ERIC Identifier: ED377271
Publication Date: 1994-11-00
Author: Raywid, Mary Anne
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Urban Education New York NY.
Selecting the Focus of a Focus School. ERIC/CUE Digest Number
Schools with a theme and schools targeted for particular students--both
components of the focus school genre--have long been a part of the Nation's
education system. In 1990, this concept of focus schools received a strong boost
from a RAND Corporation study suggesting that special purpose schools would
probably be preferable to comprehensive high school for most students in New
York City (Hill, Foster, & Gendler, 1990). The study calls such schools
"high schools with character"--those that have a clear, coherent commitment to
character, as well as academic development; feature a core of shared learnings;
emphasize the reciprocal responsibilities of the school's students and adults;
and stress achievement.
Lately, a number of school districts, especially in urban areas, have been
establishing focus schools, and a recent study suggests that 44 percent of the
Nation's multi-school districts now have such schools (Steel & Levine,
1994). The ability of the school's focus to both attract students and staff and
provide a framework for an effective education program is key to the success of
such schools. Therefore, this digest discusses the issues involved in selecting
an appropriate focus.
ISSUES OF PRINCIPLE EQUITY ISSUES
Given the national commitment to equity, a school's focus
should not segregate students along racial, ethnic, religious, gender, or
socioeconomic class lines. To wit, schools designed to attract the gifted and
talented, which admit only the ablest or best performing students, have met with
increasing criticism. There are various ways to prevent the exclusion of
disadvantaged and/or low-performing students from focus or theme schools,
however. Minnesota's school choice law prohibits admissions requirements based
on past academic performance or behavior. In Montclair, New Jersey, programs
labelled "gifted and talented" exist, but any family wishing to enroll its
children in them may do so--on the assumption that all children have talents.
Another approach is New York City's, where a quarter of the seats in
semi-selective high schools are saved for students admitted by lottery, even
though they fail to meet admission requirements.
Focus schools designed to serve a particular disadvantaged minority are
sometimes, but not always, considered a different matter. An early alternative
school for Hispanic youngsters, Casa de la Raza in Berkeley, posed problems
related to both the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Appleton,
1973). Schools targeted explicitly for African American males, and excluding all
others, have also been challenged in the courts (Jones, 1991). More recently,
however, the Legacy School for Integrated Studies, one of New York's 34 new
small high schools, seems to have met with no resistance, because, while it
targets African American children and the poor, it does not exclude others.
Schools for marginal students, or programs targeted for dropout prone
youngsters, also raise concerns. One is whether grouping students according to
their alleged deficiencies is a form of tracking, since tracking tends to
segregate and compound the problems of already disadvantaged students (Oakes,
A focus should enhance a school's academic
effectiveness as well as promote equity. Thus, it should attract students and
staff who share an interest in a specific instructional program. Focus school
advocates suggest that student interests and orientations, and family
priorities, may offer far more practical guidance for developing programs and
grouping students than do ability levels.
There is no longer reason to believe that what average, or even poor,
students need instructionally is very different from what the ablest need. For
instance, Resnick (1987) emphasizes that all of learning should be cooperative,
active, contextualized, and concretized--features important for teaching at-risk
students (Wehlage et al., 1989). Moreover, at least some educators specializing
in services for the gifted have noted their similarity to those of the
alternative schools promoted as a model for the restructuring of all schools.
Finally, there is little reason to believe that just because one youngster is as
bright as another that the two hold any interests in common. Thus, shared
interest in either drama, technology, or democratic living may well drive an
effective curriculum for a group of students regardless of their diverse
ISSUES OF ORGANIZATION CURRICULUM
One popular type of focus is a curricular theme. According to
a recent study (Steel & Levine, 1994), 38 percent of the Nation's magnet
programs emphasize course content, with math-science-engineering, computer
science, humanities, and multicultural studies the most frequent choices,
although many secondary school magnets have a career-vocational theme.
A theme must be of sufficient breadth to articulate a full school program:
course content and selection, pedagogy, activities, scheduling, and even school
organization. The more school components the theme can guide and suffuse, the
greater the coherence it will supply. Use of a theme in a magnet school ranges
from simply providing elective courses in the theme area to infusing the entire
educational program with content related to the theme to give it overall
coherence (Blank et al., 1983). Many magnet schools choose the former approach,
but studies critical of the fragmentation of the curriculum suggest that such
schools may not offer much of an advantage (Sizer, 1984).
By contrast, magnet and other schools selecting
a pedagogical or instructional focus may have an advantage with regard to
cohesion, since a particular instructional approach to teaching can more readily
be brought to bear across the curriculum than can a theme based on content.
