Ninth grade teams set in place, tenth grade teams to be established
Because of the success of the ninth grade teams, (see Freshmen GPA rises, ineligibility decreases during first and second quarters), the Blair administration hopes to implement similar tenth grade academic teams that would revolve around students, administrators and teachers, according to several Blair administrators.
Currently, ninth grade students are placed together in core classes: English 9, U.S. history, science, Connections and technology education (ETC). Math could not be included because students take different math classes and could be on a variety of levels.
This program has been in place for a year as part of the academy programs in the Downcounty Consortium (DCC).
Classes that would be included in the tenth grade team next year would be English 10, National, State and Local Government and required and elective academy courses. According to Assistant Principal Linda Wolf, there will be five lead academy teachers, several counselors and five administrators, each of whom will be assigned to an academy to lead the tenth grade teams. Blair's Academy Coordinator Susan Ragan said that "the smaller learning community goal" has not yet been achieved with the current sophomores, so future sophomore teams will help establish necessary relationships in order to create an ideal learning environment. "For this year's tenth graders, I don't think we've built an academy identity so I'm looking forward to next year's change," said Ragan.
What are the academies?
The academy programs were established along with the mandatory freshmen Connections class during the 2003-2004 school year in five DCC high schools: Montgomery Blair, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Wheaton and Northwood. The goal is for students to pursue similar academic interests and career goals in a small community setting within the larger school population. Students are required to take Connections and four other credits from an academy to graduate with an academy certificate.
During a student's freshman year, the selection process for an academy is finalized. In the second quarter of Connections, students explore several career options so they can select an academy for their remaining high school career. In late December, early January, freshmen are divided into similar interest groups of 10 to 15 to meet with Ragan, one of the five Blair, lead academy teachers and one of the two ninth grade school counselors. A maximum of five students are paired with each adult in order to establish a more effective, pre-planning system.
Throughout the year, teachers and counselors have strived to advertise Blair's academy electives, according to Ragan. At the beginning of second semester, department heads and teachers offered flyers on different classes, developed a Power Point presentation for students and talked one-on-one with interested individuals to help plan their schedule next year.
The current and future freshmen of the DCC are required to enroll in academy courses; however, sophomores are only encouraged. The current juniors and seniors are unaffected by these programs but have the option of enrolling in specialized academy classes.
Connections and Matter and Energy teacher Wendell Hall feels the new ninth grade teams have especially given students more one-on-one attention with their teachers. "Having the kids on team has helped in the sense that we've been able to track their progress more than in previous years," he noted.
Another important change in the DCC is the county's initiative to better prepare teachers for their Connections and academy courses. "The benefit of the Consortium is that the teachers are trying to problem solve together," Ragan said of this year's program.
Last August, there was a two-day training session for Connections teachers in the DCC to review the curriculum. "[The training] has provided a vehicle for more sharing. The curriculum is much more complete, and the [preparation] is better," explained Ragan.
Now that the Connections course has been in place for a year, teachers have more experience and more ideas concerning the curriculum. Ragan said that last year, teachers were concerned and overwhelmed because they had to take on the responsibility of establishing a new freshmen course. This school year, however, Ragan feels that while Connections teachers have a heavy workload, the additional curriculum resources have convinced the teachers to more fully support the program.
Despite the program's benefits, Ragan admits there are implemental problems that have yet to be addressed. Some students have to stay at school longer because of the introduction of eighth period classes to non-CAP and non-Magnet students, as no bus transportation is available.
Another problem with the academy program is that many students continue to change their minds about which DCC high school they wish to attend. In March, students can request school transfer forms for the upcoming year; however, they cannot transfer mid-year. Placement in specific schools is not guaranteed.
Despite these problems, Ragan believes that a high majority of students, "60 percent," are probably benefiting from the DCC. "This number is purely anecdotal. We won't know until surveys [are collected]," she said, adding that student reaction depends on the individual. "I think it varies. There will also be kids who think [the academies] are a waste of time and say they can get straight As without it."
Freshman Stevia Morawski is part of the group of students who see no benefits to the academies. "I don't think colleges will care or know what an academy is," she expressed her concern. In addition, Morawski fears she will have limited course options next year when she is part of an academy because of the mandatory academy courses. "I don't want to have my selection of electives restricted," she said.
Stevia's mother, Kim Morawski, agrees with her daughter in that she sees no legitimate point to the academy programs. "The academies are such a non-event. I don't see what advantage it gives to kids. It's taking a few courses in a subject [students would] take anyway," she explained. Her main concern is that there are more effective ways to divide students other than by academic interest.
Still, Ragan feels there are unique opportunities from school to school, especially because teachers have been given "the freedom to develop curriculum specific to their academy." She further explains that students can "take advantage of teacher's expertise and of
specialty courses," which strengthen students' academic and career goals. Teachers are strongly encouraged, for instance, to look into and advertise student internships for the specific academy they teach.
As a student who is interested in sports medicine and the human body, Shermin believes the Human Services Professions Academy will give him a better opportunity to pursue health-related jobs. "Academies give kids choices of what to look forward to in the future," he said. However, freshman Alex Muelvy, who also plans to take courses in Human Services Professions, worries about the effectiveness of the academies for those students who are confused or undecided about their own interests and career paths.
In the meantime, Blair administration and DCC officials are attempting to learn from and expand on the programs already in place. Parents of Blair freshmen, for instance, received a questionnaire in February regarding what impact the ninth grade academy has had, what positive changes have been made and what is still in need of improvement. Wolf says most parents felt the ninth grade teams have given their children a place to be a part of, but one or two parents did express concern that there was little opportunity in the academy programs for students to meet new people. However, Wolf stressed that the survey was not statistically significant; less than ten percent of parents responded, and many freshmen did not even receive the survey from their Connections teachers.
Another assessment of the academies' success is the AOL survey, which is in its third year. The test, which is disagregated by grade, has shown that there have been more positive, academic qualities in last year's ninth grade class than in previous years, "and I expect even more positive results this year," says Ragan.
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