tailoring students' education
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
Jan. 27, 2005
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
The 'smaller learning
communities' concept pares Marana,
Mountain View classes to 100-125
freshmen with similar academic
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
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
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."
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
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
Both Marana and Mountain View
also stress the relationships students gain from
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
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
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
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
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."
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
And schools must steer clear of
dumbing down material or making
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."