DANVILLE — You can't blame Victoria Boothe and Jordan Allen for having felt anxious about starting ninth grade at Danville High School back in August.
Both came from small parochial schools. Boothe's eighth-grade class at Danville Lutheran School had 10 students, while Allen's at First Baptist School, which he had attended since kindergarten, had seven.
"I wondered how many people would be in my classes," Allen recalled.
"I worried about getting lost" in the massive, three-story building, Boothe added.
And both worried about possibly getting lost in the crowd of 1,600 or so students and not fitting in.
But so far, that hasn't happened, they reported as they neared the end of the first academic quarter. In fact, they and other classmates said they were surprised at how quickly they adapted to this new environment with more students, new teachers, more rigorous coursework and higher expectations.
They credit the Freshman House program for helping them make a fairly smooth transition from middle school to high school, and school officials credit it with helping more students stay in school and graduate.
The state required Danville High to make fundamental changes after it failed to make adequate yearly progress, the measure that determines whether schools are successfully educating their students under the federal No Child Left Behind law, for five consecutive years.
Local officials acknowledged the traditional educational approach at the school, where the majority of students are low-income and the mobility rate is more than double the state's, wasn't doing enough to engage students, make learning relevant and prepare them to compete in the 21st century.
Restructuring, they said, forced them to really examine all students' needs and revamp the school's organization and culture and implement new, innovative strategies accordingly.
4 houses, 1 school
Freshman House and the three "upper houses" — New Tech High, GLOBAL House and ACE House, all designed to teach students in ways they learn best — became the cornerstone of the restructuring plan, which emphasized rigor, relevance and relationships.
In addition to phasing in the small learning communities, other major components included adding and rearranging staff to make the most of their skills and interests, providing more time for meaningful professional development, adding an extra hour of instruction for freshmen, expanding high school alternative programs and using data to drive instruction.
Officials launched Freshman House in the 2008-09 school year, following the success of a similar program piloted for 100 ninth-graders the year before. The first Freshman House class graduated in May.
Today, Danville High is still an under-performing school, according to the state.
However, officials pointed out that standardized test scores are improving. More students are staying in school and graduating. Other performance measures continue to move steadily in the right direction.
From the 2007-08 school year, before restructuring, to the 2011-12 year:
— Attendance for all students increased from 89.16 percent to 91.7 percent. Of the district's 11 schools, Danville High had the most-improved attendance for four out of nine months last year.
— The number of freshmen earning at least 10 credits by the end of the year, achieving sophomore status, rose from 70 percent to 77 percent.
— The number of seniors graduating increased from 75.3 percent to 81.7 percent.
"Last year, we had the highest graduation rate than we've ever had," Principal Mark Neil said.
According to the school's 2012 report card, the graduation rate was only 70 percent. But the last two years, the state calculated a much lower graduation rate for Danville and every high school in Illinois, Neil said. He added the rates were derived using a new formula that, in Danville's case, counted some students twice. That's because the high school erroneously coded students who had re-entered the school as transfers-in — two different classifications.
"When the state pulled everything from our computers ... instead of showing 80 kids transferring in, they had a figure of almost 280. That lowered our average tremendously," Neil explained, adding Danville's figure is the true one.
— The dropout rate decreased from 8.7 percent, more than twice the state's rate at the time, to 6.3 percent.
Prior to last year, Danville High was one of four large-unit schools in the state to see the drop-out rate decline four consecutive years. It was 8.7 percent in 2007-08, 6.8 percent in 2008-09, 6 percent in 2009-10 and 5.8 percent in 2010-11.
— Suspensions for all students decreased from 1,550 (530 students) to 1,008 (401 students).
And in 2012, 34.6 percent of juniors who took the Prairie State Achievement Exam met or exceeded state reading standards, up from 32.3 percent in 2011. And 35.2 percent of juniors met or exceeded math standards, up from 31.2 percent the previous year.
"I think it indicates that over a four-year span, students are making progress, and there are things going on at Danville High School that are engaging students," Neil said. But he was quick to add, "We're still not where we want to be. We've still got work to do."
First year critical
Freshman House played a big role in improving the numbers, officials said. Initially, the program divided the class — which has averaged 450 students a year over the last five years — into five groups of about 90 students. Since budget cuts eliminated teaching positions a couple of years ago, the program has had to make do with four groups of 100-plus students. Class size has gone from about 20 students to 30.
Still, each group has its own set of teachers for English, mathematics, science and social studies, and those core classes are all on the first floor instead of spread throughout the building. Under that arrangement, students can connect with their teachers and classmates more easily, and staff can identify students who are struggling and intervene more quickly — one of the biggest benefits.
