Schools considering high school academies

Concept splits teens by career interests, backs early decisions

March 03, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

A new brand of high school education -- one that splices buildings into academies and pushes students to make early career decisions -- could begin in Carroll County as soon as next year.

Since November, a committee of Carroll parents and administrators has been studying a design in place at about 100 schools nationwide. In such schools, students are divided into separate campuses within their building, based on their career interests, and learn from the same coterie of teachers over a period of years.

The committee is looking closely at, among other variants of the design, a model created by James Mc- Partland, director of the Center for Social Organization of Schools at the Johns Hopkins University, and first implemented five years ago at Patterson High in Baltimore. The model was envisioned as a way to resuscitate struggling high schools in the inner cities.

The approach has two goals: to make students feel less anonymous in large high schools, and to give students career goals early so that they understand the importance of their classes.

McPartland said many high schools today "are too big and too impersonal and they don't give kids focus." Westminster High has about 2,250 students this year and Liberty High has about 1,670. Patterson had about 2,000 students when the academy design was put in place.

"Kids don't feel anyone knows them well or understands their interests" in such atmospheres, said McPartland.

Ideally, he said, students should receive personal attention from teachers and plan how their classes will help them toward a chosen career.

"I know why I'm going to high school. I want to get there every day. They give me something I've chosen, something I need," McPartland added.

The academy approach could be tried at Century High in South Carroll when it opens next fall, said Gregory Eckles, Carroll's director of secondary schools.

If successful, the plan would be used at Westminster's second high school, expected to open in 2002, then expanded to other schools in the county in future years.

Eckles said the blueprints for Century and the new high school in Westminster call for designs that make it easy to divide the school into distinct sections.

Eckles stressed, however, that if the idea goes out of favor, those designs do not prohibit returning to a more traditional style.

"Things are going to change radically," Eckles said. "And any of these areas could change. We designed for flexibility."

The committee in Carroll is expected to make recommendations for how extensively to implement reforms this spring. If recommendations are to move forward, another committee would be created to discuss how to tailor the design for Century High and have it in place by next year.

Schools in cities such as Cleveland, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Detroit have fully divided into academies, based on Mc- Partland's model.

Other schools around Maryland and across the country are experimenting with one academy, having all other students attend traditional classes. Northeast High in Pasadena has an Academy of Finance.

Northeast's approach was created by the National Academy Foundation, a group that began studying academies in 1982, well before McPartland's research. In September, six Maryland school systems formed a partnership with that foundation.

Carroll is leaning toward creating high schools fully separated into academies, closer to Mc- Partland's approach. His model calls for academies of about 250 to 300 students, each ideally with its own entrance, teachers, guidance counselors, classrooms, science labs and resources.

Ninth-grade students all attend the same academy and take general courses as well as seminars on study skills and time management. After ninth grade, a student decides which academy to attend for the remaining high school years, based on his career goals.

Academies differ by school, but can focus on such areas as business, arts and humanities, environmental science, tourism or transportation and engineering technology.

While students take many courses in their career interest, they also take a college preparatory curriculum.

Students in the business academy would graduate after taking English classes from English teachers within their academy. Students are encouraged to switch academies if their career interests change.

In schools that have tried to force the academy approach too quickly or have not put teachers in place who know how to use it, the reform has not always been successful, said McPartland. Where it has worked, he said, attendance and promotion rates have increased and dropout rates have fallen. Patterson High used to graduate classes of about 200. The first academy class, which graduated last year, had about 350 students, McPartland said.

Carroll officials said they are using McPartland's model and aspects of other approaches as a starting point but might tailor a design before implementing it.

Eckles noted that about 40 percent of students in the Carroll system are college-bound and about 20 percent take vocational courses in specific career areas.

The remaining 40 percent, Eckles said, leave high school with a diploma but with no real sense of what to do with it.

"When they walk out of high school, instead of just a piece of paper, they should have a portfolio saying, `Here's what I can do,' " said Eckles.

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