the schedule change means more students for each teacher to interact with each day but said the payoff is the chance to build stronger relationships with students and to see them succeed.

The conventional wisdom is that change happens when it becomes easier than the status quo.

South Side, with 65 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, might have found the change easier to face than schools without the same socioeconomic challenges. But its teachers and administrators deserve much credit for embracing the change and doing what’s best for kids. The other schools should take note of South Side’s success and follow suit.