As part of a new series examining whether smaller schools are better schools, Betty Ann Bowser looks at an experiment in Denver.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: By almost any measurement Manual High School is at rock bottom. It has the worst test schools in the Denver public school system. A third of the kids have difficulty speaking, reading or writing English, and just 67% actually graduate. Even the students themselves seem troubled by the school's reputation. This ninth grader said she almost didn't come to Manuel because of what her middle school teacher said.
STUDENT: She told me that it would be better for me to go to another school. So why would she say something like that?
SPOKESMAN: Well, let me tell you something. We do not do well on standardized tests as a school. We do not succeed. And, in fact we'll fail for the state standards, but that's not because of you students who are here now. But unfortunately, we have a lot of students on our class roll that don't take the test, and they get a zero.
SPOKESPERSON: Where's your ID?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Over the years, Manual's administration has tried a number of things to turn the school around, but so far nothing has worked.
SPOKESMAN: We're breaking it down into three schools to make your education more personal.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: This fall, they're trying something drastic. Instead of having the 1,200 students all in one school, manual has been turned into three smaller schools. Ninth-grade English teacher Mario Giardiello explained it to his students on the first day of school.
MARIO GIARDIELLO: That's what this whole reform is about -- a personalized education, so you guys feel more comfortable being students here and succeeding here. And we're going to make sure no one falls through the cracks. When you're smaller, you're better, because nobody can just sit in the back corner and kind of drift away and be invisible.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Most of the money to create these smaller schools came from a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It provides $600,000 over the next five years. The transformation began over the summer, when each of the school's three floors was turned into a separate school.
SPOKESPERSON: One has been a principal, or is currently a principal?
SPOKESMAN: This one.
SPOKESPERSON: That one.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The faculty of each school pored over resumes looking for the right principal.
SPOKESPERSON: Hopefully it's with all of you guys' blessing.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: One for the leadership and business school...
SPOKESMAN: Buenas Dias. Good morning.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: ...One for the arts and cultural studies school, which also houses the English acquisition program...
SPOKESMAN: Bring technology or medicine into it, because that's the theme of the school.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: ...And one for the science and technology school. Each of the schools teach a basic core curriculum, but with special emphasis on leadership, science, or the arts. A fourth principal was hired to manage the building operations and logistics for sports and other after-school activities, which were not divided.
SPOKESMAN: Good job.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Nancy Sutton has been principal of Manuel for the last five years. Splitting into smaller schools was her idea, and she is now in charge of directing the reform effort.
NANCY SUTTON: If ever there was a compelling reason why, you know, a principal would want to get into this, it's because you stand back and you say, "I'm not providing the leadership that I need to provide for my teachers."
BETTY ANN BOWSER: She said she used to spend too much of her time on operational matters. Now she says principals can focus on teachers and students.
NANCY SUTTON: You have this intense personalization, so you know what every student can do, can't do, will do, won't do, what the family issues are. You have this trust built up, and you can really, I think, make a difference in the life of, you know, a group of students.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In each of the schools, ninth- and tenth-grade instructors work in groups of four-- one each for English, math, science, and social studies.
SPOKESPERSON: Let's say I'm working on percentages, so, like, in geography, you might say, what percentage of the population of this country is...
SPOKESMAN: Yeah, exactly.
SPOKESPERSON: Do this, and then I'd work that, you know, we could do... I think there's a nice cross.
SPOKESPERSON: So they don't get hit with it every period.
SPOKESPERSON: You're in the right spot. Come in.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The four-person teams have just over 100 students, and they stay with them for their freshman and sophomore years.
SPOKESPERSON: Hey! I got you again, huh?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Math teacher Kerrie Schultz teaches in the arts and cultural studies school.
KERRIE SCHULTZ: I'm really feeling a lot more support this year than I have in the past; that, you know, there's teachers that have the same kids, that they're all on the same floor, so if I'm having a problem with a kid, they're easy to access. I don't have to chase them up and down floors.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: How is this going to improve your kids' ability to learn?
KERRIE SCHULTZ: In some classes already, I know, like, there have been teams of teachers that have met and talked about every single kid and what's going on with them already, and this is only a week and a half into school. And that's usually something that, if we were lucky, would be happening in December, you know, four months from now.
