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

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.

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.

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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."

Her ninth-graders are busy creating small books about how they've grown. Student Kevin Bailey's book is based on a tree, and he gives a rapid-fire explanation: "When I was a kid, I was like a seed.... When I was 5, 6, and 7, stuff got complicated; that's why the branches are all mixed up.... Then, when I grew up, someone passed away that was very important to me, and that's the crow right there." He points out two other crows, two more deaths, and then continues: "The egg represents when my little brother was born.... The leaves represent the stuff that's actually starting to come out – like now I'm starting to do good, so now I'm starting to spring out."

"I can confidently say I have connected with each of [my students]," says Amy Weigand, another graduate of the RISD master's program who teaches at Hope. "Because of the nature of art being a lot about who they are, what they think about things, they do get a little bit deeper."

In a class taught by veteran teacher Laura Travis, students spend time regularly at the RISD Museum of Art. For a recent "real world" assignment, they had to study patterns in historic furniture and design something for pretend interior-design clients. Every art assignment at the school has some type of writing component. And because Hope classes meet every other day for 90 minutes, there's time for in-depth projects.

A grant for laptop computers

Another "hook" is technology. Much of the Arts school suffers a computer shortage, but Ms. Weigand's students have access to laptops loaded with multi­media software, thanks to a grant she was awarded. (With little budget for facilities or supplies, she also painted her scuffed-up classroom and installed large wall-boards to display student work.)

The latest project is for her students to create a short digital story about themselves, blending audio and visuals. Miranda Wall, one of many student teachers from RISD who have spent time at Hope, worked with each student to bring out key details for a compelling script. Juan Carlos de la Cruz's story is about what drawing means to him, particularly his self-portrait at his grandfather's funeral. "It's weird," his recorded voice says, "because I only get inspired by sadness or other strong feelings – probably because drawing is my way to escape from reality, but if I am actually happy, why would I want to escape from reality?"

When Juan Carlos arrives a few minutes later, he is actually happy. "I really like this project a lot," he says, "because I think it's a way to ... explain some things about my artwork.... I just feel it's a reminder of, like, who I am, what I want to do, and who I want to be."

Video editing is an exciting new skill for him, something he's also been working on at an after-school class at RISD. A senior who arrived from the Dominican Republic just two years ago, Juan Carlos plans to attend nearby Rhode Island College.

He and his classmates at RISD's after-school programs get individual attention as they develop their portfolios and navigate college applications and aid forms. Mara O'Day, RISD's after-school arts coordinator, recalls one student saying, "I keep coming back because nobody just says my work is great; they say, 'You can push this.' "

"If I never came to this program, I basically would be confused and lost," says Owen Andrade, a Hope senior who's been coming here after school for four years. Now he's taking a film class and thinking about a career making movies or teaching. He was accepted at the School of Visual Arts in New York, but for financial reasons will attend the Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Mass.

RISD awards a number of scholarships to Providence high-schoolers as well, both to its precollege summer program and for undergraduate degrees.

Hope's partnerships with colleges also afford ample opportunities for professional development. "I really had to take a step back and think about how I could incorporate more art into history," says social studies teacher Jonathan Mendelsohn, who took a workshop at RISD last summer. Recently, he and a student teacher from Rhode Island College transformed his classroom at Hope Arts into a mock museum to teach about Realism, Romanticism, and Impressionism.

Principal Sutherland wants to engage the whole staff in more cross-curricular development, something encouraged by the state official appointed to monitor progress at Hope.

Another of Sutherland's goals is that the school will move toward digital portfolios for each student. Starting with the class of 2008, demonstrating proficiency in all subjects with a portfolio of work will be one requirement for earning a high school diploma in Providence.

Students have already begun creating portfolios, but a small company called Digication is offering free software that makes it easier to create class websites and share artwork and commentary online. Created by two RISD professors and in use at a growing number of schools nationwide, its full interactive potential has yet to be tapped at Hope, largely because of the computer shortage.

Many factors have led to improvements at Hope High in the past two years. The state monitor has ensured a more orderly environment where student fights were once commonplace. The smaller schools and an "advisory system" for students to meet daily with a staff member have meant more personal connections and guidance.

After decades of being unaccredited, the school recently became one of just two high schools in Providence accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

'Two way' engagement is significant

The state report on progress at the school credits community partners like RISD, Johnson & Wales, and Brown University with helping to design courses and give students access to a wide range of "real world" opportunities. "It is the 'two way' nature of these arrangements that make them meaningful and sustainable," says the report from the Rhode Island Department of Education.

For Sproll, the two-way aspect of the partnership with Hope has meant he and his master's students have access to a laboratory of real learning. RISD has long placed student teachers at Hope and offered after-school programs, but now the depth of the ties between the two schools means more projects with real potential to improve learning.

Hope still needs to improve upon attendance, says Weigand. Her art majors tend to show up for class consistently, but some students for whom the classes are electives aren't as committed. "It's really hard to teach a kid who only comes every two weeks for a day." Attendance at Hope is about 86 percent, up from 76 percent before Sutherland arrived.

Improving test scores is also a slow prospect. Last year, 31 percent of Hope Arts students scored proficient in English language arts; 11 percent in math. This year's scores aren't out. But the staff, and Sproll, expect the changes at the school to trans­late into better academic performance. "The quality of their thinking [is] really insightful," Sproll says, remarking on the art and writing projects. "The [math and reading test] scores aren't where they need to be, but those don't represent where these young people are."

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