Plan would help states boost teacher qualifications

Schools see breakout success-‘Multiplex’ approach gives students second chance

You know you’re not in your typical high school when the rough-and-tumble minutes between classes are pierced by a double line of sweet-faced second-graders filing quietly past. The high school kids, many of them former dropouts, stop and let them through.

It’s another Monday morning at the Julia Richman Education Complex on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The little ones just happen to go to school down the hall. Two floors up, there’s Manhattan International High School, which enrolls recent immigrants. At Talent Unlimited High School, in an annex, singers are warming up.

Richman is one of a new breed of small, specialized schools-within-schools, called multiplex schools by some, that are turning heads nationwide. They offer a second chance to students who couldn’t make it in huge, impersonal high schools. In the process, they’re helping a few cities make a dent in soaring dropout rates.

In New York, the movement got a shot in the arm in September, when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated $51 million to help the city divide dozens of schools. Gates has spent more than half a billion dollars on education, partly to sponsor 1,100 small schools in the past three years

Typically, multiplex schools take an existing building and divide it into four or more “academies” of 100 to 200 students. Each school focuses on one specialty, such as the arts, science or finance. The schools typically offer more personalized environments than a 3,000-student mega-school.

At Richman, teachers and counselors have been known to pay unannounced home visits when students don’t show up for school, says Jen Genna, a senior at Vanguard High School, which specializes in motivating low achievers. Genna remembers one time during sophomore year when her humanities teacher “just showed up at my house.”

Attention to details

Unlike most big-city schools, which graduate only 50% to 70% of students, many multiplex schools boast a 90% or better graduation rate, and most send nearly all graduates to college.

Though they cost about 5% more per student to run, multiplex schools are more cost-effective since fewer students drop out. And because they’re so small, the schools don’t generally require metal detectors or cadres of assistant principals. Principals have fewer students to oversee, so they can ditch their walkie-talkies and teach a class or two.

“They’re not putting out one fire after another because they don’t have to maintain order,” says Thomas Toch, author of the book High Schools on a Human Scale.

Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan calls himself “a huge believer in small schools.” He says they may actually generate more revenue because they tend to keep kids in school. Duncan’s budget, like those of most school systems, relies on enrollment throughout the year. The more students he keeps, the more money he gets.

In big cities such as Chicago and New York, small schools are rapidly becoming the dominant high school reform model — and not a moment too soon, Duncan and others say.

Though high school reform was once the most talked-about topic in education, today it takes a back seat to elementary and middle schools. The No Child Left Behind reform law barely mentions high school, but recent data show that high-schoolers’ skills are stagnant.

A few studies have found that smaller schools have higher achievement and lower dropout rates, as well as less violence and vandalism. They also tend to have a smaller “achievement gap” between ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

History changes models

The multiplex idea has been more than 100 years in the making. In the late 1800s, just one in 10 kids reached high school. They got a solid classical education as they prepared for professional and managerial jobs.

But a wave of immigration in the early 1900s prompted education theorists to rethink this model. School, they said, should include vocational education and citizenship to help assimilate immigrants, train blue-collar workers and prepare managers for white-collar work.

This factory model persisted well into the second half of the century as school districts moved to consolidate small high schools into big ones that could provide more coursework.

But when the 1990s saw manufacturing jobs being exported overseas by the thousands, educators began saying U.S. high schools should forget the factory model because they had to produce workers who could fit into the information economy. That required a college degree from not just some but most workers.

“The more we get away from a one-size-fits-all mentality, the better our students are going to do,” says Duncan, who in Chicago has built nine small high schools within three larger high school buildings. “It does not guarantee success,” he says. “It does put you in the ballgame.”

But simply reducing the size of a school doesn’t work, says Toch. “It’s really just a means to an end. It’s a sense of community, it’s a sense of connectedness that matters.”

It works in Manhattan

Housed in two six-story buildings, Julia Richman High School was long considered one of New York City’s most troubled schools. In 1995, it was broken up into what would eventually become six separate schools. The newly rechristened Julia Richman Education Complex now houses four high schools, an elementary school, a middle school for autistic students and an infant/toddler center.

Ann Cook, a co-director of the Urban Academy sub-school, says the elementary school “changes the tone for the whole building.” She says the elementary schoolers love to parade through the hallways at Halloween in their costumes, to the raucous applause of the older students. Older students often help the little ones.

“If you’re saying that you want teenagers to behave in a responsible way, you need to give them the opportunity to do that,” she says.

Multiplex schools are an odd amalgam of magnet schools and free-market school choice.

The 1960s-era magnet school movement, in many ways a response to desegregation, brought talented and gifted urban students into specialized high schools that often had strict entrance requirements. At the same time, conservatives proposed letting inner-city students attend private schools with public funds.

While multiplex schools are public, they have fewer entrance requirements than magnet schools, allowing nearly any motivated student to attend the school of his or her choice.

Or, as Ray Maky, a Vanguard High School senior, puts it, “Everyone gets a slice of the cake.”