City Charter High's approach proves successful
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When City Charter High School's first class of 93 students graduated in 2006, they had been instructed by the same teachers for four years, a practice known as looping.
At a lunch afterward, Richard Wertheimer, co-founder of the school, heard the teachers say, "If I would have known then what I know now, we could have saved so many more kids."
The numbers of graduates continued in the low 90s until 2010 when that first team had a second crop of graduates, this time 113. The next team followed with 112.
Today at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, 116 are set to graduate.
"This is the power of looping," said Mr. Wertheimer.
Looping is one of the practices City High -- now nearing the end of its 10th year -- will highlight at its first Research in Practice Conference, which begins with a dinner on Tuesday at the school's new home in the former Verizon building on Stanwix Street, Downtown.
The conference will continue Wednesday, when 25 to 30 people from both in-state and out-of-state visit the school to see the practices in action.
In addition to four-year looping, City High is highlighting its one-to-one computing; competency-based staff promotion; cultural literacy curriculum that combines English and social studies; workforce culture that includes internships and a career curriculum; and full inclusion of special education students.
City High has 579 students. The Class of 2011 started with 160 students and ended with 112 graduates. Two of those who left are considered dropouts while the rest transferred out, usually because the family moved or the home situation changed or the student disliked the rigor, dress code or long day.
The school doesn't admit new students after the second trimester of the sophomore year.
The six practices have been followed and documented through independent research.
Independent research consultant Catherine Aswumb Nelson, formerly of Pittsburgh and now of the Los Angeles area, worked on six white papers about the school.
"There are a lot of examples of effective charter elementary and to some extent charter middle schools. There are not a lot of examples of highly successful urban charter high schools," she said.
"I think they [City High] have things to say to the debate nationally about high school reform."
She believes one of the core reasons for their success is the relationships built between students and teachers.
She said the school also works to develop the practices it uses, including using data, rather than switching from practice to practice.
"They're good about not jumping on the latest education bandwagon or doing something just because we can get a grant to do it," she said. "They start with, 'What is our culture?' It's all about does it promote the kind of culture we want, which is really about students taking ownership of their futures."
Ms. Nelson considers the looping to be "the most powerful thing" at the school, but she thinks it's more likely other schools might use City High's competency pay as a model rather than the looping.
She said, "Looping is so different structurally, logistically, from the way high schools are organized now," she said.
Having a math teacher teach a different level of math each year, for example, might generate a "lot of pushback."
When City High first opened in the Clark Building, Downtown, it advertised itself as a high school that provides students with laptop computers.
That remains one of the practices at the school -- students get to keep their laptops after graduation -- but more than eight of 10 faculty and staff surveyed in 2009 considered looping as the practice most central to the school's success, with other votes for technology, student support and the schedule, which is a longer school day and trimesters.
In looping, teachers work as a grade-level team, moving up one grade along with their students and then returning to ninth grade after a group graduates. The teachers on the team make most discipline, management and administrative decisions within their defined physical space, with each team assigned one of the school's four administrators.
The teams talk about how students are doing and keep a list called WATS -- for Walking Across The Stage -- summarizing data on each child to help the teachers keep close tabs on how each student is doing.
The research report on the school's looping states that three aspects of looping are non-negotiable: teaching students, not content; faculty ownership; and working through difficult relationships.
Mr. Wertheimer said there was concern at the beginning about what would happen if a teacher and student don't get along.
"I would come back and say what happens if you don't get along with your boss? The world is a place where you have to learn how to cope, get along, how to communicate, be an advocate, how to seek help," Mr. Wertheimer said.
The report lists among looping's biggest benefits students not falling through the cracks, developing trusting relationships, creating a culture where learning can take place and treating students as individuals.
Mr. Wertheimer said that looping also increases accountability. The math teacher can't just pass a student who doesn't do well along to another math teacher.
"If I'm a math teacher for that child, and I'm a math teacher for four years, I'm on the line," said Mr. Wertheimer.
At the same time, if a teacher isn't good, he said, "It places a huge amount of responsibility on the administration to make sure they get good or to remove them from the school. You can't afford to have an average teacher or below-average teacher with the student for four years."
Over the four years, he said, teachers develop "a deep understanding of what the kid is about, their learning styles, the ways they think, their needs."
First Published June 23, 2012 12:00 am