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A struggling school finds reason for hope

By forming community partnerships, Hope High School in Rhode Island and other struggling public schools are showing signs of improvement.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 31, 2007

Providence, R.I.

Paul Sproll tells future art teachers that "learning is often about the quality of the invitation." And if any place needed to give students a more enticing invitation, it was Hope High School. It's just a 10-minute walk from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where Professor Sproll heads the Art and Design Education department.

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The towering brick high school is still trying to shake the moniker "Hopeless" after years of poor performance. Now it's in the early stages of what observers say is a dramatic turnaround, and its college neighbors are key partners. The relationship between RISD and the Hope Arts Community (one of three smaller schools formed inside Hope under a state mandate in 2003) is one example of the commitment it takes for "community partnership" to mean more than just decorative trim.

Educators and policymakers across the country are increasingly turning to partnerships to try to engage high-schoolers more effectively. Local businesses, universities, and nonprofits provide mentors for students, as well as expertise to help schools create a more up-to-date curriculum. "The opportunity to show students how the academic material is applied in the real world is incredibly important," says Betsy Brand, director of the American Youth Policy Forum, a nonprofit in Washington.

Little by little, Hope students are partaking of the feast of opportunity now before them. School attendance, test scores, and participation in after-school programs are going up. Art students arewinning competitions and college scholarships. And according to what one teacher overheard in the halls, the teens reassure each other that "This is a good school now!"

"We actually aligned our schoolwide expectations and goals to a vision of a high-performing arts school," says Hope High School Arts Community Principal Scott Sutherland. He came on board in 2005, when three new principals were assigned to Hope because the state hadn't seen sufficient progress. He was only too happy to agree when Sproll offered to use his sabbatical year to help at the school.

Devoting about 20 hours a week, Sproll met with teachers to design a visual arts curriculum aligned with national standards. This year it's being implemented, with each teacher creating unique lessons around common, quarterly themes – ranging from "growth" and "identity" in ninth grade to "power" and "spirituality" in 12th.

Each art teacher has a white binder in his or her classroom containing the curriculum outline and a map – a colorful display of concentric circles showing how the themes overlap with art skills and other elements students are expected to demonstrate, such as invention, communication, and reflection. The new curriculum has been "one of the best things that has happened in the past year," says Valerie Kline, the lead visual arts teacher. She makes it available, and "students look in the binder to see evidence of proficiency." At times they're surprised and proud to see that she's chosen their work to display there.

Alexis Firsty, a first-year teacher at Hope and a graduate of RISD, says she loves the curriculum because "it always starts with a concept and a theme. The kids see we're not just learning a skill; we're learning something more meaningful."