Class of 2007 is on the cutting edge of education

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:17

    WARWICK-The Warwick Valley High School Class of 2007 is on the cutting edge of education. The current sophomore class is trying something new n they began it last year as freshmen and will continue a new learning program throughout the next two and a half years. What exactly is it? The district's new smaller learning institutes, which begins with the Freshman Academy, a physical wing of the building in which ninth graders receive all of their core subjects, and ends with two years of learning institutes, three distinct areas of study chosen by students, their parents, and advisors in the junior and senior years. "The restructuring officially began in the 2003-04 school year," said Dr. Marijane Reinhard, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instructional services for the district. "We rolled out the Freshman Academy last year and this year is the Sophomore Initiative." It is a four-year roll-out plan. Why change the entire structure of the high school? Reinhard said the enrollment at the high school is going up. There is a nationwide movement toward smaller learning environments, she said. Moving the freshman to their own part of the building personalizes the experience for them, giving the students an opportunity to make a smoother transition to high school. "A lot of research says that the freshman school year is a very important year," said Reinhard. "It is the transition to high school." Reinhard also said this way of learning gets kids engaged in the process. Kids were spectators, she said, not part of the experience. They took notes and gave back the information. This new program will show students how a subject is relevant in their everyday lives. High school can be very impersonal. The population at Warwick Valley High School keeps inching up. Coming from the middle school, where students are taught in smaller teams, walking into the high school could be overwhelming. The Freshman Academy will have only freshmen, between 350 and 400 students. Of course the students will take electives outside of the wing, but all core subjects will be in that central area. And the refining process is on-going. This year, the freshman class is being taught in teams, both teacher and student teams, similar to the middle school set-up. The first year of the program, only teachers were teamed, not students. "We did mini-staff meetings during the teachers' free periods," Reinhard said. "We asked ‘what don't you like?' Based on their input, we revised the plan for this year." The district decided to group the kids with teachers who are dedicated to freshmen only. "This gives teachers ownership of those kids," Reinhard said. "They really know them." Included in the revised plan is the Freshman Seminar, a 10-week course on study skills, organization, note taking, decision making skills and the like. Following the class of 2007 into the Sophomore Initiative this year are teachers, for the most part, who only teach sophomores. The two main aspects of this year are connections and exploration. "The students will explore which institute they will go into (in their junior and senior year)," said Reinhard. "It will allow them to explore different interests before deciding which institute to enter. The district gives the Holland Survey, which asks questions related to personal interests and likes. The ACT Survey is administered and is based on technical abilities. Both are used to aid in the decision of which course of study to take in the future. Part of the exploration is also focused on careers. There will be three panel discussions on careers where adults in the field come and talk to the kids about what it's like to be in that particular field. The connecting part of the Sophomore Initiative is fostered by the smaller environment again, as well as building relationships with teachers and guidance counselors. "We made the effort for kids to connect with the adults," Reinhard said. "For example, if a teacher sees a kid has failed three tests in a row or is late for school for a certain time. We try to connect before it becomes a problem." Decision time comes in junior year. Now, the students are in the main area of the high school, about 1,000 students total. The learning institutes are broken into three main courses of study: Math and natural sciences, humanities and social/behavioral sciences, and arts and applied sciences. Each institute has about 300 to 350 students. Each has the same core program of study, including math, English, science, social studies, and foreign language. The electives are what make the small institutes unique. For example, someone choosing the Learning Institute of Math and Natural Sciences may take principles of engineering, Q basic programming, environmental and animal science, and science research for electives. A student in the humanities and social/behavioral sciences curriculum would take psychology, sociology and creative writing. In the Learning Institute of Arts and Applied Sciences, students could take health, graphic design, mass communication, and vocal music. Reinhard stressed that students in all institutes may take any of the electives based on availability. And if a student changes his or her mind, they are not tied to that one course of study. They may change midway through the year or after junior year. Reinhard is a realist, though. She knows there will be resistance from some teachers, parents, and students. But the district is working hard to handle that. There is staff training and twice-weekly staff meetings to discuss what is working and what is not. Reinhard is ready to listen to the teachers and make the changes they feel are necessary to make this program succeed. "The whole thing is to make the high school environment more personal, individualized," Reinhard said. "We want the kids to know someone is noticing."