May 25, 2005 - When the clock strikes 2:17 p.m. and the bell rings to conclude another day at Marana High School, spotting 17-year-old Jesus Leon in a crowd of more than 1,600 students can be a formidable challenge. So, it's no wonder students sometimes feel lost among the masses.

But that may be changing.

Marana High is in the process of shifting curricular gears toward creating tailored academies within its larger main campus, dividing students into smaller populations with similar interests and career focuses.

It's all part of the "smaller learning communities" concept, a growing philosophy on public education that's making its way into high schools throughout the nation. Still in its early stages in Marana, it took shape this year in the form of a pilot medical academy at Marana High.

"This coming year is going to be a major year of change for us, because it really restructures what it is we're doing," said interim Principal Jim Doty. "This is a very different world than the one we grew up in and kids are different today than they were even five or 10 years ago. Students need different skills and it needs to be taught in a different way now."

A sweeping change in the school's organizational structure will see full implementation in the 2006-07 school year with six vocational academies in addition to a freshman academy. The six academies will focus on careers in engineering and technology, business and marketing, the arts, social and human services, medicine, and environmental sciences.

The academies are the result of years of planning, involving input from parents, teachers and students. School officials have informed others of the coming changes through school newsletters and brochures, various forums and reports to the school district's governing board.

Leon, a junior at Marana High, was chosen by school officials to be one of the leaders of an eight-member student committee that designed a comprehensive brochure which students took home to their parents. The students played a strong role in choosing the six academies, Leon said.

"It is such a for-student agenda, so I've mainly been that voice," he said. "I've been telling other students about it as well and trying to get their input."

During the school year, Leon said he sought and received feedback from his peers during lunch and in the classroom. He admitted he thinks many students have misconceptions about smaller learning communities.

"There's been a lot of negative things going around, but they're all uninformed," he said. "As soon as I inform them exactly what's going on and tell them to inform whoever they were informed from, then they're all very excited about it."

Fears that Marana High is going to become a vocational school, or that students are going to be locked into a career path they don't necessarily like are among the concerns Leon said he's heard. Proponents of the changes are quick to inform others that it's not going to become a vocational school - the academies will accommodate a wide range of students and no one will be forced to take classes they don't want.

"That's exactly what we're trying not to do," Leon said. "We're trying to broaden them instead of having them fail by being stuck somewhere."

The Marana Unified School District's push toward smaller learning communities began about four years ago. Marana High and its sister campus, Mountain View High School, each are working collaboratively under a planning grant to create similar programs that are modified to meet the needs of their own communities.

"It's been extra work the last few years getting ready for this and we pretty much have to have everything ready to go in November. All new courses have to go to the district," Doty said. "This is the big push. This is when we really have to get it out."

Mountain View Associate Principal Jill Atlas has been one of the key players in bringing the concept to her school. About two years ago, Mountain View took its first step toward smaller learning communities with the creation of the LIONS Academy, which breaks down the school's 600-plus freshmen into five academies of 120 to 130 students who share the same set of teachers.

Because students were leaping from middle school to a 2,000-plus population at Mountain View, Atlas said there needed to be a smoother transition and the LIONS Academy provided that solution.

"We were losing almost 30 percent of our freshmen to failure," she said. "And right about the time we were looking at that number and getting upset about it, No Child Left Behind hit and 100 percent had to make it."

The concept took a couple of years to gain community acceptance, but Atlas said the academies have contributed to improvements in student behavior and academic performance. They're now the impetus for a sweeping change that will restructure the campus of Mountain View into several career academies similar to Marana's proposed program.

Possible academies at Mountain View include finance and business, communications, law and human services, health services, hospitality and tourism, and fine arts.

"When you break kids into smaller groups and you put them with specific teachers, they learn how to work together and great things happen," Atlas said.

