September 28, 2009

Oregon newspaper documents one year at innovative Salem high school

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Oregon’s Statesman Journal launched a creative new multimedia series today chronicling one of Salem’s most ethnically diverse student bodies, McKay High School, as the school pilots a new formula for increasing academic success.

Each month for the full academic year, reporters will feature a student, teacher, administrator and alum from the school. The profiles kick started today. But what really makes this project interesting is the progressive curriculum this school has developed, resulting in higher attendance, lower dropout rates and improved test scores — in one of the most impoverished schools in the state.

They’re calling the school model “career academies,” or smaller learning communities geared toward helping students explore their interests. As freshmen, students are quizzed to help them choose from three possible disciplines they will study for the next four years: Arts & Communications; Business, Engineering & Technology; and Health & Human Services. From there, they can explore more specific pathways. The class of 2010 is the first to root themselves entirely in the program.

It’s the kind of template that has been used in foreign countries for years, but one that has not yet caught on in the United States, though it has been around for more than 30 years. Some fear dividing students into sub-classrooms will increase segregation in an already ethnically divided school. Others worry that the system could limit students’ potential by restricting their interests too soon. But administration and staff working at the high school and witnessing the changes disagree. Said Lisa Shreeve, a teacher at the school:

It’s not narrowing focus, it’s creating relevance.

And the numbers don’t lie: The school’s dropout rate was halved in seven years, attendance is up to 90 percent and test scores are climbing.

The most recent comprehensive study of career academies — a 2003 report by the U.S. Department of Education, which collected more than 10 years of studies on career academies — found similar success rates, particularly for those students at high risk of dropping out, such as impoverished children. It’s something to keep in mind, as more and more children are falling below the poverty line.

— Natasha Walker

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