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High schools will divide into 'houses'

April 23, 2007|by ERIN CUNNINGHAM

HAGERSTOWN - Washington County's two largest high schools soon will have some of the benefits that smaller high schools enjoy, but the U.S. Department of Education says that alone will not boost student achievement.

North and South Hagerstown high schools, each with more than 1,250 students, will be divided into "houses" that will allow students more individual attention and contact with the same group of teachers.

The small learning communities will be formed at the start of the upcoming school year, but teachers already are being trained for the transition. Planning and implementation at both schools were funded with federal grants of more than $1.6 million, South Hagerstown Principal Richard Akers said.

The money was part of $87 million awarded nationally in 2006 by the U.S. Department of Education to districts in support of small learning environments in large high schools.

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School system staff members, including Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Instruction Donna Hanlin, told the school board in March that small learning environments affect student achievement and "promote high achievement."

Braden Goetz, group leader for high school programs for the U.S. Department of Education, said the communities alone will not work.

"No one is saying that simply having an academy or a small learning community will affect student achievement," he said. "There is no evidence that it affects student achievement."

Nathan Blatchley, a grant specialist for Washington County Public Schools, said officials researched small learning communities before deciding they would be a good fit at North Hagerstown and South Hagerstown high schools.

He said the information gathered ranged from statements that the program was "great" to statements that it did not seem to help students.

"It's a condition, but not the key to (student achievement)," Blatchley said.

The models that will be in place in Washington County will not look the same at each school.

South Hagerstown High School students will be divided into three groups of about 430 students each, Akers said.

Chuck Malone, onsite coordinator for small learning communities at South Hagerstown, said the model will provide more personalized attention because students will remain with many of the same teachers.

"We're going to have all the benefits of a small school with keeping all the benefits of being a large school," Akers said.

At North Hagerstown High School, students will be in small learning communities in their freshman and sophomore years, Principal Valerie Novak said. Upperclassmen will transition into career academy programs.

Students in the small learning communities will be assigned to one of three small "houses." Advisory programs and a freshman transition program will be established, she said.

Novak said there was some concern about how incoming freshmen were transitioning from small middle schools into a school with about 1,300 students. She said the small learning communities will help students adjust to a large school and help them succeed.

"Failure is just not an option ...," Novak said.

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