On a national level, the concept of smaller learning communities was first introduced more than a decade ago, but some schools are just now joining in the chorus. Thanks to supporting research, private funding and government support, educators are starting to come behind the idea that smaller learning communities can have a positive impact on student achievement and help lower dropout rates.

About 70 percent of American high school students attend schools enrolling more than 1,000 students and nearly 50 percent of high schools enroll more than 1,500 students, according the U.S. Department of Education.

Research suggests smaller learning environments have a positive effect on student achievement, attendance rates, frequency of disciplinary actions, school loyalty, use of alcohol or drugs, satisfaction with school and self-esteem, according to the Department of Education. The department suggests research on smaller learning communities confirms what parents intuitively believe: Smaller schools are safer and more productive because students feel less alienated, more nurtured and better connected to school.

Adding further credence to the idea, President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which underlines the importance of creating smaller learning communities in large public high schools.

As a result, the Department of Education has created the Smaller Learning Communities Initiative, which grants money to school districts to plan and start smaller learning communities programs in high schools with 1,000 or more students. In fiscal year 2001, the department awarded $87 million, benefiting 395 schools serving more than 700,000 students. The grants are intended to ensure there are no more than 600 students in a designated learning community.

Backing the department's belief in smaller learning communities, further support has come from organizations such as the Carnegie Corporation, Open Society Institute and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Since 2000, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation alone has pumped more than $600 million into efforts to establish small high schools in dozens of the nation's large cities and at least half a dozen states.

School leaders in cities such as Houston, Boston, San Diego and Chicago are pushing toward smaller learning communities, while statewide efforts have taken up in states including Maine, Rhode Island, Oregon and Washington state. In the New York City school system, city leaders have launched an initiative to phase out the lowest performing high schools and replace them with small schools.

One of the more nationally well-known examples of successes in smaller learning communities is Julia Richman High School in Manhattan, which once had a graduation rate of 25 percent. Redesigned in 1995 as the Julia Richman Education Complex, it now houses six smaller, autonomous schools with varying vocational focuses, and graduation rates have since soared to nearly 90 percent, according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Marana district's incoming Superintendent Denny Dearden, who currently is an assistant superintendent in Fairfax County, Va., said he supports the smaller learning communities concept that he helped put in place as principal of Central High School in Grand Junction, Colo.

Dearden said his school wrote for a grant, which it did not receive. But using very limited resources, he personally oversaw the creation of a freshman academy similar to Mountain View's before leaving in 2003.

"We had about 400 freshmen and our goal was to break it down into areas where it was more workable, smaller units of students. We believed in the concept of smaller learning communities," he said. "I'm glad to hear both Marana and Mountain View are implementing it."

After piloting a medical academy this year, Marana High officials say efforts to create a curriculum that makes learning relevant to students has proven successful.

Sarah Engen and Lee-Ann Starr are among the estimated 120 students, all juniors and seniors, who participated in the MedStart Academy, which will be extended to include sophomores next year.

Students in the program this year have been fired up about entering the field of medicine, scurrying around campus in their flashy blue scrubs on Fridays. Their peers apparently have taken notice and have begun calling them the "Smurfs."

As a result of the program, Engen and Starr, both juniors, say they're on their way to realizing careers in medicine.

Throughout the year, they've visited the Northwest Medical Center, taken numerous field trips, heard lectures from medical professionals and gained hands-on knowledge of the medical field.

Now, raise your hand if you ever dissected a pig, cut open an eyeball, worked in a hospital emergency room, witnessed a 14-pound sclerosed liver or saw a human cadaver up-close and personal when you were in high school. Anybody?

Well, that's exactly what these students have been up to and they say they've enjoyed every minute of it.

"I think that being in this has really helped me decide that I do really want to be a nurse," Engen said. "This is a step in the door for my future, because I'm going to be getting my CNA (certified nursing assistant license) next year. I'll be interning at the hospital I want to work at. Basically I have my next few years totally planned out."

