Daniel Perry / The Monitor
September 11, 2007
The challenge looms as large as the steel school initials at the front of their campuses: changing the high school atmosphere to provide more courses tailored to students’ interests and providing additional information for teachers to do their jobs.
Six high schools in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, Weslaco and Zapata school districts are doing this with the help of the Region One Education Service Center in Edinburg and nationwide education organizations. The schools started last month their first year of the High School Redesign Project, which breaks up student bodies, teachers and counselors into small learning communities geared toward specific topics. The districts planned for a year before launching the project.
The McAllen school district is also in the planning stage and will implement it at its three high schools and Lamar Academy for the 2008-09 school year.
The idea is to have 18 high schools revamped in a five-year period. The money to do this will come from the U.S. Department of Education, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Texas Education Agency. Also partnering in the effort are the Institute for School Excellence and the Institute for Reform and Research in Education, both national entities providing project research and guidance.
Leaders at the districts said they hope redesigned schools can improve student completion rates, lower drop-out rates and improve academic performance.
In the PSJA district, PSJA North High School had the lowest completion rate among its three high schools with 78.2 percent. But, PSJA High School had the largest number of dropouts with 93 students. Both figures are from 2006, according to the state education agency.
In the Weslaco district, Weslaco East High School had the highest number of dropouts with 27 and the lowest completion rate with 91.5 percent for 2006, according to the education agency.
The participating high schools must still abide by state education guidelines and have students pass required standardized tests to graduate. The number of learning communities is contingent on the size of campuses and the range of student interests. Zapata High School only has three communities for law, criminal justice and government; health sciences and business and engineering and technology.
PSJA Memorial High School has eight communities in subjects ranging from performing arts to legal professions and public service. Some new courses in music theory, medical microbiology, sociology and courts and criminal procedures were added to give students more themed courses to take in their junior and seniors years.
“That area of interest can hopefully be articulated in their senior year when you are looking at dual enrollment, concurrent enrollment, project-based learning,” said Claudia Rodriguez, Region One’s administrator for the division of instructional support. “I think the intent is more to go that route and the schools, like in PSJA, creating some classes you can see in college. We applaud their efforts.”
PSJA Memorial junior Francisco Gonzalez, 16, is in the business and technology community. Some of his classes this year include introductory computer maintenance, geometry and orchestra. He is looking forward to learning about Web design and software repairs this year.
“They (teachers) do get you ready for what you will be used to in college, but now, I don’t really feel like they are doing that,” Gonzalez said.
Dalila Garcia, PSJA Memorial’s school improvement facilitator, said staff is still tweaking some student schedules because of some classes either having not enough or too many students. She said staff will start thinking about the next school year’s scheduling in November.
PSJA Memorial junior Dulce Gonzalez, 16, is in the health science track and is taking orchestra, second-year Spanish, medical microbiology and third-year English. She is not related to Francisco Gonzalez.
“I thought we were going to stay in one wing and not see our friends,” she said.
PSJA North has also dealt with scheduling issues the first few days of school.
”From my perspective, we didn’t put enough time and effort in the planning stage,” said Barbara Mahan, an English dual credit teacher at the school. “I’m not saying it can’t work, but it was sort of my perception we needed another year to plan.”
Weslaco East added Advanced Placement physics and debate courses this year along with block scheduling. Principal Sue Peterson said more courses will be added in upcoming years along with opportunities for students to graduate with professional certifications. The school already offers a nursing assistant certification.
“What has made it work is the extreme amount of teamwork and support by everyone,” Peterson said.
The school has not had to add mathematics and science classes because there were already enough for students to take for each year of high school. This year’s freshmen class is the first to be required by the state to take and pass four years of mathematics and science courses.
The traditional homeroom and advisory periods at the participating schools are being transformed into advocacy time for teachers and small groups of students, depending on the campus size, that will meet weekly. The teachers will keep these advocacy students for the duration of their high school careers.
PSJA North is expected to begin advocacy periods each Wednesday starting this week. The high school had not had regular homeroom-style classes the last few years, school staff said.
Advocacy time will also be an opportunity to study student progress, with academic and behavioral profiles being compiled for each student. The profiles detail absences, test score information, grades and other information and can be accessed online by teachers.
“You want to build relationships,” said Alban Benavides, a junior and senior American history and psychology teacher at PSJA North. “You want to know what you’ve got.”