Saturday, December 15, 2007

Violence at City and West High

December 15, 2007, 7:00 p.m.

What's the Answer to High School Violence?

The Press-Citizen continues this morning (Dec. 15) its reporting of the story of concern over increased levels of violence in our high schools. Lee Hermiston, "Schools discuss how to deal with rising violence; Officials ask why students are fighting, bringing drugs to school," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 15, 2007. Editorial, "Violence in Our Schools Needs to be Stopped," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 13, 2007.

Iowa City's reactions so far are normal and conventional: "What we need are police in the high schools, "zero-tolerance" policies, maybe metal detectors and video cameras in the halls -- but definitely a get-tough attitude."

My view is that such proposals only address symptoms, not underlying causes.

I was going to write a lengthy blog entry on the causes and cures for school violence, and began the Internet research, only to discover from that research, as is occasionally the case, that I'd already written, not only a blog entry, but an earlier op ed column on the subject. Nicholas Johnson, "In School: There Are Alternatives to Calling the Police" in "K-12 Alternatives to Calling Police," July 2, 2007; and Nicholas Johnson, "Smaller Schools Are Better," Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," August 28, 2001, p. 9A (available online here).

So, rather than reconstruct what I've already written (and probably not as well), I'm simply reprinting that blog entry from July 2007 and column from August 2001.

But not before sharing a quote from, and link to, an excellent article my research also uncovered. It reviews the literature regarding the impact of school size upon a whole range of qualities of education (and comes complete with dozens of citations to research and data). This small excerpt from that paper addresses only the relationship of school size to levels of violence:

Vandalism and violence are additional elements of the processes of schools. The level of violence in our schools was a public concern long before the 1998 Columbine High School shootings. A recent report of the Departments of Education and Justice (Kaufman, Chen, Choy, Ruddy, Miller, Fleury, Chandler, Rand, Klaus, & Planty, 2000) portrays the degree to which one can expect to see higher incidences of violence against both students and teachers as school size increases. Michael Klonsky, of the Small Schools Workshop, commented on the findings (2000) on the Workshop'’s national listserve:

According to the study, incidents of violence and crime increase dramatically in schools with 1,000 or more students as compared with those of 300 or less. In urban schools with less than 300 students, for example, 3.9% of the schools reported serious violent incidents compared with 32.9% of schools over 1,000 students. In other words, if we keep building big schools, we are increasing the chance of a Littleton [Columbine’s city]-type incident by nearly 10 times.
Tom Gregory, "School Reform and the No-Man's-Land of High School Size," December 2000, p. 6.

In short, we (school boards in general and Iowa City's in particular) have deliberately chosen to build, and to expand in size, high schools that we knew, or should have known, would be more violent. Now we are beginning to pay the price for those choices.

This became an issue when I was serving as a member of the ICCSD School Board. The Board was proposing a $40 million bond issue (ultimately passed). I tried to impress on all who would but listen the kinds of research and data that Tom Gregory amasses in his paper.

As high schools increase in size, so do absences and numbers of drop outs; alcohol and other drug abuse; graffiti and property damage; bullying, fights and violence; sexual harassment and teen pregnancy. Most studies also support one's intuition that smaller schools produce smarter students -- greater interest in learning and academic achievement as well as higher percentages of students participating in extra-curricular activities.

(The related, so-called "schools within schools" approach, which we're trying at West, tends to be much less effective than separate small schools.)

To me, it was a no-brainer: You need room for more high school students? Don't expand the size of schools that are already too large. Put your money into more, smaller high schools.

But "local control of schools" means that no school district is compelled to apply "best practices" in its schools. And Iowa City followed the lead of the vast majority of the nation's school districts that have ignored the experts' advice regarding the benefits of smaller high schools. The nostalgia of sending one's children to the high school one attended, the self interest of administrators and teachers, coupled with the passion for winning football teams has been too much for most boards (including ours) to overcome.