Following the smaller learning communities concept, the medical academy's curriculum is tailored so students share the same teachers for the same subjects. They comprise a community within the larger community.

Part of their day includes an English class with a medical spin, in which they write research papers using medical terminology. In their Spanish class, they're learning medical vocabulary and Hispanic culture as it relates to medicine.

In literature class, they've applied their growing medical knowledge to books including "The Scarlet Letter," diagnosing characters in the story based on their symptoms. And they've even dissected the psychology in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

"When you read it and connect it to the psychology behind it, you start understanding it more," said Lori Vargo, a science teacher at Marana High. "Even that little connection in one book might be enough to keep them going through it."

Next year, the academy will be expanded to include sophomore medical English, history classes with a medical twist for juniors and a nursing assistant class for seniors.

Vargo was instrumental in bringing the pilot program to Marana after having taught at Santa Cruz High School in Eloy, which has a medical academy in place. When she came to Marana five years ago, Vargo said she made it her mission to start a similar program.

She spent the first two years convincing her colleagues to support the plan, and ever since they've been writing the curriculum. Vargo is the lead teacher on a committee of about 15 of her peers who sought input from the community.

Students are quick to acknowledge that the medical program is not for the meek. All of them had to take a Pima Community College assessment test to enter the academy and receive dual enrollment. Because Marana's MedStart teachers are Pima certified, students earn college credits from the comfort of their high school classrooms at no cost.

"You have to be determined in order to be in the classes," said Brandi Forsyth, 17, a junior in the MedStart Academy. "And that's the nicest thing about this class is that you know that pretty much everybody wants to be here. It's not like one of those classes where everybody's goofing off and you can't learn anything."

Starr said she enjoys the close-knit company of her like-minded peers.

"It's fun because I'm such a geek when it comes to that stuff. All I watch is Discovery Health and it's like, 'Ooh, they watch this too. I'm not the only one,'" she said, adding that she also likes being able to walk into class and say, "Hey, did you watch that tumor the other day?"

Starr and Engen both put their skills to use this year working at Mountain View Retirement Village where Starr is a waitress and Engen has worked as a caregiver, learning to cope with some of the facets of the medical field, including the death of a patient.

"You're just like, 'Oh, Dorothy died today,' and you're like, 'I just served her last night,'" Starr said. "You have to deal with people dying all the time, like one of our favorite guys just died the other day."

Starr and Engen will be two of the first students to take part in the nursing assistant class next year, which is being added for seniors. The school had to apply with the State Board of Nursing to become a certified facility for teaching the curriculum.

Two classes of 40 students are already signed up for the course in which they'll go through clinicals at a long-term care facility, said science teacher Eppie Rivas, who will teach the course. Once finished, students will be eligible to take the State Board of Nursing exam to begin working as nursing assistants at any long-term care facility.

Heather Locke and Brittney Hatley are among the 15 seniors who interned at Northwest Medical Center this year as part of the MedStart Academy, working in the emergency room eight hours per week.

"I've always wanted to be a nurse, but I never knew how much work it was until last year when I had to learn all the terminology and the different body parts," Hatley said. "And then when I actually got into the hospital, it just grew. I just want to be a nurse even more now."

Both Locke and Hatley, who will attend the University of Arizona and Pima Community College this fall, respectively, said the experience they gained in the medical academy has placed them ahead of their peers.

"They know generally what they want to do, but they don't know 'this is where I want to go' or how to get there," Locke said. "They might know they want something in photography, but they don't know what they want to do in photography."

But what about the pressure of forcing students to get career-minded at such a young age?

Seventeen-year-old Felicia Acevedo, a junior at Marana High, said she had been considering a career in the police force, or working in customs. She said she reluctantly entered the MedStart Academy this year because she felt forced to get started on a career track, even if the medical field wasn't her first choice.

"I felt pressured to hurry up and make a decision," she said. "What was I going to do? I didn't really know and I still don't know, but this program kind of helped steer me in a clear direction."

