Model school educates visitors

Texas academy demonstrates system to Carroll delegation

January 29, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas -- South Grand Prairie High School was floundering.

Nine guns had been confiscated in one year. Students were failing. Teachers were breaking up knife fights. The school had seen five principals in seven years. And many students in the school's mostly minority population were falling through the cracks.

Something had to be done.

In a hotel conference room that came to be known as the War Room, 10 teachers named to a "Vision Committee" hunkered down in spring 1996 to decide the future of their school.

When they emerged, they had a plan to reconfigure their building and divide the 2,500 students into small clusters. The school would have mandatory freshman seminars to orient newcomers and required senior seminars to prepare their oldest charges for life after high school.

The bold changes, they hoped, would allow educators to forge closer relationships with students studying subjects that interested them and that lured them into envisioning futures beyond their crowded high school halls.

In the five years since the committee unveiled its sweeping reforms, South Grand Prairie High has reversed its fortunes and become a model for schools looking to improve and personalize instruction. Scores of educators from across the country, including a 12- member team from Carroll County, have descended to see how carving career-themed "academies" out of a larger building can work.

Carroll plans to open its two new high schools in Eldersburg and outside Westminster on the academy model. But educators at the county's five existing high schools are also contemplating the approach, making Carroll the first county in Maryland to consider academies at all of its high schools.

"I have seen my share of fads and I have seen my share of state mandates, and this is the best thing I have seen done," said Billie Donegan, a media teacher of 28 years, addressing educators from Minnesota, Wyoming and Carroll who visited the sprawling South Grand Prairie campus in this suburb between Dallas and Fort Worth last week. "This is true systemic change ... and it's changed the climate of my high school."

National trend emerging

In northeastern Texas, where the washboard-flat landscape makes the horizon and the sky seem to stretch on forever, South Grand Prairie has launched itself into a national trend.

"This is a big movement," said Melinda Ulloa, a U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman. "A lot of school districts found they got socked with building a huge high school 10 years ago. But now, research has shown that this is not a happy, productive environment for kids. They don't flourish in huge classes; they flourish in smaller one-on-one situations.

"When a district doesn't have money to build six little high schools, what are they going to do?" she said. "They have to carve out smaller schools within those huge schools."

Although schools nationwide -- including more than a dozen in at least six Maryland school districts -- have turned to academies to shrink their schools, few have implemented what educators call "wall-to-wall" academies. Those reach every corner of the school, requiring students to choose among a handful of broad career designations similar to colleges within a larger university.

South Grand Prairie is one of the few to implement full-blown academies -- a model that Carroll educators are eyeing closely and plan to use when Century High opens in August and Winters Mill High opens a year later.

South Grand Prairie officials have pulled off the transformation without draining the school district's coffers. The school has not added a teacher as a result of the switch to academies and has funded additions, including an art gallery and career center, with a patchwork of small grants.

Crisscrossed by commercial corridors of strip malls and chain restaurants that resemble Maryland's Reisterstown Road or Route 1, Grand Prairie is a racially and socioeconomically diverse bedroom community that attracts suburban families with its proximity to jobs in the cities that are its bookends. Only 46 percent of South Grand Prairie students are white. The majority are Hispanic, African-American or Asian.

The campus exudes pride, with row upon row of red-and-gold academic and athletic banners hanging above cafeteria tables. Students point visitors toward the professional-style arena. Custodians modestly accept compliments for the gleaming floors, which are buffed every night, and faculty members stroll the halls every Friday in bright red shirts with gold embroidery.

Tailor-made courses

Despite the changes in reconfiguring the school -- moving teachers out of traditional high school departments such as English, math and social studies and spreading them throughout the building and across the five career academies -- some students shrug off suggestions that their high school experience has been altered much by the switch.

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