`Small learning communities' meeting goals

Board to get update on concept in high schools

April 09, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

A concept that Carroll County school officials began exploring four years ago for making high school more personalized and more relevant has taken hold and has been incorporated in various ways in all seven county high schools.

Carroll school board members will hear today at their monthly meeting about the ways school officials are using a $2.3 million federal grant to carve what educators call "small learning communities" out of traditional high schools.

"You have 1,000 kids in a school and it's like running a town. A lot of people don't get that," Barry Gelsinger, Carroll's assistant superintendent of instruction, said.

"I taught for 15 years and it didn't even hit me until I was an assistant principal and I was responsible for that town. That's a lot of people to be responsible for at one time, and we don't want kids getting lost in our towns," Gelsinger said. "I know the small learning communities concept has had some real positive impacts so far and it holds great promise."

What can initially sound like fuzzy concepts - "helping students find relevance in their education" and "establishing relationships between students and caring adults," to quote two goals from Carroll County's overview of small learning communities - has produced relatively quickly, measurable results, Gelsinger said.

"There are people who have questioned it," he said. "Some people think it's taking away from the education of kids to do something that's fluffy. It's not. It's actually strengthening and improving rigor in the schools. That's one of the key goals of small learning communities."

Students at all seven high schools have been divided - alphabetically or by birth date - into groups of about 20 that meet for less than an hour every few weeks with a teacher who serves as an adviser. The same group of students will meet with the same teacher for all four years of their high-school career.

"There's all kinds of research out there that shows one determining factor in a kid being successful in school is that the student has an adult to hook up with," Gelsinger said. "Kids can easily get lost when you have a thousand kids in a school, they can fall through the cracks if they are not motivated themselves or not moved along by a parent to join a club, go out for a team, try out for drama or do something other than take classes at school."

The individual and prolonged attention of the advisory program, stretched over four years, "helps to ensure every kid in high school has an adult with whom they are connected beyond what happens in the classroom," he added.

Taking the concept to its most structured form, Carroll's two new public high schools - Century High in Eldersburg and Winters Mill High outside Westminster - opened with career academies. The academies are similar to small colleges within a university that are based on broad career interests and that keep students with the same coterie of students and teachers over a period of years.

Other Carroll high schools have developed similar programs on a smaller scale. They have introduced more career-focused courses, ushered ninth-graders through freshman seminar courses that ease them through the transition to high school and required students to begin compiling a portfolio of their best schoolwork as early as their freshman year to better prepare them for what's expected in college and in the working world.

School board President Susan Holt has asked several times in recent months for a chance to talk about the small learning communities initiative.

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