At the end of the year, Acevedo said her interest in the field has grown and she probably will pursue a career in medicine now.

"It's not my first choice. I wanted something else more, but then I found out about it and started doing the classes and it interested me more and more," she said.

Following the lead of Marana's pilot medical academy, officials say the smaller learning communities concept will remain essentially the same at Mountain View, though it will be tailored to meet the needs of a different community.

Mountain View will have a separate sophomore academy and plans to break juniors and seniors down into career academies called "gateways to the future," where students will be able to choose one of seven different career paths.

"Our staff at Mountain View has decided this is the paradigm shift that's going to take place," said Associate Principal Atlas. "It will be ever evolving. The main focus is not to let the kids fall between the cracks. We have to set up a structure where students get support."

Next year's freshmen at Mountain View will be the first class to go through the four-year program that will be fully in place by the time they graduate in 2009. Mountain View is just starting on its sophomore academy, which will focus on career explorations, Atlas said.

The junior year will offer students more opportunities to explorer careers, and their senior year will include a capstone project that will involve them in the community. Atlas said there will be job shadowing and internship opportunities for students in fields related to their career academies.

But what if a student enters a business academy and later decides he likes science better?

"They can experiment, they are not stuck in a gateway," Atlas said. "They can go back and forth if they want to, but our structure is going to be structured much like a college where a student chooses what they want to graduate in before they leave."

Doty said the same goes at Marana High. While the academies will provide challenging courses that serve as career roadmaps, they also will be flexible and sometimes overlapping. And for students who want to see their friends in another academy, there still will be lunch periods and breaks as well as elective courses outside the academies.

Freshmen will start off in their own academy, getting a taste of each career pathway. But if they choose an academy they don't like, they can move into a new academy the following year, Doty said.

"And if we have a student who wants to be an engineer and wants to be a part of high school band, we'll make that happen," he said. "Sometimes there's as much of a value in finding out what you don't like as in finding out what you do like."

Doty said Marana High plans on building more partnerships with businesses in the community so students can gain real workforce experience related to their respective careers.

Most recently, Evergreen International Airlines has shown interest in a possible cooperative that would benefit students in the proposed engineering and industrial technology academy, allowing them to work not only in aviation but also on vehicles in a machine shop. That kind of a partnership is a win-win situation because Evergreen wouldn't mind preparing its future workforce, and students could use the experience, Doty said.

But while community support is all well and fine, the schools will need consent from the district governing board as well as funding to make smaller learning communities happen.

Marana High and Mountain View are currently writing for a three-year implementation grant worth $50,000 each year from the U.S. Department of Education. Bill Kuhn, president of the school district's governing board, said if the grant is not received, the district is prepared to keep the program at both high schools.

"I think the whole idea of the program is worthwhile for the school district to support," he said. "If the grant doesn't come through, I'm sure we can look for additional funding somewhere to make the program exist."

Doty said he's determined to see smaller learning communities happen at Marana High at any cost.

"We have a lot of support from the board. They want to see this go forward, but we can make this happen without significant additional funding," he said. "We will make this happen with whatever funding we get."

Both high schools have split a $98,620 planning grant that has paid for school officials to visit schools and attend various conferences on smaller learning communities from Colorado to Oregon to Washington, D.C.

The schools also played host to officials from a high school in New Hampshire and brought in speaker Willard Daggett, president of the New York-based International Center for Leadership in Education, a consulting firm that researches academic success and coaches schools on raising achievement.

Daggett founded the center after serving in various management positions at the New York State Education Department, where he spearheaded efforts to restructure the state's education system to focus on skills students need in today's society.

Tim Ott, senior vice president of the center, said the organization is helping dozens of schools across the nation start smaller learning communities to meet the needs of a changing world.

"Schools that are focused on meeting student needs are forced to do so in a design that made sense 20 years ago," he said. "But as society changes, schools need to change to make sure students' needs are being met."

