Blair to introduce academies

Oct. 4, 2002, midnight | By Stephen Wertheim | 18 years, 3 months ago

Blair will establish five career academies designed to provide "extra direction and focus" to all incoming classes beginning with current freshmen, according to Academy Coordinator Susan Ragan. But the plan, to phase in over the next two years with the Downcounty Consortium, comes amid concerns that academies will fail to relieve Blair's overcrowding.

By strengthening high school's connection to real-world professions and personalizing the learning environment, the academies aim especially to engage the type of student who, Ragan said, "doesn't really see the point of school." New courses will emphasize early job planning and lead to twelfth-grade internships through partnerships with community businesses. "Kids will look to possible careers even as freshmen," she said.

All downcounty schools—Blair, Einstein, Kennedy, Northwood and Wheaton high schools—will house different academies in an effort to draw a balanced population to each school, according to Downcounty Consortium Director Walt Gibson. Among the consortium's main goals, he said, is making the schools "equally attractive" to students who must choose from among them in eighth grade before they select their academy a year later.

But social studies teacher Brian Hinkle, who worked for the MCPS Residency Compliance Office last summer, warned that academies are unlikely to convince many students to choose schools other than Blair, to which some students living particularly in the Kennedy and Wheaton districts now sneak in illegally.

Eighth graders, Hinkle said, select high schools not for the school's specific academic program but rather for its reputation, location and popularity with friends. Because some students already perceive Blair to be superior in those respects, Hinkle foresees a potential "nightmare" for Blair's crowding. "Back the portables up. There goes that athletic field," he said. Despite academies elsewhere, consortium-area students will shout, "Abandon ship," Hinkle predicted, as they leave their current home school to come to Blair.

Gibson, by contrast, expects Blair to attain its target enrollment by 2005 after the planned renovation of Northwood finishes and Northwood reopens starting with a class of 400 freshmen. He intends to market each of the schools evenly to eighth graders and their parents through a number of media, including brochures and videos. Public information companies such as Comcast are helping the consortium to develop additional strategies, he added.

Both Gibson and Ragan said they have not discussed setting a ceiling on Blair's enrollment before the consortium starts, a move Hinkle called essential. "If they haven't thought out maximum numbers of how many people can go to the different schools, then we're sunk," Hinkle said.

However, Gibson is "not going to anticipate a problem until one arises," citing relatively even enrollment in the county's Northeast Consortium. The Northeast Consortium runs a promotional campaign similar to the one Gibson described but does set limits on the population of each school, said Northeast Consortium Director Erick Lang.

In addition, the Northeast Consortium does not offer academies like those proposed for downcounty schools, nor does it have a pattern of students who consistently favor one school over the others, according to Lang.

Consortium planners, nevertheless, are focused on developing the academies for which the Downcounty Consortium received a $1.95 million federal grant this summer. The current vision, on which Ragan solicits student and parent feedback, calls for Blair to house five academies—Media Literacy, International Studies, Entrepreneurship, Human Service Professions and Science, Math & Technology—that students will join starting in tenth grade.

In an informal Silver Chips survey of 100 Blazers conducted on Sept 4, 68 percent said they would rather take a wide range of courses than be in a focused academic program. But the academies, intended to counteract what Gibson terms the "bigness" and "anonymity" of large high schools, will affect only elective courses, according to Ragan. Also, students will be able to switch academies, and possibly high schools, after they initially sign up for one. "We intend to maintain flexibility," she said, calling Blair's academies "very broad in scope."

Even students who switch academies, Gibson maintains, will gain from the experience. "In some ways, learning what you don't want to do is as important as learning what you do want to do," said Gibson. "The goal is to graduate from high school prepared for the rest of your life."

Ragan likened the benefits of the academies to those of Blair's existing CAP and Magnet programs, which, she said, served as models in her planning and will coexist with the academies. For example, by combining aspects of the social studies and foreign language, the International Studies Academy will offer interdisciplinary coursework, a practice common in CAP and Magnet but less routine for the bulk of Blair's population.

To some Blair teachers, however, the academies' resemblance to the CAP and Magnet programs is a cause for concern. English teacher Judith Smith fears the academies will increase the amount of "internal separation," which CAP and Magnet foster, among the student body.

For example, the divide could deepen if a disproportionate number of female students, which exists in CAP, enters the Media Literacy Academy as a disproportionate number of male students—64 percent of the Magnet is male—joins the Science, Math & Technology Academy. "I'm worried about increasing the racial and gender isolation within the school," Smith said. "We're already isolating kids enough."

Other teachers anticipated the Media Literacy and Science, Math & Technology academies would offer inferior academic programs to mostly minority populations while the CAP and Magnet would be academically superior and mostly white.

Acknowledging only "minor discrepancies" in the Northeast Consortium's population balance, Gibson disagreed that academies will cause isolation and said that if a problem arose, the consortium could adjust its recruitment efforts.

Other teachers echoed Smith's worry in a Silver Chips poll of 25 English and social studies teachers on Sept 4 and 6. Though 56 percent supported the idea of academies, 72 percent said that having students choose their academy when they register for sophomore classes was too early.

A common complaint, even among teachers who approved of the idea, was that reduced class sizes would do more to improve the average Blair education than academies. Some felt academies were the county's way of avoiding its responsibility to face issues such as overcrowding that would invlove more expensive solutions.

This year, Blair is piloting a course called Connections, which teaches time management and study skills to about 60 freshmen per semester. Like Blair students of the future, these freshmen are creating electronic portfolios of their work that they can show to colleges and employers. Ragan will expand the course next year.

For more information, visit the Academies at Blair website at

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Stephen Wertheim. Co-editor-in-chief Stephen Wertheim is deeply committed to reporting, even when it conflicts with such essential life activities as food consumption, sleep and viewership of Seinfeld reruns. In addition to getting carried away with writing and playing violin, Stephen thoroughly enjoys visiting and photographing spots around … More »

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