Thursday, July 10, 2008

Schools prepare for small learning communities

DuVal, Potomac high schools to be converted into several 400-student schools

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County school officials have chosen DuVal High School in Lanham and Potomac High School in Oxon Hill to pilot a ‘‘small learning communities” program that they say will promote individual attention and help raise student achievement.

Beginning in the 2009-2010 school year, the students would be separated into smaller, 400-student clusters within the school buildings.

‘‘It enables teaching to become personalized and enables teachers to connect the curriculum to kids’ own experiences and lives, and research shows that’s key to the intellectual development of youngsters, especially kids from low-income families and minority students,” said Michael Klonsky, director of the Chicago-based Small Schools Workshop and author of ‘‘Small Schools: The Numbers Tell a Story.” Klonsky has also co-authored ‘‘Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society.”

The U.S. Department of Education awarded the county school system a $3.4 million, three-year grant to start both the small learning communities and the summer bridge program, which will prepare incoming ninth-grade students for high schools, according to the offices of Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) and Barbara A. Mikulski (D).

Each of the two schools will have a principal who will oversee all of the smaller schools in the buildings. The existing assistant principal positions will be converted into principal positions for each small school.

Under the proposal, the small schools would be implemented over five years, beginning with ninth-grade students. A grade level will be added each year until the entire school is divided up.

The two high schools will have a staff of about 20 dedicated to each 400-student cluster.

DuVal, with a projected enrollment in the fall of 1,770 students, will be broken up into five or six small schools, while Potomac, with a projected 1,239 students, will be divided into either four or five, according to the proposal presented to the school board June 26.

Last school year, Potomac High School had an enrollment of 1,352 students with 67 teachers, while DuVal had 1,749 with 99 teachers.

School Superintendent John E. Deasy told board members that each small school would have a theme to which courses would be geared, such as languages or finance.

‘‘You take the voluntary state curriculum, of course, but every piece of course work is geared toward a thematic piece for that school,” Deasy said.

The board cited New York City, which created small high schools in 2002, as one school district that successfully implemented a similar plan.

A study of New York City’s small public high schools, conducted by the nonprofit research organization West Ed, showed that when underperforming high schools were divided into smaller schools, students had higher attendance rates, higher ninth-grade to 10th-grade promotion rates and higher graduation rates. In the 2004-2005 academic year, the schools reported an average graduation rate of 79 percent, compared with an overall graduation rate of 58 percent for New York City’s public schools.

Phil Lee, president of the Kettering Civic Federation, said he thinks the community will be concerned that parents from outside the area will want to transfer their students to the two schools, displacing the neighborhood students.

‘‘Prince George’s County has high schools that have 1,500 to 2,000 children in each one,” he said. ‘‘How do you walk something like this across the county and not leave out a lot of children?”

Derek Mitchell, the school system’s executive director of the Office of New Schools and Charter Schools, said part of the reason the two schools were chosen is that they have extra space. He said neighborhood students will have first priority to attend the Potomac or DuVal small schools programs, and if space is available, students from other areas will be able to transfer.

More detailed proposals to establish the small schools program will go before the school board this fall, Mitchell said.

E-mail Megan King at mking@gazette.net.