Colorado Small Schools Initiative a big idea in Re-2
The high school scene is changing. Garfield School District Re-2 is making both its big Rifle High School and the new Coal Ridge High School small schools.Bob McCarthy and Laura Findlay, who are consultants with the Colorado Small Schools Initiative, trained teachers last week in advising and collaborating. Teachers will have to do a lot of both as part of the new Re-2 small schools program. The Colorado Small Schools Initiative is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which invests heavily in high school reform projects.The initiative gave Re-2 a $21,000 grant in October. Administrators, board members and teachers have used the money to travel to larger schools that were remodeled in order to provide closer personal relationships between students and adults, more opportunities for student involvement and higher rates of academic success.Those who traveled saw schools in Denver, Chicago, California and Boston. They brought the ideas they liked back to western Garfield County with them. And the ideas will become realities Aug. 16, when Rifle and Coal Ridge open for the 2005-06 school year.Rising freshmen at Rifle will be divided into two teams of about 80 students each. Each team will share the same four core-subject teachers, English, math, science and social studies. That way teachers will be able to collaborate and discuss ways to help the students they have in common.”The schedule is deliberately organized so those teachers will have time to meet and talk about students and what they need,” Dave Smucker, the principal at Rifle, said.Teachers within a subject area will be able to get together as well.”They’ll still teach in their own style,” said Jeanie Humble, the principal at Coal Ridge. “But they’ll be able to make sure they’re teaching to the same standards.”The schedule for freshmen at Rifle will be slightly different from the schedule for older students. Ninth-graders will only take six classes – two electives and four core subjects, while upperclassmen will continue to take seven classes. During the extra hour, which will not occur every day because of variations in the school’s block schedule, freshmen will meet in advisories. Advisories are structured groups of 15 to 20 students with one teacher. There is no curriculum for that time period. It’s an opportunity for students to discuss the school environment and any issues of interest with each other and with a teacher.McCarthy said the idea behind the advisories is to help students form relationships with an adult.”There is a ton of research over the last 30 years,” McCarthy said. “It shows a profound connection between student achievements, aspirations, the school climate and a structure where students are known by adults very well.”McCarthy said those relationships form for some students anyway, but advisories insure that every student will have an adult they see regularly and have a chance to talk to.Coal Ridge students will not break into teams, but teachers will still share most of the same students.Coal Ridge students will meet in advisories three times a week and will attend what Humble calls a “town meeting.” At the town meetings, all students and staff will gather in the commons and students will have an opportunity to say what’s on their minds, minus any personal attacks.”The purpose of the town meetings,” Humble said, “is to give kids a voice, a chance to say how they feel about their school.”McCarthy said the small schools initiative aims to foster a greater sense of ownership among students, which will curb issues like violence, poor attendance and vandalism.”It’s really an education in democracy,” McCarthy said. “If we can get kids in the practice of expressing themselves, they’ll graduate educated in citizenship.”Humble said students will have a chance to discuss any issues that came up in the town meeting the next day in their advisory groups.Re-2 has formed all of its high school reform around three guiding principals: teacher collaboration, personalization of education and academic rigor.”The purpose of the academic rigor is not just so we can say we’re a rigorous school,” Humble said. “It’s so the doors will be open and our kids will have choices.”Humble said freshmen will fill out college applications at the beginning of the school year so they will know what they need to do if they want to continue their educations. While Humble and Smucker don’t expect all students to be interested in going on to college after graduation, they want all of their students to have the choice, they said.Students are not currently required to take two years of a foreign language, though most colleges look for that. Smucker said changes in graduation requirements are likely to go before the school board soon.Changes are starting small, with the freshman class at Rifle and the small population at Coal Ridge. But Re-2 will decide whether or not to carry the program into the next year in February.”In four years, the whole school could be different,” Smucker said.
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