Adult advisers give poor students the personal touch
Charles Mingo runs Du Sable High School on Chicago's notorious South Side, with 1,100 of what, he says, are probably the poorest young people in America.
This autumn, however, they're enjoying a comparative embarrassment of riches. Every student has been given a personal adult adviser - a volunteer teacher, administrator, alumnus or member of a local church - and has been assigned to one of seven manageable schools-within-a-school, which they will share with classmates who have similar interests and career goals.
"There was a period of time when everybody thought bigger was better," Mr Mingo said. "As a result alienated children could go through high school without anyone even knowing who they were."
Du Sable High is one of 1,400 schools beginning to implement one of America's most sweeping plans for educational reform: a 114-page blueprint for dramatically enhancing individual attention paid to students.
"High schools tend to let everyone squeeze by - even most of those who are actually learning very little of an academic nature - as if moving on a conveyor belt," said the report, a collaboration between the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. "But the reality of American education is that some students are embarked upon a trip to nowhere."
The plan, called "Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution", was drafted over the course of two years by a commission of principals, teachers and students from schools in cities, suburbs and rural areas.
It calls for providing every student with a personal "adult advocate" and individual learning plan; limiting school size to a maximum of 600 students; allowing employers to send new recruits who fail to reach performance standards back to high school; and nearly 80 other changes.
"We understand that every student cannot be brilliant," the report said. "Each student, however, can enjoy a measure of success on his or her own terms that represents solid achievement and genuine accomplishment."
The effort has a secondary purpose of positioning school principals and teachers at the forefront of the educational reform debate, which has been driven in the past few years by business executives and politicians.
"The time has come for those mainly responsible for the day-to-day operations of high schools to lay out their plans for educational reform," the commission wrote. "This report, unlike those previously issued . . . draws strength and authority from the fact that it arises from the inside and does not descend on high schools from the outside."
That also has helped secure support from teachers, who are being asked to take on greater job responsibilities without more pay.
"Teachers are willing to do that if they believe it's the best thing for the kids and if they feel they're part of the plan," said E Don Brown, principal of LD Bell High School in the Dallas suburb of Hurst, Texas.
Each of the 1,980 students in Mr Brown's school also has a personal adult advocate - even Mr Brown himself, the school nurse and the football coach have volunteered - and has been assigned to smaller groups within the school based on their age. These groups share classes and serve on teams together for athletic and academic competitions.
"The biggest problem that we face is 'the great American high school', which is a monster," Mr Brown said. "In most cases it's too large, and it's structured that way for economic rather than for educational reasons."