And so we are left with the two large and conventional high schools we've paid millions to expand (plus our smaller, more successful (by these standards) alternative high school, Tate) -- and a growing concern about the increasing levels of violence that have resulted, though to the surprise of no one who's read the literature.

All that follows, then, is from my earlier blog entry (which included the op ed column on the subject):

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In School: There Are Alternatives to Calling the Police
[July 2, 2007]

"The number of police calls to area schools has increased sharply in recent years, according to the Sixth Judicial District Juvenile Delinquency Annual Statistical Report.

The report, which includes Johnson County, shows that police responded to 563 complaints within the Iowa City School District."
Rob Daniel, "Police calls to schools on the rise; Report: 563 complaints in district," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 2, 2007

The column that follows was published in 2001. My commentary about today's school news, and why I thought of this old column in that connection, follows the column.

Smaller Schools Are Better
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," August 28, 2001, p. 9A
(available online here)

What do these prestigious organizations have in common?

Annenberg Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Center for Collaborative Education, Center for School Change, Gates Foundation, Harvard’s Change Leadership Group, Open Society Institute, Pew Charitable Trusts, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Smaller Learning Communities Program.

Give up?

Each believes smaller is better. Not smaller class sizes. Smaller high schools of 400 to 600 students each.

Many are willing to bet millions of dollars they’re right; $200 million from Gates alone. They have enough data to prove it that, says one, “it seems morally questionable not to act on it.”

In New York’s worst school district, an East Harlem secondary school is one of the city’s best. It graduates 90 percent. And it’s reduced violence without metal detectors. How?

Former Secretary of Education Richard Riley asked top security experts how to improve school safety. Question: Was their top recommendation metal detectors, more police in hallways, or video monitors? Answer: None of the above. It was smaller schools.

I graduated from University High School with 40 classmates in 1952. Then seven percent of high schools had over 1,000 students. Today two-thirds of all high school students attend such schools – including ours.

Smaller schools reduce students’ estrangement. They nurture a sense of belonging. And safety is only one of the benefits.

Smaller schools have better attendance rates, fewer dropouts, more academic achievement and extracurricular participation, more college-bound. Students feel closer bonds with teachers. Teachers with each other.

There are dozens of proposals for improving high schools. Even summaries require something closer to 650 volumes than 650 words. But smaller size is a good beginning.

John Carver says most school boards are incompetent groups of competent people along a continuum from micro-managing at one end to rubber-stamping at the other. All such boards can hope for is to do the wrong things better.

Competent and caring high school teachers confront a comparable dilemma. The system processes 150 students a day along a conveyor belt through their classrooms. They must function with a curriculum and classrooms designed to produce the assembly line workers of a bygone industrial age.

It is not teachers’ fault that, like board members, all they can hope for is to do the wrong things better.

They may be the best source of ideas on how to fix this system, but all the community’s stakeholders must have ownership. And decisions have to come from school boards and administrators.

Our superintendent, Lane Plugge, now chairs Iowa’s Urban Education Network. It’s just stepped up to the plate with a new book-length report titled Redefinition of High School – one of the 650 volumes anyone who cares about these issues ought to read.

The individual authors of its 12 chapters each focus on an issue. Waterloo’s superintendent, Arlis Swartzendruber, cites our school board’s contribution to concepts of board governance. Our own Pam Ehly and Bill Dutton propose “instructional strategies” that if read, understood and implemented would solve many high schools’ problems.

Many chapters note the value of smaller schools.

We’re not about to tear down City and West High and build eight new high schools of 400 each. So how can we gain similar benefits? It’s called “schools within schools.” Four teams of teachers in each. Four “schools” of students with their own portion of a building.

Athletic and music groups continue to draw from all four. Theaters and cafeterias are shared. It’s a best-of-all-possible-worlds win-win. Shared facilities and administration mean lower costs. Smaller schools produce better relationships and climate – and more learning.

Dr. Plugge has thrown an added starter into the board’s consideration of boundaries and educational opportunities: a redefinition, and possible physical redesign, of our high schools.

Architects need to know if clients want a cathedral or a tractor barn. So we’ve begun the process of redefinition.