"We've always had teachers who cared and looked out for their students. But this mechanism makes it easier," Neil said, adding teaching teams meet for a period each day to discuss their kids.
If more than one notices a particular student's grades are slipping or he or she isn't doing the work, they call in that student — and sometimes the parents — and address the problem before it's too late, added Assistant Principal Sharon Phillips, the house administrator.
Officials supplemented the new structure by adding a seventh period to the ninth-grade schedule. The school had offered the "early bird" period to all students — and still does — but it had not been mandatory for freshmen until restructuring began.
That gives freshmen another hour of instruction, which they can use to take an extra math or English class if they need help in those subjects, or an elective. It also gives them a chance to earn 12 or 14 credits. They need 10 to earn sophomore status.
In 2007-08, only 70 percent of freshmen earned enough credits to achieve sophomore status, Neil said.
The next year, "we raised that to 84 percent," he said.
Phillips believes those initiatives — along with offering college and career exploration activities and field trips and implementing the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports program, aimed at improving academic and behavior outcomes — is helping to counteract the drop-out problem.
"Research shows that the freshman year is critical," Phillips said. "If they get behind that year, they start the next year already behind. If they think they can't catch up, they'll drop out. We want to show them the benefit of staying in school and the value of having an education."
As a result, upper-house administrators said more students are starting their programs as true sophomores, meaning they aren't behind.
"It makes it easier for us to keep them on track," said Assistant Principal Phil Cox, the ACE House administrator.
Other large schools place their students into smaller learning communities. What's unique about Danville's upper houses for 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders, officials said, is each has its own flavor or focus that matches its' students interests, and teaching style that matches the way students learn best.
Before, "it was everything fits one mold," Neil said.
Part of the national New Tech Network, Danville's New Tech High launched in the 2009-10 school year.
The program uses a project-based learning approach — in which students learn information and skills such as critical-thinking, collaboration and communication by doing rigorous, multi-layered, "real-world" projects — and integrates technology into daily activities. Staff created the culture to be more like a boardroom than a classroom to encourage students to take ownership of their learning. Teachers guide that learning, instead of spoon-feed students information.
This year, students are creating travel guides of South American countries for Watchfire, studying the effects of chemicals and minerals on plants for the University of Washington and teaming up with a documentary film production company to make anti-gang violence materials, among other things.
"What they're learning ties in with the curriculum, but it also ties in with their world. That gives them a deeper understanding of what they're learning, which they can apply to other areas," said Assistant Principal Darin Chambliss, the New Tech administrator.
He added the program is preparing students for jobs, some of which don't even exist now.
"We know they're going to be technology-rich — think Google, Apple — and the ability to have critical-thinking and communication skills is huge," he said.
Going forward, Chambliss believes that it's critical to expand the program to include freshmen. The New-Tech model was designed to be a four-year program. Network officials believe it's better to expose students to the culture and learning model at the beginning of high school, so that they can get it down and then concentrate on the curriculum.
"If you come in as a sophomore, you're behind. And that cheats them out of the opportunity to really run with this," Chambliss said.
Global, creative arts focuses
The school's Global Leadership Outlooks through Business, Action and Learning, or GLOBAL House, and Academy of Creative Experiences, or ACE House, began the same year as New Tech. However, staff and students took that first year to research and design programs, which were fully implemented the next year.
GLOBAL House's mission gives students the tools to thrive in an ever-changing global economy.
Each year, students focus on a global issue, and during each quarter, they study a thematic unit on what's happening locally, in the state, in the country and in the world. Students have learned about renewable energy sources by monitoring the school's solar-panel array and visiting wind-turbine farms in Vermilion County, among other things.
"When they see the relevancy of what they're learning, they're more engaged," said Assistant Principal Rowdy Fatheree, the GLOBAL House administrator.
Another component is the Global Careers and Professionals program, developed in partnership with Vermilion Advantage and Mervis Industries. Fatheree said juniors and seniors have interned with health professionals, manufacturing companies, law enforcement agencies and an aviation company and some have led to students getting hired at companies including Sygma, Thyssen Krupp and Watchfire.
And through the Global Ambassador program, students not only are exploring careers but also using their knowledge and skills to do community projects and gain cultural experiences, among other things.
ACE House uses the Artful Learning program, from the Leonard Bernstein Center, to infuse the arts and creativity into its classes in an effort to stimulate and deepen students' learning experience. The curriculum is organized into major units of study, in which students are exposed to a master work of art, such as "The Nutcracker," that captures their interest and becomes the basis for their own projects.
