Wyandotte High School
Kansas City, KS
Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas has a rich history as one of the oldest high schools west of the Mississippi. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was the pride of the area, until urban flight and other factors sparked a dramatic decline. By the mid-1990s, safety concerns and academic difficulties had district officials thinking about closing the school's doors. Test scores were among the worst in the state. Accreditation was in question. Even at their worst, other schools in the district could always guarantee that they were "at least better than Wyandotte."
"Like most urban schools, we had inner-city issues," says current Wyandotte principal, Walter Thompson. "We maybe had communication issues, race issues. People not caring about people."
This was a challenging spot from which to launch a school reform effort. But in 1996, district leaders opted to make one last attempt to turn around this troubled school. They brought in Thompson and adopted a program called First Things First, a framework that identifies seven critical features for school improvement. The features--based on developmental and educational research on children and youth, current research on organizational change, and current work in public schools--included continuity of care; increased instructional time; clear, fair, and high standards for conduct and academic achievement; enriched and diverse opportunities for learning; teacher empowerment to improve instruction; flexible resource allocation; and collective responsibility for achievement.
The staff understood that they had to make the seven critical features a reality in the day-to-day life of the school. Principal Thompson had a genuine belief in and respect for teachers. A former coach and football quarterback, he knew how to coach his faculty and, when necessary, to get out of their way and let them take the lead.
"When [Principal Thompson] came to the school, we had had a top-down person who was not very organized or efficient. People were pretty much grumbling about that regime," says special education coordinator Carol Normandin.
Thompson approached the teachers first with the opportunity to fix the problem of students who were tardy to class. With seven class changes a day and a large building that was built to house 3000 students, many students never made it from one class to another, and no accountability system existed.
"He came to us and said we could work together to solve this problem," says Normandin. "Staff took turns sweeping the halls for kids and we took tardies down from the thousands to about 30. That was our first taste of the power we had. We could really effect change and he would let us do that."
Thompson next set up a Stakeholder Team, comprised of 13 staff members, to discuss how Wyandotte could adapt each feature of First Things First to its unique environment. The team included several veterans, who had some reservations about a new plan. Naming them to the Stakeholder Team allowed them to discuss their concerns and listen to the viewpoints of their peers.
After much discussion, the Stakeholder Team facilitated a two-day roundtable about the features for the entire Wyandotte staff. Immediately following this roundtable, all staff members at Wyandotte began meeting weekly in small teams to discuss the options available to them. Two members of the Stakeholder Team co-facilitated each of the small team sessions after school, and took responsibility for ensuring that all staff members stayed informed about the ideas, research, and alternatives on the table. These small teams provided a structure to promote good communication.
By December 1997, the staff had decided that, beginning with the 1998-99 school year, they would reorganize Wyandotte High School into self-contained, small learning communities (SLCs), defined as "schools-within-a-school." In these learning communities, interdisciplinary teams of teachers would teach groups of 160- 200 students from grades 9-12, including special education students. English language learners would participate in elective classes with the communities and receive pull-out language instruction.
Also, each small learning community would revolve around a common theme, and all members of the community would focus teaching and learning around that theme. Teachers would engage in ongoing professional development activities related to the theme and to meeting the needs of their students. In fact, the school examined the needs and interests of students to develop the themes and created an advisory structure that promoted close relationships among students, staff, families, and community members for the length of the students' high school careers.
"It was surprising to us that there were very few schools across the country doing small learning communities," says Principal Thompson. "We were looking for the best plan for our students, and through this we have seen a great deal of improvement. We are seeing better relationships between kids and their teachers."
One of the reasons for improved relationships was the feature of collective responsibility. All individuals involved in the small learning community (students, teachers, parents, community members, etc.) were expected to take responsibility for improved student performance. Parents would meet with teacher advisors who made sure the students took the right classes and gathered enough credits. Teachers handled scheduling concerns, eliminating both the long lines outside the counselor's office and excuses to get out of class. And all students' classes were located in close proximity to help build a sense of "family" within the communities.
"The smallness of the communities gave us a real identity," says Normandin. "We had lost that identity. Now when kids say what community they're in, they're proud. It boosts their self-esteem and that of the teachers."
The task of reorganizing, however, was not an easy one to achieve. After the school had communicated the purpose, structure, and functions of the small learning communities to all involved, and students had chosen their themes for the fall of 1998-1999, the teachers spent the summer developing agendas for each community regarding reading, problem solving, assessment, and instruction. They also defined their goals, expectations, and parent involvement components, and identified and analyzed the academic needs of students who had chosen their themed community. This summer workshop helped the staff build a collective professional learning culture in the school.
The beginning of the 1998-99 school year brought with it a mixed bag of excitement, fear, and reservation about this new approach to high school. There were still many unanswered questions, and staff raised concerns about what appeared to be more chaos than before. Now that students came to class, teachers had to handle many of the previously unknown issues with which students were dealing. Their responsibilities were growing from teaching those who chose to come to class to collectively caring for each and every student in their small learning community. It became critical for the school to provide staff members with support in managing the multiple transitions of this change process. Continual dialogue, questioning, and collaboration were important tools in this process.