Schools throughout the nation are moving in more innovative directions such as smaller learning communities, creating curriculums that are both rigorous and relevant to students, Ott said.

"I think it's certainly a high priority in high schools across the country," he said. "The schools we're finding to be high performing are risk takers - they're more entrepreneurial, they have a clear idea what students need and they're willing to act outside of the box."

Teachers and staff members have spent long hours planning and researching the costs and benefits of smaller learning communities. Marana High has built into its work week a collaborative staff planning period each Friday after students leave school early.

"That becomes the time, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. once a week, that we work on our smaller learning communities program with the entire staff," Doty said.

Above and beyond the regular staff sessions, members of the teacher committee have met regularly on their own time and will continue to meet throughout the summer, Doty said.

Pieces of the puzzle already in place at Marana High have proven successful, he said. The school started a freshman program a couple of years ago, known as the "Link Crew," that now puts juniors and seniors into their homeroom classrooms as mentors. The upperclassmen, called "Link leaders," are showing freshmen what high school is all about.

"That was really the whole start of smaller learning communities at Marana High School," Doty said.

The school constructed a separate block schedule for freshmen so they could accommodate the 35-minute session before third period.

Marana's first semester statistics this year show the number of freshmen failing one class or more has decreased from 43 percent to 32 percent between 2003 and 2004, which Doty thinks is a result of the program.

"The academies is just kind of an extension of what we've been doing, and doing successfully with our freshmen," he said. "We've had pieces of this for a while and really what we're doing is just bringing it all together."

Leon, who headed up the student committee at Marana High, will have graduated by the time the smaller learning communities concept comes to fruition. He said he would have liked to experience the environmental sciences academy before he left school, but he'll be missing it by one year.

"It would have been perfect for me. I'd love to have had this before," he said. "It hurts, but I'm glad to get it for the next generation."

Leon plans to attend UA and possibly Berkeley to become involved in politics and environmental policy someday, and he envisions himself being a strong voice for the Environmental Protection Agency.

But while he's ahead of the pack in deciding his career path as early as his freshman year, he said, it may be his undecided peers who would most benefit from smaller learning communities.

"I know that there's a lot of people who aren't sure if they want to go to college or not, and this would definitely broaden their horizon and definitely give that extra push and say it's definitely possible," he said.

Doty said Marana High already has 1,775 students registered to take classes next year - a vast contrast to the 700 students when he arrived 14 years ago. Despite the immense growth, he said, education practices haven't evolved with the rest of the world, and it's time to do something to keep students from becoming lost in the crowd.

"High school absolutely has to change," he said. "Our students have changed but high school hasn't, and I think the smaller learning communities concept is important. Our teachers agree with that, and our students do, too."

Learning options in the future

The 2006-07 school year at Marana High School will be the first year of full implementation for a freshman academy that will explore different career opportunities and six career academies that sophomores, juniors and seniors must enroll in:

€ Fine arts, media and communications: This academy will focus on careers related to humanities and the arts, including architecture, graphic design, fashion design, writing, film, fine arts, journalism, languages, advertising and more.

€ Business, marketing and computer information systems: This academy will focus on careers in entrepreneurship, sales, marketing, computer/information system, finance, accounting, personnel, economics and management.

€ Health and medical services: This academy will focus on careers in health and disease treatment, including research, prevention, treatment and related health technologies.

€ Social and human services: This academy will focus on careers in economic, political and social systems, including education, government, law and law enforcement, leisure and recreation, military, religion, childcare, culinary arts and social and personal services.

€ Engineering and industrial technology: This academy will focus on careers related to technologies necessary to design, develop, install and maintain physical systems, including engineering, manufacturing, construction, automobiles and related technologies.

€ Science, environmental and natural resources/agriculture: This academy will focus on careers in agriculture, the environment and natural resources, including agricultural sciences, earth sciences, environmental sciences, fisheries, forestry, horticulture and wildlife.

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