Exploring Small Learning Communities

Posted in Learning

Among the biggest recent trends in American high school education is the small learning community (SLC) or academy, where students and curriculum are organized around a specific focus such as engineering, business or communication arts, to name a few.

Billions of dollars have been invested in these programs, which are also known as schools within schools.
Albany High School is a participant in this trend, launching three SLCs over the last six years. In part, these programs are created to help students learn valuable skills that they would not necessarily obtain in the classroom. Project-based or experiential learning are often central to academies.

The performance of SLCs at Albany High is mixed — one is quite popular and oversubscribed, while another has been put on hiatus and another is gaining momentum. Other schools report similar issues with their academies; they don’t last forever, and they often depend on the right mix of students and staff.

So, what can be learned from the academy efforts at AHS? If we believe in the model, how do you build the best approach for student learning?

EDSET, which is a two-year environmental pathway that stands for “Environmental Design, Science, Engineering, and Technology,” was launched in 2010. It is a popular junior-senior SLC, which regularly turns students away during course sign-ups in the spring due to limited space.

One draw of EDSET is the internship component.  Here, senior Ingrid Rosenthal works in a UC Berkeley forest pathology lab studying Sudden Oak Death.

One draw of EDSET is the internship component. Here, senior Ingrid Rosenthal works in a UC Berkeley forest pathology lab studying Sudden Oak Death.

Some people believe that students are enticed by the inclusion of an AP course — AP Environmental Science, or APES, taught by Darren McNally. Also attracting students are the weekly environmental internship, the methods of learning, and the overarching environmental focus of the program.

“The fact that EDSET has APES in its curriculum changes the way that sophomores perceive this academy when they’re applying,” said EDSET English teacher Jessica Park. “There is a certain stigma of rigor attached to AP that is not automatically given to other classes, which might be equally rigorous even without the AP label.”

Thus far, EDSET is the only small learning community to include an AP or Honors course offering, which some observers say is important for students who want to demonstrate a rigorous high school course load for college admissions, which become more competitive with every passing year.

EDSET students tend to have a good academic track record prior to their time in the program. Some believe that because of the caliber of its students, EDSET has an advantage when compared to other SLCs.

EDSET Junior Samantha Woo presents to her classmates and teachers about her work with pesticides.

EDSET Junior Samantha Woo presents to her classmates and teachers about her work with pesticides.

One program that did not have the longevity of EDSET was the Connect Academy. Established in the fall of 2008 after a three-year planning period and a Specialized Secondary Program (SSP) grant from the state of California, Connect was suspended, in part, due to the difficulty of attracting students.

Connect was designed for students who wanted an alternative to the traditional core humanities curriculum. The goal of the Connect Academy was to promote rigorous historical and cultural academic study through creative hands-on learning and community action projects. It combined English, social studies and art classes with internships and community service in 11th and 12th grade.

A fundamental theory of Connect was to attract students from the complete academic spectrum, which would allow students to help each other learn. This was the case at the onset of the program. Over time, however, the student makeup of Connect began to change, with more disenfranchised students not as interested in traditional academics making up the majority of the class.

Karen DeHart, one of the Connect teachers, said the Academy “connected students to each other and to their teachers. We were a very cohesive group supporting each other well. Because students were with the same group of students for several classes, we were able to design and implement rather unique assignments that were interdisciplinary in nature. We believe students benefitted from that by better understanding how we learn through real-life experiences and that subject knowledge overlaps into many areas of interest.”

DeHart added, “we needed to structure the program to include a wide variety of students to elevate expectations and provide a unique set of courses beyond English and history. Something like the VENTURE program is today. We offered ‘independence’ in project work but that requires a very mature student to follow through. That did not always work out well.”

Juliet Radford, one the the Connect English teachers noted, “Through my experience with Connect, I would say it takes the blood, sweat, and tears of teachers to get an academy up and running and then to keep it running. As teachers, we met at least two of our three prep periods every week and were constantly innovating and refining to figure out how to reach our students — a group of mostly disenfranchised students as this was Connect’s target population.”

“I am hopeful that students will begin to move away from the rush to the top. One risk an academy takes at AHS is that if they don’t include some sort of honors or AP offering, most students will not even consider the opportunity. It is a shame because being a trailblazer of something new can be just as important as one more grade bump,” Radford continued.

EDSET Junior Ruby Goldstein-Salazar conducts a poster presentation regarding her work on Sudden Oak Death.

EDSET Junior Ruby Goldstein-Salazar conducts a poster presentation regarding her work on Sudden Oak Death.

VENTURE is a SLC that incorporates a student-run business. VENTURE is committed to “experiential learning” — that is, learning by doing. VENTURE is focused on developing valuable business skills in accounting and design.

On a weekly basis, each student works one shift at the VENTURE store: before school on Wednesdays and Fridays, during lunch on Mondays through Thursdays or after school on Tuesdays through Thursdays. During that time, students sell school supplies, crafted gifts, and snacks to their classmates.

In addition to the student store, the businesses include the concessions at AHS and at Cougar Field for certain sporting events.

Business meetings are also held every Monday after school, and an accounting class is taught by Miriam Walden every Friday after school.

What distinguishes VENTURE among the AHS programs is the business orientation. Miriam Walden, one of the coordinators for VENTURE, said, “VENTURE students have all the skills needed to start their own business in high school, and many of them have started their own businesses in addition to the two businesses we run together as VENTURE. VENTURE students have design and accounting skills that can get them good paying jobs right out of high school. VENTURE students have the sort of teamwork and problem solving skills for the real world that colleges and employers want.”

Jeremy Candelaria, a senior in the VENTURE program, said, “I like VENTURE because it has taught me skills that other classes don’t offer. Working in the store and at football games has taught me how to deal with customers in a fast-paced environment. My internship through VENTURE has taught me about graphic design and marketing which will be very useful for my future businesses. Also, it’s pretty awesome being involved in the growth of a real business, especially one run by students.”

The VENTURE store has enjoyed growing success.

The VENTURE store has enjoyed growing success.

Each year, EDSET accepts a certain amount of students. Only a small percentage of applicants are accepted to the program through a process that includes submitting an essay and a transcript. VENTURE, on the other hand, tries to welcome every interested student into the program.

But selective admission does not guarantee a successful SLC. As Radford put it, “it’s important that we — as a school and a nation — continue to explore ways to meet the needs of disenfranchised students. Academies can be a successful means, but they need as much student buy-in as teacher buy-in. In other words, the kids also need to be committed to making the program work and working hard to reach the goals for students in the program.”