Northwest schools tailoring students' education
Jan. 27, 2005
The 'smaller learning communities' concept pares Marana, Mountain View classes to 100-125 freshmen with similar academic inclinations
When the bell rings and it's time to switch classes at Marana High, there are so many bodies that you can hardly see across the campus' center courtyard. Sounds of crashing lockers, friendly yells and hundreds of footsteps fill the school's grounds.
Could be intimidating for a new freshman, just promoted from junior high.
It's a growing campus of more than 1,500 students, but the chaos of switching classes doesn't tell the school's whole story.
Freshmen like David Newman, Haley Parsons and Joaquin Ortiz are part of "smaller learning communities," which break down high school student populations into manageable groups or "academies" of about 100 to 125 students. Educators say the communities nurture stronger relationships and allow schools to focus curriculum on similar student interests. Instead of being in a freshman class with 500 or 600 students, Newman, Parsons and Ortiz are grouped in "communities" where they won't get lost.
Marana, along with sister campus Mountain View High School, is in the beginning stages of tweaking its curriculum to fit this trend in high school education. Although the particulars of the programs differ, all freshmen at the schools are enrolled in an academy, where they share the same teachers, sit in the same homerooms and take the same classes. As the program evolves, educators hope to also divide sophomores, juniors and seniors into smaller groups. Students would team up depending on their areas of interest, such as medicine, engineering or hotel management.
The buzz phrase "small learning communities" is hitting schools across the country and changing the way students learn and interact. Marana, Mountain View and Amphitheater have all received grants to research the concepts and work to implement them.
The logic: Students work better when they're in smaller groups and studying information they're interested in.
That's no great epiphany. But with increasing pressure on high school graduates to have sophisticated skills for work and college and with more pressure than ever on Arizona schools to increase student performance, some educators believe smaller learning communities could make a difference.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 70 percent of American high school students attend schools enrolling 1,000 or more students, and nearly 50 percent of high school students attend schools enrolling more than 1,500 students, a size all of the Northwest Side's public high schools exceed.
At Mountain View, freshmen making the honor roll went up from less than 40 percent to 50 percent since the program was instituted two years ago, according to numbers supplied by the school. Student discipline referrals have also dropped, from 211 a year to less than 100 since the program started.
"We have found that we have a lot fewer freshman failures. Discipline referrals have gone down. The Stanford 9 scores have gone up," said teacher Cathie Raymond, head of Mountain View's smaller learning community program. "It has helped the freshmen, I think. They really transition well to high school. It can be a really scary thing."
Local programs
Marana senior Veronica Di Giacomo, 17, is a participant in her school's smaller-learning-community pilot program. She's intent on going into the medical professional, so when Marana offered her the chance to take an English class with a medical spin and a Northwest Medical Center internship, she jumped on board.
Working eight hours a week in the hospital's emergency room this school year, Di Giacomo has had to help pack an 8-year-old into a body bag. The girl swallowed a bottle of bleach, Di Giacomo said, committing suicide.
"This is nothing you can learn in the classroom," she said.
DeAnne Humphrey, 16, is a Marana junior and takes Spanish and English literature through the MedStart medical-focused pilot program. She's read "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "The Scarlet Letter," analyzing them from a science perspective.
"It makes classes a lot easier because you're studying something you're interested in," she said.
The idea is to make this the norm. Fine arts, communications, law, tourism, finance - students pick a focus and an academy, and their high school years are based around it.
"The standards don't change. What we teach doesn't change. It's how we teach it that changes," said Mountain View Principal Richard Faidley.
Both Marana and Mountain View also stress the relationships students gain from small environments.
Part of the small-communities program at Marana sends juniors and seniors to run freshman homerooms. These aren't the homerooms of the past, where students sat around chatting, listening to announcements and copying homework.
The classes are intended to teach freshmen how to make it through high school, which means helpful tips on studying as well as tackling deeper issues like drugs.
"We try to introduce them to high school," said Marana senior Dan Caldwell, 18. "We're like their big sisters and brothers."
Caldwell, a football player and self-described clown, takes on controversial topics with his fresh-men, like sex and alcohol, incorporating his own life experiences.
That's gotten him into trouble with parents and teachers at the school, he said. But Lori Vargo, who organizes Marana's smaller-learning-community program and was instrumental in pitching the idea to the school, said that's what makes this work. When the curriculum takes some risks, so do students.
David Newman, a 14-year-old freshman, is in Caldwell's homeroom class. He likes knowing the faces in his classes, a result of the smaller learning community, and he also enjoys the tips from seniors.
"Kids our age describe it better than teachers," Newman said.
Old model gone
Smaller learning communities began to see the light of day about a decade ago, but three years ago the trend started to take hold, said Bill Daggett, president of the International Center for Leadership in Education, a consulting firm that studies the country's successful schools and coaches others on how to raise achievement.
Daggett estimates there are thousands of schools using smaller learning communities. New York City is looking at starting communities in all of its schools, he said.
Rigor, relevance and relationships are the three keys to successful programs, he said. He admits the concept seems obvious but says the communities are gaining attention now because of increasing pressure on schools to perform.
"The purpose of public education has fundamentally changed," Daggett said. Where school administrators once worried less about dropout and graduation rates, now they must. With fewer unskilled jobs available, high school graduates must have more sophisticated knowledge to survive - be it in college or the work force.
"The old industrial model where the bell rang after 40 minutes is gone," Daggett said.
Making subjects relevant through efforts like those at Marana's high schools helps, but it's not the only answer.
"You need to design smaller learning communities so it's not a vocational program, rather it's a thematic focus," Daggett said.
That's been happening for years at Flowing Wells High School, said district Superintendent Nic Clement, although the school hasn't attached a catch phrase to its efforts.
Programs in agriculture, fine arts and ROTC, for example, group kids together in campuses within the campus and often times incorporate those themes into other classes.
"It makes the subject more relevant and interesting to students," Clement said. "It's to prevent students from getting lost in the shuffle."
The risks
Di Giacomo, Humphrey and other students involved in Marana's medical pilot program see this as an exploration. They admit they might change their minds several times before settling on a career. Their futures might be in medicine, teaching or neither. This is their way of trying things out.
So if high schools start molding their curriculum off freshman interests, how long before they change their minds? A freshman might want to be a financial planner this year, but by his sophomore year he might be leaning more toward pharmacology.
As an advocate of smaller learning communities, Daggett stresses the concept is not a magic wand for failing schools and uninterested students.
Smaller learning communities are one characteristic of a successful school, he said.
And schools must steer clear of dumbing down material or making trade-school-type instruction.
At Canyon Del Oro High School, smaller learning communities aren't on the table, said Principal Michael Gemma.
For starters, with just more than 1,700 students the school is small compared with the more than 3,000 students it had before neighboring Ironwood Ridge opened. And with achievement already high, Gemma says: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
But Daggett and others say the smaller-learning-community model isn't just for struggling schools and students.
"It's giving students an idea that when they start high school and come up with their four-year plan they can study their interests," Mountain View's Faidley said. "When children are interested in a subject, they do better in that subject."
● Contact reporter Daniel Scarpinato at 434-4076 or