Now every district stakeholder needs to participate in planning what will, hopefully, include the benefit of smaller schools.

Nicholas Johnson is an Iowa City School Board member. More information is available on his Web site

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The Answer is Blowing in the Cyberspace As the organizations cited in this column have concluded, the data is pretty convincing -- and support one's natural intuition -- that as high school size increases above an optimum (around 650 students) there is an increase in bullying, vandalism, teen pregnancy, graffiti, fights, alcohol and drug abuse, absenteeism and dropouts. It only makes sense.

Is manageable size a cure-all? Of course not. But it stands to reason that where a student is known by name by teachers and classmates alike, where adult mentoring becomes logistically possible, where everyone can participate in student activities (rather than just an athletically or musically gifted elite), that social constraints, rather than the presence of police officers, can be a major factor in controlling behavior.

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I'm a big fan of the Internet. It provides public access to orders of magnitude more material than most towns' public libraries can offer their patrons (in hard copy). It permits much more flexible and through searching than hard copy reference works. And it retrieves the material at orders of magnitude faster speeds.

Are there drawbacks? Of course. We don't do a very good job of training students (or ourselves) in effective Google searching techniques, so Internet research experiences are sometimes more frustrating and less fruitful than they could be. And just as everything in hard copy books needs to be verified and confirmed, so sorting through the Internet's content -- open as it is to submissions by anyone -- requires even greater sophistication by users.

During the three years I served on the local school board I wrote a column every two weeks for the Press-Citizen. The column above is one of them. (Links to the full collection can be found here.) Although I had first hand knowledge as a student in the University of Iowa's experimental schools (University Elementary and University High School in a building now called "North Hall") I never attended a College of Education. So I spent a lot of time surfing the Internet while looking for ideas for the columns.

And what I discovered was a variation on Ralph Nader's observation that, "This country has more problems than it deserves and more solutions than it applies." I finally concluded that, with 15,000 school districts in this country, it was likely that there was no problem confronting any given one of them that had not formerly been confronted by another school district (1) identified, (2) addressed, (3) resolved, and (4) written up and made available on the Internet.

When we were considering the $40 million bond issue I noted that the need for that money and additional buildings (at that time) could have been avoided by applying the concept of "cluster schools" for our elementary schools. (Such an approach would also have eliminated, or radically reduced, the problem of disparity in class size.) Had we followed the recommendations of the National Commission on the High School Senior Year for our high schools we could have instantaneously eliminated all of their "overcrowding" and any need for expansion. I noted at the same time the advantages, if additional high school space was to be created anyway, of building high schools for 650 rather than expanding the populations in the two conventional high schools we had. (Tate was deliberately designed for fewer students.)

[Alas, it appears that the National Commission's report is no longer available online. However, a preliminary report and summary is available: The Lost Opportunity of Senior Year: Finding a Better Way, January 2001.]

With "local control of schools" school administrators, parents and taxpayers have the legal and political right to ignore such advice. If they are willing to pay $40 million for the privilege -- and the result is not otherwise criminal or illegal -- they can do whatever they want with their money. And I support local control of schools -- even when it results in plans and policies more driven by their impact on our competitive athletic teams' records than the entire student body's academic records. That's the stakeholders' right.

But there are consequences to those decisions that go well beyond their financial costs.

And our district's school board and administration now confront many comparable decisions as they are coming into the millions of additional dollars to be provided by our local 20% hike in sales taxes.

Prevention is almost always cheaper and more satisfactory than treatment.

Call the cops if you must.

But it seems to me that once you've let things get to the point that you need an Iraq-like surge of additional police in your school it's already too late. You've already lost that battle.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, lets address the root causes. It is not secret...Its racial. The recruiting of Chicago urban refugees to the area by agencies like the Shelter House is having an effect. Humans are not capable of getting along. As a result, you will see a white flight out of City High in the coming years to either Regina or people leaving the east side of Iowa City for nearby rural districts. We have seen this pattern before.