Big school, cozy community

Project: A plan to group Anne Arundel high school students into `career clusters' is under way in five schools.

October 13, 2002|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Ninth-graders at five large Anne Arundel County high schools may not know it yet, but they're in for some big changes.

Armed with a $2.1 million federal grant, school officials have launched an ambitious reorganization of Arundel, Glen Burnie, Meade, North County and Old Mill high schools - each of which has about 2,000 students - that eventually will divide all students into smaller, more intimate learning communities.

The plan, some of which was implemented at the schools this fall, will use a model similar to majors at a university. Students will belong to a "career cluster" of their choice, with such subjects as the arts, business or engineering.

"The idea is to bring more relevance to the instructional process," said Thomas Miller, director of career and technology education for Anne Arundel schools. "Kids ask the question continually, `Why do I need to take this?'"

Anne Arundel's project is part of a national trend. In recent years, school systems have been looking for ways to help students navigate large and often impersonal campuses. The U.S. Department of Education disbursed $97 million in grants this year to help systems in 35 states reorganize high schools in this way.

Baltimore City and counties including Carroll, Montgomery and Frederick also received grants and are starting smaller learning communities in their large high schools.

Queen Anne's was the first county in the state to implement such communities, reorganizing its two high schools in the early 1990s, according to Maryland schools officials. Research has shown that the more intimate environment reduces drop-out rates and increases achievement.

This fall, to ease teachers and students into the new system, the Anne Arundel schools involved in the grant project divided their freshman classes into teams of between 100 and 300, each with its own set of teachers.

Known as the Success Academy, the program is designed to foster familiarity among students in a team and help smooth the transition from middle school to high school. "Ninth grade's the worst year," Miller said. "That's when they fail."

Additional assistance for freshmen includes programs to help students who are falling behind and the assignment of teacher-advisers to small groups of students for their entire high school careers.

A pilot program at Arundel High last year, in which 130 freshmen were segregated from the rest of the ninth-grade population, demonstrated some of the benefits of the Success Academy, school officials said. The referral rate of ninth-graders in the pilot program was 15 percent lower than among other students, and the failure rate was half that of the general population, said Paul Yannuzzi, dean of freshman students.

By next year, career clusters are to be in place at most of the county's other high schools. The clusters identified so far are communications and humanities; business management and finance; engineering, mechanical and information technologies; health, environmental and life sciences; and human services.

Students will still be required to take the required core classes, but the material will be tailored to each cluster so students can understand its practical application. "In science, you may talk about light refracting," said Arundel High Principal Nathaniel Gibson, "but in [the humanities cluster], you would talk about how to use lighting to light a stage."

No new electives are expected to be added, but students will be encouraged to choose more wisely and with an eye toward a future career.

Officials say the purpose of the clusters is to start students thinking earlier about their goals, not to restrict them to a vocation. Students will be allowed to switch clusters between semesters if they wish.

"It's a way of having students focus on themselves, focus on a future and to be able to define themselves, which is not usually what students do at that age," said Lise Foran, the grant project manager for Anne Arundel.

So far, the impact of the reorganization has been subtle - some Arundel High freshmen are unaware that they will have to choose career clusters or that they have been grouped into one of two teams, Green or White.

Others say they know about the grouping, but don't see the benefits. "I don't really think being on a team affects me," said Justin Dorsey, a ninth-grader and a member of the Green team.

Justin and others agreed, however, that the transition to high school had been smooth, which was what officials hoped. Students said they had made friends in school easily and that teachers knew them well.

Perhaps the most tangible benefit of the freshman reorganization has been felt by teachers, who are grouped with others who teach the same students.

They hold weekly meetings to discuss students who are having problems and exchange ideas and strategies.

"The beautiful part about it is, because we're a team, it's not just my child - it's everybody's child," said Sydatris Smith, an English teacher at Arundel High.

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