Noble High School
North Berwick, ME
Noble High School, serving a student population of 1150 from three small, rural, southwestern Maine communities, is a large school learning to be small. Today, it is a school with a strong common vision of equity and excellence for all students. It has come a long way since Ted Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, visited ten years ago and challenged a group of teachers: "You have to change enough, quickly enough, so that gravity cannot drag you back." This is the story of how Noble reinvented itself.
When Principal Pam Fisher arrived at Noble High School in the summer of 1990, she found a school where student achievement data did not back up the school's sense of success. She interviewed every Noble faculty member and employee during that summer, and although most teachers were eager to serve students well, others were convinced they were doing well enough already. Fisher discovered a schedule of favoritism for some faculty, practices she considered discriminatory regarding room and course assignments for students, and a long history of a department head structure. Course requirements and expectations were different for different kids.
Interviews with parents revealed dissatisfaction with the school. Mothers told stories of children being channeled into programs because they were not "college material." Other parents worried about discipline and drugs.
Grading systems have an impact on equity, the school culture, and the core beliefs of a school community. Noble's system simply wasn't working. Principal Fisher's review of the grades of all students showed that the final exam, when averaged with the quarter grades, lowered the grades of two-thirds of the students.
Noble served students from three towns that were geographically dispersed, with many students traveling an hour by bus. The district received substantial subsidy from the state due to the level of income and property valuation.
The story of Noble's change began in the fall of 1990, when Principal Fisher built connections with the community by inviting interested teachers to help plan a freshman orientation program that would be a positive start to the year. Several teachers planned a barbecue for freshman and their parents, with entertainment and older students engaging students and parents in welcoming and informational activities. The evening was a great success, culminating with the faculty singing a Simon and Garfunkel tune to the parents. Fisher commented, "With high expectations, but with no real strategy, I was ready to learn more about Noble and to understand why so many students were not achieving."
By November of that year, Fisher was ready to share her personal vision for a good school with the faculty and to ask for their help in reinventing the school to be equitable, rigorous and personalized for all learners, where every practice, structure and policy would be held to a new standard.
"I asked whomever was interested in making some significant changes for students and teachers to meet with me for a daylong retreat and begin to plan. Nearly thirty teachers showed up," Fisher reminisced.
During the session, a veteran Noble teacher commented, "If not in our schools, where else should democracy and equity thrive? We need to completely change the way we've being doing things." This was a turning point.
The teachers, first called the strategic planning team and later the faculty council, were empowered to develop a five and ten year action plan, including professional development and community engagement activities, that would reinvent the concept of schooling to ensure equity of opportunity for all kids to learn and to be successful.
During the 1990-91 year, the group of teacher leaders came forth with a plan to change organizational and structural practices to begin to address equity, rigor, personalization, and what they considered to be injustices in the way students were labeled and sorted. The plan involved phasing in integrated 9th grade teams consisting of an English, science, social studies, and math teacher, special education teacher, and guidance counselor. Each team would have common planning time and a core group of 80 students.
Twelve teachers, coming from all grade levels and who were at times targeted as "born again teachers," volunteered to take the lead. The program would be a heterogeneously grouped core curriculum, would include all special education students within the classrooms, and would require all students to take algebra as their first high school math course. The Freshman Core was born.
On the same night that former President Bush announced the beginning of the Gulf War in January of 1991, Noble faculty stood before over two hundred parents in the cafeteria and were challenged to explain why the school would ever consider having "those" kids sit in the same classroom with their kids. On that evening, Noble's own war began?over tracking. Meetings with the superintendent over concerns about moving too quickly for the community assured faculty that they could not afford to lose another generation of students. Parents and teachers continued to meet in small groups over the winter months.
A respected researcher from the University of Southern Maine facilitated a Parent Assessment Advisory Group charged with evaluating every aspect of this new idea, and the school board gave approval for a trial period for the Freshman Core. The school overcame the tracking concerns with its own data tracking system, by inviting parents into any and all classrooms, by including parents in the evaluation of the program, and by not giving up when the going got tough.
By the end of the 1990-91 school year, everyone, including the parents, felt more comfortable with the concept of heterogeneously grouped, integrated teams. The school gathered and assessed student achievement and other data, which provided hard evidence of progress and helped to make the case for change. The next year, the sophomore teams were instituted. Principal Fisher commented, "Teachers who were weren't interested in teaming, or getting involved with change, were beginning to trickle up. Un-tracking half the school led the other half to topple quickly." Teachers at all grade levels were becoming open to change. At the same time, talented, veteran teachers were taking the lead in increasing graduation requirements for all students, making four years of rigorous mathematics, and four years of science, including chemistry and physics, required. At all levels, the school was redefining its standard of excellence to include all learners.
Today, all students are required to meet the standards in heterogeneously grouped core classes. This is assured by a move toward standards-based grading, common assessments, and the senior project. Courses are mostly organized within the integrity of the academic discipline, but as part of a team structure, common schedules and teacher planning time provide multiple opportunities for integrated, project-based and community-based learning. Since 1991, teachers at Noble have experimented with many projects and thematic events as their allegiances have shifted from their departments to their teaching teams and to the students. Constructing new standards and matching them to organizational structures and practices was the real challenge met by Noble High School.
Noble High, a relatively poor rural school, established a culture safe for experimentation that celebrates the talents of all teachers. The entire school community shared a common vision and mission. Changing structures changed beliefs. Many teachers wouldn't believe that heterogeneous grouping would work until they got involved. Once involved with teams, teachers relied less on departmental support. Because every student deserves to be taught by a person who is passionate about the content, Noble provided for teachers the same thing that was provided for students: equity of opportunity to learn and to work in an environment that ensures success. Teaching teams did not dissolve the integrity of disciplines but served as a great first step to creating small autonomous schools within a large school.
The more teachers have an opportunity to articulate the vision of change, the more it becomes part of the life and breath of the school, and the better the vision sticks. When asked about the importance of public advocacy, Principal Fisher commented, "Just as the role of principals changes, teachers need to be included in public advocacy, to be able to lead parent groups, and speak at community events regarding the practices of the school. Change happened at Noble in large part due to a trusted veteran [teacher] speaking at Board meetings, facilitating anxious parent groups, and speaking at the local civic clubs. Teachers are the best folks to assure parents and students that they do not turn into poor teachers overnight if they are trying out a new idea!"
Within three years, the changes at Noble had a dramatic impact on student learning. Test scores escalated, and the number of students attending college nearly doubled. Years later, the rural school community of 1150 students lives in a new building designed for fifteen small, independent learning communities and plans shortly to complete its conversion into three separate schools. The new programs and structures have persisted after several changes in leadership at all levels in the district. Today they are how Noble defines itself-they are no longer "changes." They are Noble's vision of an Essential School.
This story was adapted from Breaking Ranks II: Strategies to Change the American High School, a book created by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) with the support of the Education Alliance at Brown University. It was released at the annual conference of the NASSP in February 2004. Breaking Ranks II, which includes a more detailed case study of Noble High, is a follow-up to the highly acclaimed book Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution. This book, issued in 1996 by the NASSP and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, offers a vision of a successful high school for the twenty-first century.