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New American High Schools Make the Grade

Whether a comprehensive high school, a magnet school, a small pilot school, or a restructured vocational-technical school -- the Department of Education's 30 "New American High Schools" have been transformed by research-based reform strategies. This week in Education World, Bob Kemmery and Sandra Foster -- administrators from two of the newest New American High Schools -- share their views about the keys to high school reform success. Included: Ten New American High School Reform Strategies, with online resources to help educators put those reforms to work for their own students.

Back in 1991, when Bob Kemmery was appointed principal at Eastern Technical High School, the program provided hands-on vocational training but little academic preparation. Less than 1 percent of graduating seniors met the University of Maryland course requirement standards. Only eight students in the 1992 graduating class took the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs). "The world had changed, and the school was still producing students for a 1970 economy," Kemmery told Education World. "We knew we had a lot of work to do."

Clearly that work has paid big dividends! In 1999, 77 percent of graduating seniors met the University of Maryland course requirement standards, and 52 percent went on to postsecondary education! The school boasts a 96.8 percent attendance rate and is one of only two schools in the state's 220 to receive a Maryland School Report Card student-performance rating of "excellent" in all areas.

Another honor came Eastern Technical's way in 1999. The school was selected by the U.S. Department of Education as one of 13 new New American High Schools! Since 1996, the New American High School (NAHS) Initiative has identified 30 schools nationwide that set the standard for excellence in high school reform. The backdrop to the NAHS initiative is the new global economy and a rapidly changing workplace that demands technical, analytical, and leadership skills of its workers. Center stage in America's New American High Schools are students who graduate from high school prepared for the challenges of the 21st century.

"Schools identified by NAHS run the gamut from schools that have at-risk populations to schools that are more elite," according to Ivonne Jaime, NAHS research team leader. The unifying goal of NAHS schools is "to ensure that at no matter what level a student enters high school, [he or she] leaves with the skills necessary to enter a postsecondary institution and with exposure to different career choices and options," Jaime told Education World.

The New American High Schools initiative is so important because it proves to students that they can be successful, Kemmery told Education World. "There is such a sense of pride for our inner-city Baltimore community," he added. "We have worked together to accomplish something special, and NAHS just ratcheted us up to another level."



How did Eastern Technical transform itself from a poorly performing vocational school to a technical magnet school of national and international acclaim? "To be perfectly frank," confided Kemmery, "our programs are not unique. We have just been borrowing good ideas from all over the country."

One resource Kemmery turned to was a Carnegie Foundation/National Association of Secondary School Principals study, Breaking Ranks. Kemmery purchased copies for his entire staff. "I said, 'read this, let's talk about it. This stuff makes sense. Let's do it'," Kemmery told Education World.

Early on, Kemmery met with community business leaders and postsecondary educators. "We worked with a facilitator to find out what are the academic, technical, and communication skill sets people need to be successful," Kemmery explained. Eastern's programs were reorganized around ten career majors, including engineering, allied health, information technology, culinary arts and restaurant management, and law-related careers. Technology and rigorous academic standards were integrated throughout the curriculum.

"The beauty is that students see a connection between what they are doing and their career goal or dream," Kemmery told Education World.

"If you are going to innovate change to advantage your students, you are going to need leverage and a power base," Kemmery said. "You need to come in with people who have credibility and substance in your community." To this end, Kemmery advises principals to become active in their local chambers of commerce. "We have the best business partnership in the nation," Kemmery told Education World. Eastern's business partners provide valuable technical assistance in the form of gifts, grants, in-kind contributions, and training to students, teachers, and administrators.

"Our students do a research project and deliver a multimedia presentation to business people, family, and friends that is evaluated by Bell Atlantic managers. Our business partners come in here and give presentations on communications to our teachers and students. That contact through our chamber of commerce is critically important," said Kemmery. "We are not just preparing students for an entry level job. We are building capacity so students can shift with a shifting job market, transition into other areas, and move forward."



"The New American High Schools designation was a tremendous shot in the arm," says Niceville High School vice principal Sandra Foster. "It gives the students such pride in their accomplishments, and I can't exaggerate how much that means. When someone says, 'look, you are doing a great job,' well, that's worth it's weight in gold."

Overall reform began in this Florida comprehensive high school in 1992, but "we are in a constant state of action here," said Foster. "We are not afraid to take risks." All reform relates back to Niceville's simple and straightforward philosophy to "educate all students." With average combined scores on the SAT and ACT consistently above state and national averages, 80 percent college enrollment, and a 1 percent dropout rate, Niceville provides students with a high-quality education.

