Remember the good old days of high school? Cliffs Notes, study hall, doodling while the geometry teacher droned on about congruent triangles. How about wading through a sea of hundreds, or even thousands, of students seven periods each day to get to class on time?

Well, forget it, reformers say. High schools, as we know them, don’t work. They aren’t teaching students the skills or knowledge that employers and colleges will require. Nor are high schools guiding teens to make wise choices about their futures. Too many students are failing courses, falling behind and, eventually, leaving high school without a diploma.

A recent study by Johns Hopkins University found that between 2000 and 2003, more than half of the students at most Chicago neighborhood high schools dropped out or did not pass enough classes to graduate in four years. Only four CPS high schools hit or exceeded the state average of 80 percent of freshmen moving up to senior year on time.

Radical new ways of doing high school are beginning to take root in Chicago Public Schools. In some of the latest start-ups, academic classes don’t start until the afternoon or are largely scrapped and replaced by independent projects and internships.

Despite the new schools’ unique characteristics, a common recipe for a new mold of high school is emerging. Create small schools with personal environments. Design curricula based on real-world experience. Demand high standards to graduate. And more recently, compress the time frame for earning a high school diploma, or, if students complete a fourth year, mix in college credits and perhaps an associate’s degree.

Research indicates that shrinking school size, and more importantly, the number of students each teacher sees daily, cultivates a climate where students and teachers know and respect one another and leads to better discipline, teaching and learning.

Donald Pittman, chief officer of CPS high school programs, estimates the average neighborhood high school enrolls 1,200 students, more than double the district-defined optimum of 500 students for small high schools. Also, the average high school teacher teaches 150 students a day; however, teachers at some of the newest high schools work daily with as few as 15.

Size alone will not remake high school. Reformers suggest revamping curricula to put students in the driver’s seat, making them solve problems, give presentations and apply what they know in the real world, not just on standardized tests. To tackle the intractable problem of senioritis and better bridge the gap between high school and college, a small but growing group of schools have moved beyond courses offering both high school and college credit, to accelerated programs leading to joint completion of a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

Fixing broken parts fails

So far, CPS’ attempts to improve its high schools by fixing broken parts have not worked. In 1997, the district unveiled a plan to renovate high schools system-wide by raising standards and holding them strictly accountable for student achievement. Over the next several years, test scores improved, but researchers attributed the increase to elementary schools better preparing students for high school. The plan also required high schools to give students more personal attention, but it failed to address school size or course loads.

Meanwhile, high school startups, mostly charters, were experiencing some success. Perspectives and North Lawndale College Prep, both of which opened in the late 1990s, have done a better job than neighborhood high schools in preventing students from dropping out, keeping them on track for graduation and getting them into college.

Since then, the district has embraced more radically innovative strategies for high school. Newcomers such as Big Picture Company, Advantage Academy and Spry’s Community Links are exploring new ways to turn the traditional high school model on its head.

Questions remain, however, about whether small and innovative models can be taken to scale. Hopkins researchers doubt districts have enough money or personnel resources to open lots of small high schools. Also, pioneers such as Big Picture Company have not been around long enough to establish much of a track record.

Reforming high schools, particularly when aiming to close the achievement gap, is a worthy goal, but traditional models will be difficult to shake, warns Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University who has researched the history of high school reform efforts. Traditional high schools, with their comprehensive academic and extracurricular offerings, are tied to cultural images of adolescence. “That’s what keeps comprehensive high schools going,” he says. “Imagine getting rid of sports and the prom.”

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to

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