The teachers' efforts and the school's support began to pay off later that year when, on the last day of school before the winter holiday, students and teachers could still be found saying their goodbyes more than an hour after dismissal. No longer were the teachers beating the students out the door. Staff had also become more comfortable with how the school improvement process looked at change--using an inquiry approach rather than a "one-size-fits-all" approach.
To further support staff development, the local school board approved the reorganization of Wednesdays, allowing for an early release of students and two hours each week for staff to spend in SLC study groups. Teacher groups met, some every day, to connect their theme to their content and to discuss student progress. Sometimes they even brought a student into their meetings. "We'd talk about what's going on, what's an obstacle for success," says Normandin. "We knew we needed to join up to achieve success."
The flexibility and empowerment of the small learning community has proven essential in allowing the school improvement features of First Things First to become real. But the teachers knew that structural change alone was not enough to make the impact on student performance they wanted. Consequently, teachers and administrators worked together at the district level to develop a teaching and learning document that articulates a focus for all school staff. Through study of professional readings, dialogue, and collaboration, staff chose three key topics: classroom environment; instruction (to include active engagement, connectedness, and reflection); and professional learning communities. Since its creation, the document has served as the target for instructional improvement at Wyandotte.
While teachers and administrators maintained their focus on teaching and learning, they also kept an eye on the data. Teachers looked at assessment results for students in their small learning communities and shared this information with all staff within a SLC. This became a crucial piece of the improvement work. It was no longer someone else's problem; it was everyone's concern.
Student reading performance emerged as a particular concern. Teachers' newly strengthened relationships with their students pushed them to research and explore what could be done for those with poor reading skills. The teachers soon began training in Second Chance Reading in order to integrate skills for teaching reading into their practice.
"The staff took a serious attitude toward non-readers," says Principal Thompson. "Our basic goal is to get kids to graduate and be able to move on to the working world, or junior college, or a four-year school. We implemented this [reading program] to help kids get back on track."
During training, teachers not well-versed in teaching reading looked to their peers for support. What started as an after-school open discussion of teaching reading strategies has grown in sophistication ever since. It is an environment of trust and respect in which teachers can share their failures as well as their successes. Teachers exchange materials, demonstrate lessons, discuss implementation and appropriate use of strategies, and offer one another suggestions for improvement.
"Having groups of teachers working together helps," says Thompson. "It means no one is standing on an island by themselves."
In keeping with the spirit of the reading study group, the staff at Wyandotte also developed a peer coaching system in January 2001. Administrators brought in substitutes two days a week to allow teachers to observe other teachers in their classrooms. As the process developed, teachers spent time collaboratively planning lessons, observing lessons, and participating in reflective conferences after lessons. The process further enhanced the development of a collaborative culture at Wyandotte and identified collaboration as a part of the teacher's professional role as opposed to something to be done "on your own time." The peer coaching system continues to evolve to include mentoring new teachers, collaborating with teachers in other schools, and embedding support from outside consultants into the classroom.
"This wasn't anything someone said we had to do," says Thompson. "It was an idea from the teachers here that they wanted independence of evaluation, the ability to look into other classrooms and partner with each other. It's also about not leaving young teachers out on their own."
The results have been astounding. The dropout rate during the 1996-97 school year was a high 28.8%, but by the 2001-02 school year, it had fallen to 5.1% and stands at 4.25% as of February 2004. Teachers know their students better and work with them to help them stay in school.
In 1997-98, the student attendance rate at Wyandotte was 73%. By the 2001-02 school year, it had climbed to 86%. This increase is coupled with increasing enrollment in a time when the district's overall secondary enrollment is decreasing. The graduation rate was at a low of 40% in 1998-99, but has improved to a high of 70% in 2000-01. This includes an increase in the number of special education students graduating, from 1-3 eight years ago to an average of 22-23 a year as of 2003. In addition, incidents of violence against students declined 93%, from 155 in 1997-98 to 14 in 2001-02.
On the Kansas Reading Assessment, there was a 28% decrease in the number of students scoring at the "Unsatisfactory Performance" level from 2001 to 2003. In addition, there was a 20% increase in the number of students scoring at or above "Satisfactory", coupled with a 31% increase in the number of students tested. On the Kansas Math Assessment, the number of students scoring at the "Unsatisfactory Performance" level has decreased by 9% since spring of 2000.
Against a backdrop of poverty, crime, and unemployment, Wyandotte High School staff members have committed to work together with their students, parents, and community to change the culture of their school from one of chaos and isolation to one of hope and collaboration. But teachers at Wyandotte by no means believe that they have reached their goal. Their work continues to evolve based on the needs of the students. Eight years ago, the district was thinking of closing the school. No one would consider that action today.
"The thing about the work is that it got teachers and kids excited," says Principal Thompson. "When you look into the future and see what you can do for these kids, no road is too difficult. For a school that no one gave much support to, all of a sudden the last has become the first."
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 Wyandotte 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.