"This program is geared toward creative kids who learn best by doing," Cox said, adding students move from an inquiry phase requiring research and critical thinking to a creation phase where they turn ideas into their own creation and a reflection phase where they're assessed and reflect on what they've learned.
"It's not about the teacher giving the information, and the students regurgitating it. It's about the student discovering the information and developing critical-thinking skills and problem-solving skills," he said. "The activities are rigorous yet engaging. As a result of that, students are more likely to want to be in class and less likely to act out and more likely to pass their class."
In addition to more student engagement, Cox and other administrators said, teachers are functioning as true professional learning communities and are collaborating more than ever before, not just during professional development and planning times.
"They're out in the hallways between classes, sharing ideas and bouncing ideas off of each other," Cox said, adding that has been key to strengthening instruction.
Fatheree said GLOBAL House increased its community partnerships — an important component of all upper houses — by 20 percent last year. He and Cox said they want to continue building on those to expand student opportunities.
"Our focus has been on mastering the model so we are comfortable with it. Now we want to reach outside of our walls and build partnerships with local community arts groups like Red Mask or Danville Light Opera and explore artist-in-residency programs," Cox said.
More work ahead
Neil believes the school has laid a solid foundation for substantive and sustainable improvement.
"When I look back at all of the changes, it's hard to fathom how much we've done," he said, adding it's been a combined effort from staff, students and the community.
In general, staff, students and parents seem to have embraced the changes. The school's restructuring efforts have drawn the attention of state education officials and leaders from other districts looking to boost achievement. Some staff have received recognition for their accomplishments in their programs, and others are acting as consultants for educators who now are implementing the educational reform models at their schools.
"We've had enough time to get these programs under our belt," Neil said, adding there's still a lot of work that must be done to build on the school's initial success and help all students be successful.
Now the focus is on curriculum, aligning content, instruction and student assessments to the new more rigorous Common Core State Standards that will be used to measure achievement.
"No matter what you do, it still comes down to the instruction in the classroom," he said. "We're right on target with math. Now we're working on integrating writing across the curriculum and a common rubric (grading scale) for that."
It's also imperative to strengthen lateral and vertical articulation to ensure that concepts and skills are consistent across subjects and grade levels, and student learning flows smoothly from one year to the next without any gaps or overlapping, he said.
"We've done that, but it's time to do it again," Neil said, adding the school's leadership team is meeting on that weekly. "You have to make sure you're looking at that constantly. You have new teachers coming in, you have Common Core now. That's going to drive student achievement."
Neil also hopes to reinstate some administrative and teaching positions that were lost during budget cuts. Initially on the chopping block was the school administration manager, who is responsible for building and non-academic issues. Fortunately, he said, that job, now held by Greg Wagers, was reinstated.
"He keeps my focus where it needs to be," said Neil, who spends 70 percent of his day with teachers talking about curriculum and instruction.
But the school has been without a director of secondary education and a data analyst, who collected and analyzed student data for the whole district but focused mainly on the high school.
"We have lots of data, but you have to be able to apply it a functional way," Neil said. "Whether you're dealing with curriculum issues or discipline issues, you want to be data driven."
The houses of Danville High School
Enrollment: 420 ninth-graders
Classes on the first floor.
The house is a small learning community designed to help students successfully transition from middle school to high school. Students are divided into four groups and taught by a team of teachers who work in collaboration to link the lessons of individual courses to make them more relevant. Extra support is provided for students who need academic assistance or face challenging life situations.
New Tech High
Enrollment: 319 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders
Classes on the third floor of 1970s addition/main building.
Mission: Part of the New Tech Network, the house prepares students to excel in an information and collaboration-based technologically advanced society.
It integrates technology education with core academic subjects through team teaching and a project-based learning approach, in which students gain information and 21st century skills by doing multi-layered "real world" projects.
Enrollment: 336 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders
Classes on the second floor, main building.
Mission: The house is dedicated to equipping all students with the tools they need to thrive as world citizens who proudly and responsibly contribute to the global and local community. It emphasizes the value of community service and incorporating real-world applications in all curricular areas.
Each year, the house will use research-based thematic units of instruction to inject the curriculum with purpose and value.
Enrollment: 472 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders
Classes in the tech section.
Mission: Based on a rigorous academic foundation, the house develops critical and imaginative thinking skills through a variety of creative experiences.
The houses uses the Artful Learning educational reform model from the Leonard Bernstein Center, which engages students at a deeper level of inquiry and investigation using all aspects of the arts and the artistic process in daily learning.
Source: Danville High School