Teachers and administrators at Mountain View High School think they may have found a tool for raising scores on the Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards test, associate principal Jill Atlas said.
That tool, the Freshman LIONS Academy, is showing promising results at the beginning of its second semester.
In August, each incoming freshman was assigned to one of five academies, each identified by one of the letters in the school's mascot name: L,I,O,N or S. Each academy serves as a smaller learning community within the school, with its own social activities and core teachers.
The academies are designed to help freshmen make smooth transitions to high school, Atlas said.
"If we can do that, they will achieve better, drop out less, have higher GPAs, and ultimately pass the AIMS test," she said.
In 2001, when school officials were in the initial stages of planning the academies, 27 percent of freshmen were failing at least one class at the end of the first semester, Atlas said. This year, that figure is down to 22 percent.
The idea for the LIONS Academy came about in 2000, after administrators and teachers noticed a distressing trend in freshman performance, Atlas said.
"The whole impetus was that we had more than 25 percent of freshmen who looked not to be very successful in their freshman year," she said. "You only have four semesters to teach them so they have a chance to pass (the AIMS test) as sophomores."
A group of teachers began meeting on their own time to research smaller learning communities, which were shown in 1998 and 2000 studies in Chicago and New York City to lower dropout rates and raise students' test scores, according to a recent article in Education Week.
Smaller learning communities range from schools within schools, which are autonomous bodies that generally report to school districts rather than their host schools' principals, to houses or academies, which are small communities within large schools.
Kevin Corner, a psychology teacher at Mountain View and leader of Link Crew, the school's mentoring group for freshmen, wanted an arrangement for freshmen that would lead to closer relationships between teachers and their students.
"The main thing that I saw was that (having) junior and senior mentors wasn't enough," he said. "You need adult mentors, too."
The teachers decided on five academies, each holding a random grouping of about 110 of the school's 550 incoming freshmen.
The classes in the academies hold about 22 to 25 students, Atlas said. To achieve the reduced class sizes, the school had to draw extra teachers from the upper classes. The trade-off is that some upper-level classes now have more students than usual.
"Teachers being teachers, I thought I'd hear about that," Atlas said. "But I haven't."
Each academy has its own set of math, science and English teachers.
That's good for students, ninth grader Andrew Johnson said, because it makes them feel like they have membership in a group.
"You can be like 'Oh, are you in the "I" academy?' And if they are, you know they have the same teachers as you, so you can get homework assignments (from them) if you need them," he said.
The arrangement is good for teachers, academy teacher Eric Wakild said, because it gives them insights about their students that wouldn't otherwise be possible.
"Last year I knew a kid who was failing my class, but I never had time to look up the math teacher, or whatever, to see if this was my fault or the student's, and see how I could help," he said.
With the academies in place, though, Wakild shares a planning period every day with his students' other teachers.
Not everyone likes the academies, though.
Megan McCully, also a ninth grader, said they cut down on her interaction with a large assortment of students.
"We have core classes, and it's just basically the same people," she said. "If not for the academies, we would be with different people each day."
Although Mountain View set its academy into motion largely through volunteer work from teachers, the school will have grant money to continue its research.
As part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 200l, the federal government has a $142 million competitive grant program to plan, create or expand smaller learning communities in high schools with 1,000 students or more.
In October, Mountain View and Marana High School each received half of a $98,620 grant for further research on their small learning communities.
Marana High School also has academies for its freshmen, which were started last school year.
The schools' grant is not renewable, and all money must be spent by August of 2004. Later, the schools can apply for three-year federal grants of $50,000, to put into practice whatever programs the teachers come up with.
Mountain View will probably expand the smaller-learning-communities concept to higher grades, Atlas said.
So far, she said, it looks like a keeper.
"The kids are reaping the benefits of the creative synergy of teachers," she said. "The kids are happy, the teachers are happy. It's really something."