"One of the best reforms we have instituted is our Student Opportunity for Advisory Resource (SOAR) program," Foster told Education World. In the SOAR program, each student is assigned to a trained academic adviser who monitors the student's academic program in twice weekly meetings over the student's entire high school experience. "The teacher knows the student well," said Foster. "If [his or her] grades fall, the SOAR adviser is right there saying, 'what do we need to do?'

"I think the fact that we have such a comprehensive curriculum that allows each student to develop [an] individual course of study is one of the major reasons we were selected to be a New American High School," added Foster.

"Our reform effort has not been geared to one particular area," Foster told Education World. An important component of Niceville's efforts involved raising expectations and requirements over the whole curriculum. "Although many schools became magnet schools, or schools-within-a-school for specific career fields, we didn't do that," Foster explained. "We offer every program in the book from regular classes to advanced placement classes. We are also an international baccalaureate school, and we have an international middle years program in conjunction with a middle school in our area."

Niceville enjoys cooperative relationships with its feeder schools, sending guidance counselors into the middle schools and running workshops on career planning, curriculum planning, and even college financial aid planning for eighth-grade students and parents.

Going to a modified block schedule, creating school-to-work opportunities and career exposure programs, integrating technology across the curriculum, and forming articulation agreements with the local community college have also contributed to Niceville's exemplary ability to educate all students in a comprehensive yet individualized program of study. "We plan to access the technical assistance available to us through NAHS to get started on some new things," added Foster. "We are getting to share ideas with other schools, and that has been tremendous."



NAHS is currently working with more than 70 schools that want to become New American High Schools, through three reform networks -- Jobs for the Future, the Southern Regional Education Board, and Sonoma State University. NAHS is also a special emphasis area of the Blue Ribbon Secondary Schools competition.

"If you look across the programs of the 30 New American High Schools already identified, the reform efforts are similar," Ivonne Jaime told Education World. NAHS has identified ten key high school reform strategies that are helping transform schools:

  • Raise academic standards and expectations.
  • Create small learning environments.
  • Structure learning around careers and students' interests.
  • Promote student achievement by enhancing educators' professional development.
  • Link students' out-of-school learning experience to classroom learning.
  • Provide counseling to encourage in-depth college and career awareness.
  • Reorganize the school day into flexible, relevant segments.
  • Assess students' progress by what they are capable of doing.
  • Forge partnerships with two- and four-year postsecondary institutions.
  • Forge active student support alliances involving educators, employers, parents, and communities.

Schools are using those strategies as well as those from Breaking Ranks and other reform efforts such as School-to-Work and the Blue Ribbon Schools competition.

How can interested schools that are not part of the three reform networks get started? Jaime recommends four resources that include both external and internal views of just how these strategies look:

  • The research overview, Key High School Reform Strategies, gives interested schools an informed point of reference, a research-based foundation for why they would want to institute the NAHS reforms.
  • Aiming High, a new NAHS publication coming online at their Web site in February, looks at how the original ten showcase sites implemented those strategies.
  • The NAHS Web site's virtual tour is an excellent visual reference for how many of those strategies look in the classroom.
  • In Their Own Words is another NAHS publication that is due online in February. That resource includes the advice, opinions, and high school reform experiences of students and educators from the original ten NAHS showcase sites.


Both Bob Kemmery and Sandra Foster emphasize the importance of developing a big-picture view of where a school is headed and investing time and resources in quality staff development. "I think the most important thing to do is have a vision for your school," Foster told Education World. "You have to have input from your stakeholders and decide where you are going. Then you have to break that down into the 'how do we get there' components. Select an area that you want to work on first, because you need to see successes. That will get the ball rolling."

"Our vision drives everything we do at the school," agreed Kemmery. "As a new principal, I'd get together a good leadership team and pick one or two hands-on ideas that will make a significant difference for students. Devote the resources and time for staff development, and get a couple of wins. After that you can just keep building on to what needs to be done."


  • Project Seeks to Link Academics and the Real World This Education Week article is about Changing the Subject: the New Urban High School Project, a Rhode Island-based reform effort that has grown out of the New American High Schools initiative. A $2 million dollar federal contract will be used to support exemplary schools in their efforts to integrate academic and vocational learning.
  • Seven Schools Recognized as 'New American High Schools' According to this press release, "Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education Patricia McNeil today honored seven high schools from around the country as 'New American High Schools,' as part of the 1998 Blue Ribbon Schools ceremony." The release includes a listing of the 1998 NAHS winners.

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Article by Leslie Bulion
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