Program gives students advice for long term

Carroll staff sets goals, offers real-world guidance

April 29, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

It's report card day at Winters Mill High School, and something unusual is happening.

Students are sitting down and taking stock of their grades. They're comparing last quarter's goals to the results printed before them. They're accepting congratulations - or gentle admonitions, as the case may be - from health teacher Sal Picataggi, a class adviser who meets with them every day for 20 minutes in a course that has replaced the traditional homeroom at the Westminster school.

"For a lot of you, really nice job. A lot of these report cards look really good," Picataggi tells them. "For some others of you, look at those third-quarter goals, and we'll see what you want to do with yourself."

Picataggi's new role - part counselor and confidant, part motivator and advocate - comes from an educational concept that Carroll County and school districts nationwide are testing as they try to inject more of a real-world component into high school lessons, and to make the experience less impersonal. The U.S. Department of Education doled out $97 million last year to help systems in 35 states reorganize high schools into "small learning communities" such as academies and advisory programs. Schools in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Carroll, Frederick, Montgomery, Prince George's, St. Mary's and Worcester counties received grant money.

Less than a year into their $2.3 million project, Carroll school officials say the new programs - and the advisory classes, in particular - have forged stronger connections with high school students, forced them to think more seriously about their education and held them accountable for their own successes and failures. All seven Carroll high schools have implemented some form of the advisory program this year, pairing small groups of students with a teacher with whom they will meet for four years.

Nowhere is the county's program more structured than at Winters Mill, a brand-new, $34 million school that features eye-popping classroom technology, a college-quality auditorium, a flight simulator, a state-of-the-art gymnasium and a ceramics studio with two kilns and four pottery wheels. Despite the building's impressive features, teachers and administrators alike say the advisory program is what has made the school's first year a success.

"This is the key to the school right here," Picataggi said, watching his 17 ninth-graders check off the goals they accomplished during the last marking period. "What we do in here will make or break their four years. It's one of the main reasons I wanted to come to this school, because the best part of teaching - and the advisory program here supports it - is being able to develop relationships with kids that are important to kids."

The "structured lessons" about communication skills, money management and four-year education plans are helpful, teachers and administrators said. So are the birthday celebrations, the class competitions, and the spirited class discussions of war, school rules and teen-age issues that almost always spill over into hallways.

But educators suspect that the real value will stem from pairing the same teacher with the same students over the course of their high school careers.

"Being able to connect to a student for four years is something that, as educators, we've never been able to do," said Karen Wright, who coordinates the career-focused programs at Eldersburg's Century High School, where students meet once a week for 30 minutes with their advisers.

At 2-year-old Century High, the faculty deem the weekly sessions so important that the principal or another staff member - not a substitute teacher - take over the classes if an adviser is absent.

Advisory classes at Carroll's older high schools meet with varying frequency, averaging about an hour a month. But staff at all five are talking about broadening their programs next year, either involving students in more grade levels or increasing the meetings' frequency. Most teachers agree, however, that even the twice-monthly meetings makes a difference.

"It makes it more difficult for students to hide and it starts to break down some of the anonymity that exists in large schools. As you start to do that, you can only help students," said Kyler Brengle, who coordinates the Carroll school district's "small learning communities" initiatives, including the advisory programs.

"Some students who are only marginal at academics end up doing better, achieving more, getting better grades," he said, adding that stronger school connections also foster greater involvement in extracurricular activities and fewer office referrals for bad behavior.

Those assessments bear out in conversations with students, many of whom seem to enjoy the advisory program, even if they remain unaware of the lofty educational goals behind it.

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