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On Halloween, Mark Roosevelt, Superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, announced that he's attempting again to close Schenley High School and move its students out of Oakland into existing Middle School buildings in East Liberty and the Hill District
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11-05-07 Can grade 6-12 schools solve city's problems?

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 11, 2007 8:11 am    Post subject: 11-05-07 Can grade 6-12 schools solve city's problems? Reply with quote

(photo by Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)
Teacher Robert Powell talks with his sixth-grade math class at Northside Urban Pathways Charter School, Downtown, where the school uses a 6-12 structure.

Can grade 6-12 schools solve city's problems?
Monday, November 05, 2007
By Joe Smydo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In developing schools for grades six through 12, the Pittsburgh Public Schools can take a creative approach to stubborn academic problems while leveraging some of the same strengths ascribed to the more common K-8 school, administrators and education policy experts say.

Superintendent Mark Roosevelt on Wednesday proposed four schools with a 6-12 configuration, making one of the first steps in his high school improvement project and marking a new stage in his 2-year-old effort to reinvigorate the middle grades.

An International Baccalaureate, or IB, school in Shadyside and a university-affiliated school in the Hill District would open in fall 2008. The following year, the district would open a science and technology school in Oakland and merge the middle-grade and high school arts magnets Downtown.

Pittsburgh school officials said the 6-12 structure promotes more coherent course scheduling for students and inculcates a sense of community in schools. They said it's led to higher graduation rates and better skill development among students in cities such as New York City and Houston.

Across the state and nation, the 6-12 configuration remains much less common than the K-8 design for elementary and middle-grade students, the traditional 9-12 high school and the 7-12 middle/high design.

Pennsylvania has 16 schools with a 6-12 design, mostly charter, rural or alternative schools with modest populations. Under contract with the Pittsburgh district, Nashville-based Community Education Partners opened a 6-12 alternative school on the North Side this school year for about 430 students.

Administrators of 6-12 schools say the structure offers special opportunities for learning, provided officials remember to meet the discrete needs of two student groups -- pubescent, rambunctious middle-grade children and high school teens preparing for adulthood, college and careers.

"It has to be managed very, very well. That's one thing that's so important," said Paul Ruhlman, principal of Hyndman Middle-High School with 232 students in southern Bedford County.

Like a K-8, Mr. Ruhlman and others said, the 6-12 school can help students build long-term relationships with faculty and give continuity to curriculum as students move from one level to another.

Supporters said the 6-12 structure makes for an easier transition from eighth grade to ninth, often called one of the toughest changes in a student's life. That's especially important in Pittsburgh, where 35 percent of students -- and nearly half of all black males -- drop out of high school.

Because many middle-grade students arrive at high school unprepared for secondary work, a 6-12 school can get children on the right path and guide them to graduation, said Daria Hall, assistant director of K-12 policy for the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

Some districts implement 6-12 groupings to make the best use of building space. In other districts, including Pittsburgh, 6-12 schools promote theme-based learning and represent a break with low-performing, traditionally structured schools.

While a fifth-grade teacher in Houston in the early 1990s, Christopher Barbik was troubled by the way students struggled in sixth grade. His quest for a better way led to the creation of YES Prep Public Schools, five charter schools with a 6-12 configuration cited by Pittsburgh school officials last week.

The YES -- or Youth Engaged in Service -- schools target low-income black and Hispanic students. They offer an extended day, require community service and graduate students only if they've been accepted to college.

All four of the YES schools operating last school year met federal achievement benchmarks. Ninety-one percent of YES alumni have graduated from college or remain college students.

"That's probably our coolest stat," said Ryan Dolibois, the organization's chief development officer.

Educators said high school students can be tutors or role models for middle-grade students, but they stressed that boundaries must be observed.

"If you have a dance, it has to be a middle-school dance or a senior high dance," Mr. Ruhlman said. "It's really not appropriate to have 17-year-olds at a dance with 11-year-olds."

Students at Northside Urban Pathways, a 6-12 charter school Downtown, said they like the school structure.

"You'll be with the big people and not just sit with the babies. You'll try to adapt to people older than you," said Michael Williams, 11, a sixth-grader from Garfield.

John Jones, 16, a junior from the Hill District, said he believes the transition to ninth grade is easier in a 6-12 school. He said he has seven or eight friends who have "grown up together" from middle school to high school, and he recalled knowing some high school teachers before ninth grade.

There may be limited mingling, but Northside Urban Pathways said it generally keeps middle-grade students on the fourth floor and high school students on the second. School offices are on the third.

"It's kind of like schools within a school," said Linda Clautti, chief executive officer.

The Pittsburgh district has similar restrictions for its K-8 schools and plans them for 6-12 schools, too.

The debate over school configuration stretches back decades. The K-8 school, a mainstay early in the 20th century, is now experiencing a resurgence after losing ground in recent decades to the junior high (often with a 7-8 structure) and middle school (6-8 configuration).

In increasing the number of Pittsburgh K-8 schools from 10 to 20 after the 2005-06 year, Mr. Roosevelt said he believed middle-grade students would behave and perform better in elementary buildings. The outcome of that initiative is still up in the air.

So far, no school configuration has been proven superior to another. Calling leadership, faculty and curriculum more important factors, educators said districts can choose a structure that best fits their communities.

"It's how it's executed that's going to make all the difference," Ms. Hall said.

Derrick Lopez, district chief of high school reform, said he wants to encourage parents to choose a trajectory -- K-8 and 9-12 or K-5 and 6-12, for example -- for their children. But he said they could go back and forth if they wished.

In addition to high dropout rates, many city high schools have low reading and math scores. Mr. Roosevelt wants to shake things up.

He also said he felt he had no choice but to close Oakland's Pittsburgh Schenley High School, which needs $64 million in renovations. Schenley students would be reassigned to at least two of the new schools.

Mr. Roosevelt previously cited a desire to increase participation in IB and Advanced Placement courses, and he hopes the 6-12 IB school -- described as the "nation's first comprehensive urban IB program" -- will help with that goal.

The new school would open with about 500 students from Schenley's international studies/IB magnet and about 60 English language learners. It also would take in all 500 students at Pittsburgh Frick 6-8, an international studies magnet that already had plans to launch an IB Middle Years Program.

The district hopes the new Hill District school, to be located in the former Milliones Middle School building, will operate in cooperation with the University of Pittsburgh School of Education.

Officials want it to serve about 400 students who now attend Schenley because it's their neighborhood school. Also assigned to the new school would be about 180 middle-grade students from nearby Pittsburgh Miller PreK-8 and Pittsburgh Vann PreK-8, and students from other neighborhoods would be admitted as space allows.

Admission guidelines for the science and technology school, to be located at Pittsburgh Frick's current Oakland location, have not been set. The district plans to move Pittsburgh Rogers 6-8, the middle-grade arts magnet, from its Garfield location into additional space in the Downtown building that already houses Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

Education editor Eleanor Chute contributed. Joe Smydo can be reached at [email protected] or 412-263-1548.
First published on November 5, 2007 at 12:00 am
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