Panel to visit Texas schools

Sites' academy approach caters to career aspirations

Carroll County

January 21, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

A group of Carroll County educators travels to Texas this week to look at two highly innovative high schools there, moving Carroll one step closer toward being the first county in Maryland to implement career academies in all of its high schools.

For about two years, Carroll school administrators have been gathering information on the concept of academies, which divide students into separate campuses within their building based on broad career interests and keep them with the same coterie of students and teachers over a period of years.

Carroll's two new high schools - Century High is set to open in August in Eldersburg and Winters Mill High a year later outside Westminster - are being planned around this philosophy of creating smaller learning communities in which students put together a program that cumulatively prepares them for a career rather than sign up for individual, oftentimes randomly selected classes.

In addition, the principals at the five existing Carroll high schools are looking at how they, too, can carve smaller, career-themed campuses out of their buildings.

"Some have bits and pieces of the academy concept - an academy here and an academy there," said Eileen Oickle, branch chief for middle and high school learning with the Maryland State Department of Education. "But there aren't any counties that do it on a districtwide basis."

Gregory Eckles, Carroll's secondary schools director, is taking an 11-member delegation of teachers and administrators to the suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth to spend a day each with two schools that have been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as "New American High Schools" - innovative institutions whose whole-school reform efforts have achieved higher test scores, higher graduation and attendance rates and lower dropout rates than most of the nation's high schools.

Begun in Philadelphia in the 1960s, high school career academies have sprouted in cities, suburbs and rural areas across the country.

Although they differ wildly, most academies tend to comprise clusters of students who take classes together for at least two years with the same coterie of teachers, according to the National Career Academy Coalition. They also include a college preparatory curriculum that enables students to see the connection between schoolwork and its use in various careers, as well as partnerships with employers and colleges.

For many of the teachers, principals and administrators in Carroll who have studied the concept, the personalization of academy-styled schools is most appealing.

"If you can connect students to what they're interested in, in a smaller learning environment, then of course student achievement increases," said Westminster High Principal Sherri-Le W. Bream. "You're putting together a more rigorous program. You raise the bar. And you have the support system for students to reach that bar - you don't just say, `Jump higher.'"

Bream, who will become principal of the new Winters Mill High, said most of the students she has talked to about the academy approach are eager to be a part of it.

"The feedback in general is, `Why aren't we already doing this? ... What's taking so long?'" she said. "And I feel the same way. We only have four years with these kids. And if we find something that helps them, we ought to get to it and not study it to death."

Besides Eckles, the delegation traveling to Texas includes school board member Gary W. Bauer, seven teachers, an assistant principal, the fine arts supervisor and an intervention coordinator. Interim Superintendent Charles I. Ecker is recovering from bypass surgery and can't make the trip, which is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The Carroll group begins its sojourn at Newman Smith in Carrollton, Texas, where Principal Lee Alvoid has forged partnerships with area colleges and businesses to expose students to careers and give them a head-start on college.

The 2,000-student school northwest of Dallas also has a career academy - an intensive international business program that attracts students from throughout the region - and a career advisory program that assists students in mapping out a portfolio-style individualized education plan.

"I'm real proud that we get a lot out of our more average students," Alvoid said. "We're just a normal school. We're not an admissions-based academy - we're just kind of a slice of life.

"I've got kids here from the inner city who have been relocated out here - all the way up to upper-middle-class families. So we're just like most schools in the nation - comprehensive high schools that are serving all kids - but we've tried to do more with them."

South Grand Prairie High will showcase its innovations Friday - the second day of the Carroll delegation's visit. There, at the 2,500-student suburban school between Dallas and Fort Worth, Principal Roy Garcia has structured one of the nation's few full-blown academies.

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