KERRIE SCHULTZ: Isaac, are you liking classes in English? Sort of? Kind of?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: This is the second year Shultz has taught sophomore Isaac Gonzalez. Last year he took his classes in Spanish. This year they're all in English.
KERRIE SCHULTZ: Homework.
STUDENT: I have only three --
KERRIE SCHULTZ: You have what?
STUDENT: Only three equations.
KERRIE SCHULTZ: Why do you only have three equations?
STUDENT: Because it's hard.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: She hopes the fact that he already knows and trusts her will make him want to continue to work hard at math and at his language skills.
KERRIE SCHULTZ: Okay, so you're going to come visit me after school today?
KERRIE SCHULTZ: Okay. Promise?
KERRIE SCHULTZ: Okay, after school.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Giardiello, who teaches in the science school, also thinks the smaller size will help him keep his kind engaged. Here, the class discussing the plot and themes of the movie "Titanic."
SPOKESMAN: I don't know. What's the moral?
SPOKESMAN: What's the moral?
STUDENT: Don't pull the plug, because then you die.
STUDENT: That the person who loved "Titanic" died, except for the girl. Romeo and Juliet died - both of them.
TEACHER: You've got to believe in love, don't you?
STUDENT: I don believe in love.
TEACHER: The movie shows us that even though bad things happen...
STUDENT: I'll never fall in love cause I'm afraid that I'll die.
TEACHER: All right, is there anybody here who believes in love?
MARIO GIARDIELLO: Really? We still have some people who have not been tainted. Good. I think a lot of our students today, you know, if they don't feel like you care, they're not going to work for you. I don't know how many times we used to hear, you know, "I don't like that teacher, so I'm not going to do their homework," which is a really immature idea, of course, but it's a reality. Our kids have to know that we care about them in order for them to care.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Shultz and Giardiello both began their teaching careers at Manuel four years ago, when the reform effort was just starting to be discussed.
MARIO GIARDIELLO: Okay, come get one now. Alan?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: They were excited by the prospect, but not all of the teachers were. About a third of its veteran teachers left because of the proposed reforms.
TEACHER: Who would like to read? Luis, you want to try it?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Special education teacher Stacey Blanas-May has been at Manuel for 16 years. She chose to stay, and is in the leadership school, but she does have some concerns.
STACEY BLANAS-MAY: When you upset the balance, and there are all these novice teachers-- who are fabulous and wonderful-- and very few veterans, it's difficult. It makes things a lot harder. There are things that you know that you've learned when you've taught a long time. It doesn't make you better; it makes you experienced.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And it has been her experience that too many times, reform efforts come and go like fashion trends, with no real commitment to make them work.
STACEY BLANAS-MAY: Oftentimes we've tried many things, and we've never had the opportunity to see it, you know, grow, change, fail, or succeed. And so, I think that our best chance to really evaluate is to give it some time.
MARIO GIARDIELLO: Good job today, guys.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But they won't have much time. The state of Colorado has said that if Manuel does not raise test scores by 25% over the next three years, the three schools will be shut down.
MARIO GIARDIELLO: This is part of the problem with our reform, is that we're feeling a little schizophrenic. Are we a school of personalization, or are we a school of test takers? And I think there has to be a really firm distinction between raising our scores up 25% and developing and nurturing lifelong learners, curiosity in our students. All the focus on the tests worries me. And in fact, the schools that are improving by 25% in three years, I'm suspect of those schools. I mean, what are those teachers doing? Are they only teaching for the test?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Marcia Pointer, the principal of the leadership and business school, says she doesn't worry about that.
MARCIA POINTER: Everybody has to produce. If you're in private industry, you have to produce, or your business goes out of business, you know? And we just have to produce. That's just the bottom line. And if the test scores are what we're going to be judged on, then we have to do a better job on the test, you know? And I'm not saying teach to the test, but we need to improve our kids' test-taking abilities.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sutton agrees.
NANCY SUTTON: I think if we have really important work that the students are doing, that we address that around the standards; that the tests are going to have to take care of themselves. It's the best we can do. It's the best we can do.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Students at the three schools will take a series of tests all year so that teachers can track their progress.
JIM LEHRER: And Betty Ann will have updates on Manuel High School throughout this academic year.