Grouping children according to a wide range of career themes, from journalism and construction to health services and aerospace, is the foundation of an ongoing redesign of Metro’s high schools.
Small Learning Communities — a model that seeks to break up large, comprehensive high schools into separate career-based clusters — is nothing new to Metro Nashville Public Schools: The district adopted the approach several years ago.
But sensing Metro’s SLCs weren’t being utilized to their fullest potential, Director of Schools Jesse Register last fall recruited educator Jay Steele, known for his work in career academies in St. Augustine, Fla., to help lead a transformation inside Metro’s high schools.
Updating the Metro Nashville Board of Education on his efforts Tuesday night, Steele said he hopes the new approach will “transform teaching and learning” by connecting students with project-based learning through firsthand activities outside the classroom.
Steele envisions aligning high schools with business partners “to tear down the classroom walls — figuratively,” he said. “If Vanderbilt University Medical Center is having an open heart surgery, why can’t our kids be able to view that surgery or witness it through distance learning?
“All the research shows if we can integrate the academic core — math, science, social studies and language arts — into project-based instruction, around a kid’s focus or around a kid’s passion, then the instruction is more sustainable,” he said. “Kids learn at a higher level.”
Metro officials hope to incorporate most of the redesign effort by the 2011-2012 school year, he said, but the plan will be fully implemented over the next three to five years.
School board member Mark North, who represents the Madison area, said the key to Metro’s high school reform is “sustainability.”
“We want to be sure that as we redesign and reform that we keep an eye and focus on sustainability, so that these great programs are more than just a fad,” North said.
Under the SLC system, all rising high school students enter what’s called a “freshman academy,” which separates students into different groups taught by corresponding teachers. It’s not until the 10th grade that students start selecting career pathways.
As announced last month, Steele has also elected to move to what’s known as an A/B block schedule, which divides the school day into four 90-minute classes, alternating those classes by the day of the week.
Working in conjunction with each high school’s principal, Steele opted to keep some of the career academies offered at certain high schools but added or subtracted at other schools. He also considered the proximity of nearby businesses that could serve as potential partners.
Students can choose from five or six academies at some high schools, or as few as three at others. Every high school will offer “global courses” available to all students — foreign languages and arts courses, for example.
In the long run, Steele said, Metro must “brand and market” each high school according to its academies. For example, three Metro schools, including Antioch High School, are set to have student-led credit unions. A marketing plan is to be unveiled May 5.
“We cannot ... offer every single child every single thing at every single school,” he said. “I want the high school to take on an identity and a focus, and I want them to be known for that.”
Eventually, Steele said, the hope is to allow students to actually choose which high school they attend based on themes that are offered. He said committees are studying the idea, but its implementation is several years away.