Sept. 26, 1996

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    Roderick on school reform

    In 1975, Melissa Roderick was among a group of five close friends entering their first year of high school with the eagerness, fear and excitement of most freshmen. But come graduation, Roderick was the only one with any remaining enthusiasm for school -- and the only one with a diploma in her hands. The four others had become high school dropouts.

    The experience of watching her friends give up on high school helped determine the course of Roderick's academic research. Now Assistant Professor in the School of Social Service Administration, Roderick has focused her research on learning why it is that high school freshmen fail at alarming rates and why so many teens never make it to graduation.

    Roderick has studied course-failure rates for the 27,000 ninth-graders who entered Chicago public high schools in 1992, and she is currently working on the ongoing Student Life in High Schools Project, in which researchers are following the progress of individual students in Chicago public schools. A report on her research was published this summer.

    That report has been a catalyst for a major restructuring of Chicago high schools and is providing a basis for the new school administration's current 18-month effort to plan a redesign and restructuring of high schools.

    "Kids are coming into high school with a strong desire to succeed, and they are failing," Roderick said. "It's not that they, their parents or their teachers don't care, it's that students are thrown into chaotic environments that are much larger than their eighth-grade environments. They are given too much independence and are expected to meet increased academic demands without the day-to-day follow-up and support they need to succeed.

    "Once they start failing, adolescents cannot recover by themselves. The real failure of high schools is that when 14-year-olds start to mess up -- and they will mess up -- our high schools are not organized to provide the help they need."

    While it has been known for years that about 50 percent of students in urban high schools drop out of school, what hasn't been known is why they drop out.

    "The transition to and early years of high school are a critical period for adolescents," Roderick said. "As students enter high school they face an array of new academic and social challenges. Being successful in high school means that students must learn to cope with increased independence, make many important decisions and realize when they need help. In their classes, students must gain the critical thinking, writing, math and communication skills that will lay the basis for later success in high school and beyond -- skills that are increasingly important for all of our students in today's economy.

    "This transition is particularly difficult in Chicago, where students on average experience a more than 500 percent increase in the size of their class when they move from eighth to ninth grade, making this transition perhaps the most dramatic and stressful in the nation."

    Roderick's research shows that urban high schools are organized for failure and that it is the structure and schedule of high schools that result in the phenomenal number of dropouts. The results of her research suggest ways these seemingly insurmountable problems can be solved -- without huge cost.

    "Students beginning high school are precisely at a time when they most need increases in academic challenge and support. Yet students entering Chicago public high schools experience a withdrawal of these conditions and of the kinds of school and learning climates that have been proven to be essential for achievement and engagement to occur," Roderick said.

    "Compared with the way eighth-graders portray their teachers, Chicago 10th-graders describe teachers as less supportive, less available for help and having lower academic expectations. The result is a litany of failure."

    As early as the first semester of freshman year, four months into high school, 40 percent of Chicago's ninth-graders are failing a major subject (English, science, history or math); 25 percent -- one in four -- are failing two or more.

    "Without support or guidance, once students encounter problems, few are able to improve or recover," Roderick said. "And the problem is not limited to one group of students or one particular time. Even students who enter high school with good math and reading skills and those who attend school regularly face a one in three chance of failing a major subject in the first semester of ninth grade."

    What can dramatically improve the high school experience for ninth-graders, Roderick said, is to use strategies that include:

    _ Creating smaller "schools within a school," ensuring that students attend classes within a smaller group of students and come into contact with certain teachers more than once a day.

    _ Creating advisory groups that provide a consistent home base for small groups of students.

    _ Changing school schedules from 50-minute blocks of time to longer, possibly variable class periods that allow appropriate time to be spent on each subject.

    _ Providing a more focused curriculum on a core set of academic subjects.

    Urban school districts around the nation are facing the same problem structures and the same rates of failure as Chicago schools, Roderick said. The detailed analysis of Chicago's schools provides insight into what's happening in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, Miami and other urban school districts.

    "The numbers of teens who fail and drop out of urban high schools are daunting, and they are particularly important in light of what we know about how critical these early years of high school are for students' futures," Roderick said. "They are particularly important because course failure is just the tip of the iceberg in how our high schools are failing our students.

    "And they are particularly important," she added, "because we know that through changing how we structure, manage and design high school environments and curricula, we can address and begin to fix this problem."

    -- Catherine Behan