Credit: Sarah Garland

BALTIMORE — The ninth graders in Elise Delamatre’s classroom at the City Neighbors High School in northeast Baltimore are sitting in a circle of armchairs, presenting their opinions about the merits of the color blue and Nacho Cheese Doritos.

“Blue is the best color. It’s calming. It’s awesome,” says one girl, standing to address the room.

Other students jump in, arguing in favor of green and Cool Ranch, and the room periodically erupts into shouting and laughter.

If the activity seems a little too silly for high school, that’s by design. The leaders of City Neighbors High School have purposely included some time each day for kids to just be kids. It’s a deliberate break from the daily grind of Biology, English, and Algebra. Students, many living in poverty, can check in with each other and with a teacher who stays with their “pod” (as the school calls each group) from ninth grade until senior year.

The silliness has a purpose: it allows kids to build relationships and take some time to play, says City Neighbors founder Bobbi Macdonald. Those two things are a key part of learning, too, she argues.

“Sometimes people say we’re so loving, but they ask about the academics,” Macdonald said. “We say, ‘Of course! It’s all connected.’”

For anyone who’s spent time in an early childhood classroom, the idea that school should be as much about making friends and having fun as learning the alphabet will sound familiar. The traditional American high school, by contrast, has been compared to a factory, in which kids are treated like products, to be crammed with knowledge (in the most boring way possible) before they’re ejected from the assembly line.

A new generation of reformers has been working to change that system for more than a decade, and many of their ideas are borrowed — knowingly or not — straight from preschool.

“What happens is that the academic pedagogy keeps getting pushed down, down, down and quashing what early childhood development is all about. We said let’s take the best early childhood principles, and push those up,” said Macdonald, who began her education career as a preschool and kindergarten teacher. “That has led us to do a lot of cool stuff, and to really think differently about our building, and our curriculum.”

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“People visit and they’re surprised: they’ll see the kids-designed cafeteria, the kids sitting wherever they want. It doesn’t look like a prison, basically,” she added.

Efforts like these to transform high school are taking off, although hard data on how many high schools have adopted practices that harken back to preschool is difficult to come by. But several trends once relegated mainly to progressive schools or alternative schools for at-risk students are reaching the mainstream and have even been embraced by entire states.

Project-based learning, in which students embark on long research or art projects, science experiments or even writing books, is one of the hottest trends in high school reform. The approach traces its origins to the ideas of Maria Montessori, inventor of the Montessori method used in preschools and elementary schools globally, who encouraged children to do self-directed projects based on their interests.

National networks of schools centered on project-based learning, including the Expeditionary Learning and New Tech public school networks, now include hundreds of schools across the country. The adoption of the Common Core standards led many other schools to try the model, too.

The Reggio Emilia method, devised by educators in a city in Italy, also focuses on connecting learning to the real world and integrating arts into the classroom. Preschools and elementary schools across the U.S have long copied ideas from Reggio Emilia, but now more high schools are copying them, too. Some schools are doing art projects in history, science and even math classrooms, as researchers have found that art helps students become more engaged in their learning and even boosts performance on tests.

Ebone Engram, 11, explains her diorama of the solar system. Photo: Sarah Garland

High schools are also trying to make learning more personalized, so teachers can focus on meeting the needs and engaging the interests of individual students. That’s exactly what preschool teachers using the Montessori, Reggio Emilia and other early childhood models have been doing for decades. States like Rhode Island, Vermont and others are now sponsoring efforts to expand personalized learning, and some major foundations are also pushing the idea.

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Whether the strategies produce better results for students is an open question. Schools vary in how intensely and effectively they implement new models or curriculum, experts say. There’s little definitive research on personalized learning, for example, and although results for project-based learning have been positive in some cases, that research is also limited.

High Tech High in San Diego is a renowned charter school that attracts educators from across the U.S. who attempt to replicate its project-based model. The school wasn’t intentionally designed around early childhood principles, but founder Larry Rosenstock acknowledges the striking resemblance between the methods used at his school and preschool best practices.

“You’re not bouncing around from bell to bell, from subject to subject,” he said in an interview. “Kindergarten is a place that we get it right.”

The idea of making high school more like preschool is not a new one. Deborah Meier, the godmother of the progressive education movement, borrowed from early education ideas when she designed Central Park East High School in 1985. The small “hands-on” and “child-centered” high school on New York City’s Upper East Side sparked many copies and fueled a small schools movement that dominated education reform for a decade.

“Most of my ideas about education were realizing that a good kindergarten education is really the epitome of what good education should look like, kindergarten to age 90,” she said in an interview.

Like Macdonald, Meier began her teaching career as a kindergarten teacher. “Kindergarten was the one place — maybe the last place — where you were expected to know children well, even if they didn’t hand in their homework, finish their Friday tests, or pay attention. Kindergarten teachers know that learning must be personalized, just because kids are idiosyncratic,” Meier wrote in “The Kindergarten Tradition in High School,” which appeared as a chapter in a 1991 compilation of essays on progressive education.

“It is, alas, the last time children are given independence, encouraged to make choices, and allowed to move about on their own steam,” she continued. “The older they get, the less we take into account the importance of their own interests.”

Related: Must a classroom be high-tech to make personalized learning work?

Many high school educators may not realize that some of the latest fads today are borrowed from the early grades, or from Meier’s pioneering work in New York City more than 30 years ago.

But Bobbi Macdonald has modeled City Neighbors, opened in 2010, on the elementary school she founded in Baltimore in 2005, which was designed in the Reggio Emilia tradition.