Some alternative schools, such as City-As-School and Walkabout or Challenge
education, have an instructional orientation. This focus is also receiving
increasing attention in some of the high school programs associated with the
Coalition of Essential Schools. At Central Park East Secondary School in
Manhattan, for instance, the theme is the cultivation of five "Habits of Mind,"
which are five core questions to be posed about all new content introduced
(Henderson & Meier, n.d.). The focus of the Urban Academy, another member of
the Coalition of Essential Schools, is the inquiry method (Raywid, 1994).
While content themes may have greater salience for students, school traits
resulting from instructional foci, such as interesting classes and good
treatment of students, are also valuable. One study of career magnet schools
attributes the differential effects of such programs to the extent to which they
develop, and students pursue, the announced theme (Crain, Heebner, & Si,
1992). John Goodlad, on the other hand, concluded that it is not the curriculum
of a school that determines the way students and even staff respond to it;
instead, response is determined by the way their lives are daily played out
This leads to a third type of focus: an
orientation or worldview. The "free" schools of the '60s, the "open" schools of
the '60s and '70s, and the "traditional" or "fundamental" schools of the '70s
and '80s are representative. These focus schools take a particular approach to
instruction, but also recommend a fairly distinct set of educational goals and
projects a clear character ideal or model, as well as a recognizable outlook on
life and its purpose. Each is likely to attract a like-minded constituency. A
shared set of assumptions and values, and acceptance of the resulting practices,
can bring coherence to the school's program and motivate students to apply
themselves to it.
A theme or focus must possess logical coherence.
Themes constructed on an additive basis to allow pursuit of pet projects cannot
do this. A school with a theme consisting of an arts project, grandparents
reading to youngsters, and field trips reflects a malady identified as "projectitis" (Hill & Bonan, 1991). Because the projects are disparate and
unconnected, the school's overall program does not cohere. It also cannot
attract a group of like-minded school constituents, only an assemblage strongly
interested in one or two items on the projects list.
An effective theme or focus should have transformative power--which is not
always so much a function of the theme's quality as of the seriousness with
which it is taken. This can happen only if the traditional school model is
modified considerably. It is not just a matter of reforming one or two
components, even such central ones as curriculum and/or pedagogy. Restructuring
involves both fundamental and pervasive change in school organization:
redefining rules, roles, relationships, and responsibilities, along with such
structural components as schedules, administrative units, and governance--and,
or course, changes in content and presentation. A school that fulfills the
promise of the focus school concept is also a restructured school or it has
failed to deliver.
Appleton, S. F. (1973). Alternative schools for
minority students: The Constitution, the Civil Rights Act and the Berkeley
experiment. California Law Review, 61(858), 858-1973.
Blank, R. K., Dentler, R., Baltzell, D. C., & Chabotar, K. (1983). Survey
of magnet schools--Final report: Analyzing a model for quality integrated
education. Washington, DC: James H. Lowry & Associates. (ED 236 304)
Crain, R. L., Heebner, A. L., & Si, Y. (1992). The effectiveness of New
York City's career magnet schools: An evaluation of ninth grade performance
using an experimental design. Berkeley: University of California, National
Center for Research in Vocational Education.
Goodlad, J. I. (1983). A place called school: Prospects for the future. New
Grant, G. (1988). The world we created at Hamilton High. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
Henderson, H., & Meier, D. (n.d.). The Senior Institute handbook. New
York: Central Park East Secondary School.
Hill, P. T., Foster, G. E., & Gendler, T. ( 1990). High schools with
character. Santa Monica: RAND. (ED 327 597)
Hill, P. T., & Bonan, J. (1991). Decentralization and accountability in
public education. Santa Monica: RAND. (ED 334 665)
Jones, P. A. (1991, October). Educating black males--Several solutions.
Crisis, 98(8), 12-18.
Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping track. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Raywid, M. A. (1994, Winter). A school that really works: Urban Academy. The
Journal of Negro Education, 63(1), 93-110.
Resnick, L. B. (1987, December). Learning in school and out. Educational
Researcher, 16(9), 13-20.
Sizer, T. R. (1984). Horace's compromise: The dilemma of the American high
school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Steel, L., & Levine, R. H. (1994). Educational innovation in multiracial
contexts: The growth of magnet schools in American education. Washington, DC:
U.S. Department of Education.
Wehlage, G. G., Rutter, R. A., Smith, G. A., Lesko, N., & Fernandez, R.
R. (1989). Reducing the risk: Schools as communities of support. Philadelphia:
This digest is based on a monograph, Focus Schools: A Genre to Consider, by
Mary Anne Raywid, published by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education.