Smaller high schools may boost achievement, officials say

Redesigning the concept of school

September 07, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,SUN REPORTER

The five-minute scramble between class periods at sprawling Glen Burnie High School leaves little time to socialize or even make a pit stop at lockers or the restroom.

And some students have to make this mad dash between as many as six buildings in a day on the 373,000-square-foot campus.

"When classes change in our high schools, it's complete chaos, like an airport terminal," said Alex Szachnowicz, facilities director for Anne Arundel County schools. "Students don't have time to talk to their teachers or talk to each other [and] build relationships."

Bolstered by emerging research that suggests smaller schools boost academic performance, improve graduation rates and curb truancy and other disruptive behavior, Anne Arundel County school officials are considering ways to make high schools feel smaller.

It's the district's first comprehensive look at high school design since the mid-1970s.

In the future, Anne Arundel high schools will have students organized in buildings according to grade, so freshmen will find all their classes in the same hallway or section of the school and will be taught by a familiar team of teachers.

Most of the district's 12 high schools have already started to do this through "freshmen academies" to ease their transition, but under the new design, sophomores, juniors and seniors will also benefit from a tighter-knit approach to education.

Currently, high school campuses are configured by subject, so that all the math classes are in one hall, all the social studies in another, and so on. Rearranging high schools to keep common groups of students together by grade level will help students build closer relationships with teachers and each other, Szachnowicz told school board members at a meeting Wednesday.

In this new vision, main offices - cloistered spaces at the entrance of a school that sometimes intimidate students and parents - will also be less centralized, with administrators and guidance counselors sprinkled throughout the school, so students feel more comfortable approaching them for help, he said. High schools will also be less reliant on computer labs because they'll be wireless, allowing more students to use computers in their classrooms.

"We're moving to a home, community-type concept," Szachnowicz told school board members. "We're trying to find ways to break down these 200,000-square-feet high schools to make them feel smaller."

The school board approved Wednesday new specifications that will serve as a template for the district's future renovations and construction of high schools. In the immediate future, three high schools - Northeast, Severna Park and Old Mill - are likely to benefit from the new design; they are on the district's six-year plan for facilities improvements.

School board vice president Enrique Melendez said though he was happy to see the new look for high schools, he would have liked students to have been part of the four-month process to develop the specifications.

"They live the day-to-day of high schools and can tell you what works and what doesn't, and what should be changed," Melendez told Szachnowicz. "Just because we've never [brought students into the process] before, doesn't mean we can't do it now."

Facilities officials said they would ask for student opinions when they begin to tailor the specifications to each high school.

The district's effort to make high schools feel smaller comes at a time of intensified focus on boosting high school student performance.

According to data released last month, more Anne Arundel County high-schoolers passed state English, algebra and biology tests than the previous school year, but black and Hispanic students' performance continued to lag. School officials say the redesign will help create less institutional and more supportive high schools, which will help close the achievement gap.

To brainstorm on a fresh approach to high schools, Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell held a community summit last January at Annapolis High school, where school officials are overseeing an overhaul of staff and programming to help turn around poor reading test scores and low graduation rates.

At Glen Burnie High, administrators are beginning some of this work. Though they're spread across six buildings, assistant principal David Kauffman, said administrators are stationed in each wing to help students. The freshmen are in a section of one building, so they're not intimidated by the rambling campus.

"The transition can be overwhelming, so we have our ninth-graders in one building, and they're teamed up with the same teachers all year long," Kauffman said.

The school is also exploring career clusters to put students with similar career interests in the same classes. Teachers and counselors help set up job shadowing and mentoring, Kauffman said.

"We've been doing some of these for three years, and what we're seeing is that students feel connected to their teachers, to the school, and that's going to pay off in the long run," he said.

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

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