On a winter morning, fourth graders at the original City Neighbors Charter School, which occupies an annex of a Lutheran church, were scattered around a classroom, some staring into laptops, others constructing giant dioramas. The projects had to be science-related, one student explained. A fourth grader scrolled his laptop, getting ready to fill in a poster labeled “Bats,” another student wielded a Roman sword and shield made out of cardboard; in the center of the room, marked with red X’s, lay the “Cool Facts Box.”

“I can’t wait for middle school, when we get to do a year-long project,” said Ebone Engram, 11, as she gazed happily into a cardboard box she was transforming into a diorama of the solar system.

Later that same day at the high school, which fills an imposing Gothic building a few miles away, 10th graders in Lindsey Winand’s biology class were making clay models of human bodies. Each student had chosen a disease to research. The assignment was to craft a clay model exaggerating the symptoms of their disease — Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, SARS and HPV were among the choices — using Surrealist techniques. Winand encouraged one student to twist the neck of a clay model whose symptoms included a sore throat.

“Remember, your figure shouldn’t look like a normal person because it’s got a disease,” Winand said, looking admiringly over a student’s shoulder. “Oooh! That’s an ugly person.”

“This is my favorite class,” said Kinanna Young, 15, as her teacher strode off to examine another body. “I want to be a doctor when I grow up.”

Sometimes, translating early childhood concepts for older kids doesn’t go well. Emily Kleinman is a senior school design partner at Eskolta School Research and Design, a New York City-based nonprofit that works mostly with middle and high schools. She said a teacher had little luck applying the idea in the classroom when she tried reading a book aloud to her older students, just as she had seen preschool teachers do with picture books.

“The thinking behind it was interesting. Everyone will read, everyone will be involved. But it turned into weeks of struggling through this book so slowly,” Kleinman said.

Kleinman said schools sometimes borrow the wrong things from preschool. At one high school, for instance, she noticed students cutting out geometric shapes to make posters for a “project.”

“It looked cool. But is it what a 14-year-old or 15-year-old should be doing? Probably not,” she said.

The looming end-goals of high school — like passing graduation tests, earning a diploma and applying for post-secondary education — can get in the way of replicating the freer spirit of early childhood.

Even some of the original adopters of project-based learning in high school are not immune from the effects of bureaucratic requirements. Meier said rigid state graduation requirements held teachers back at Central Park East High. The school had trouble after Meier left and has become less progressive in recent years, according to the New York education site and Meier herself.

“The emphasis on getting into college, on credentials is much more powerful, and you have to worry about that for kids and their families in ways you don’t have to so much when they’re younger,” she said. “You have to think about what will the state give you a diploma for. It’s not for their learning.”

Rosenstock, the High Tech High founder, acknowledges that even the freewheeling curriculum at his schools will soon include more test prep. The algebra exam that California public universities administer is a predictor of college success and students with higher scores can earn free tuition. Educators at the school network want their students to take advantage of the opportunity.

“I don’t feel that corrupt for that, because California’s a great deal, and [the test is] a predictor,” he said.

Related: Presentations and portfolios take the place of tests for some students

Sometimes the students themselves can create barriers. A group of sophomore boys bent over a basket-weaving project at City Neighbors made a rare complaint: The school didn’t give enough tests.

“Instead of tests we have to stand up in our class and talk about what we learn,” said Elijah Thomas, 16. “I don’t like all the attention.”

“I don’t like that we do projects in every class,” added Ben Mutombo, 15.

Teachers, though, revel in the freedom. “I feel more supported here,” said Lindsey Winand, the teacher who led the Surrealism-Biology lesson. “If you have the craziest idea, no one’s going to say you’re crazy.”

Macdonald is the first to admit that some early childhood ideas translate better than others, and that getting students used to the new model — especially if they’ve spent earlier grades in more rigid, traditional classrooms — isn’t easy. And sometimes, rote learning is what’s needed to help kids who are behind catch up. City Neighbors students have received low scores on math tests, for instance.

“Is there stuff we could be doing even better? Yes. I don’t think we’re there,” Macdonald said.

The school is doubling up the math time some struggling students receive, and doubling down on its workshop model, in which teachers give a short lesson and then break students up into small groups. They’ll also be administering a new computer math test to track how students are doing.

But Macdonald says she’s seen proof that the more child-focused, preschool-like approach to learning they’ve adopted is working.

The Cool Ranch v. Nacho Cheese Doritos activity was fun, but it also had an academic purpose: helping students get over their fears of public speaking. City Neighbors requires presentations instead of some tests, and inevitably students will have to speak in front of audiences in college and in their careers someday.

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Across campus, a group of seniors discussing the death penalty demonstrated how the subjects covered in the school’s pods become more serious as students grow older. Darius Walker, 18, led off the debate with an argument in support.

“If you kill your problem, you don’t have that problem anymore,” he said.

Others joined his side. “There’s no help that’s going to get a pedophile. You deserve to die for that,” a girl said.

“Nobody deserves the death penalty,” a student interjected as group members began to shout at each other. But they quieted to let a soft-spoken student make a point.

“In some cases, they kill people when they’re innocent. That’s why I’m 50-50. You don’t know,” the boy said.

The conversation continued uninterrupted, even when the group’s pod advisor, Tamara Jolly, had to step away to attend to a student. When she returned, she asked if the group believed someone with an intellectual disability should be put to death. A student brought up “Of Mice and Men,” a book they’d read four years earlier in ninth grade, to argue against the idea.

Afterwards, the students gushed about their school: “It’s welcoming.” “You don’t have to worry about getting bullied.” “It’s a family.” “Our school is the best high school in America.”

Darius, a Baltimore native who loves science and applied for college in Colorado, spoke up again. “All the way from freshman to senior year, I feel like they’re pushing us,” he said. “They’re showing us how things work in the real world.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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