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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 1999
Vol. 57
No. 1

Academy Rewards

A comprehensive high school takes on the challenge of giving students the academic choices of a large school with the personalized learning of a small academy.

Walk into a large, urban, comprehensive high school and you often sense feelings of isolation. Students and staff members scurry to and fro, rushing to class, each in his or her own world. This feeling once pervaded Granby High School, in Norfolk, Virginia, a comprehensive high school of 1,600 students. Since 1939, the school has successfully served the community, with national, state, and local leaders among its graduates. However, the building eventually became outdated and was unable to support the educational programs necessary to prepare students for productive citizenship in the next century. Hallways were narrow and dark, and administrative and guidance offices, located at the front of the building, were far away from students and teachers. Teachers seldom used their small teachers' lounges, preferring to stay in classrooms, behind closed doors.
Our school personnel received a unique opportunity to create an educational program for Granby. Norfolk's five-year Capital Improvement Plan designated Granby High School as the next major capital project. As plans progressed, and as the school and central office staff determined education specifications, we realized that the school needed not only a facility renovation and expansion, but also a restructured education program. The staff wanted a program to better meet the needs of students and the community, to negate feelings of isolation, and to be supported by a first-rate facility. The trick was to design the school from the "inside out" so that the building renovation reflected our new education program—the program would guide the renovation.

The Challenge

As we began to design the new Granby High School, we encountered several problems. We wrestled with the fact that Granby High School was simply too large and impersonal. We read many professional articles that convinced us that smaller is better, especially for high schools. Students lose their identities in large schools, and smaller schools are less likely to have discipline and violence problems. They also better serve the needs of at-risk students.
But Granby was a comprehensive high school with a capacity of 1,800 students, and the community expected the same level of service that the four other comprehensive high schools in the district provided. Granby would have to offer not only the academic subjects, but also the electives and ancillary activities. Although our first choice was to build four or five smaller schools, we knew that this was not a viable option. We would have been able to offer the basic academic subjects, but we could not replicate the elective programs and extracurricular activities four or five times and stay within the capital improvement and staffing budgets. We were also limited by the site on which the school was situated—approximately 22 acres on a major thoroughfare of the city. We simply did not have the space to build several smaller schools. These constraints, coupled with the fact that the citizens of Norfolk wanted to preserve Granby High School as "a piece of history" integral to the city, presented our challenge: to take advantage of the small-school concept while maintaining the integrity of a large comprehensive high school.

The Academy Concept

We accomplished our goal by establishing four academies. Located within the larger school, these academies give students and teachers the feeling of being in smaller settings. In each academy, all classrooms are near one another, with one academy on the first floor and the other three on the second floor. Each academy houses approximately 450 students, heterogeneously grouped, in grades 9–12. We offer all the basic subjects—mathematics, science, English, social studies, and foreign languages—in each academy. In addition, each academy has special education classes. Students remain in their respective academies with the same teachers for all four years, leaving only to take specialized courses not offered in the academy.
All specialized courses, such as art, music, technology-vocational education, and health and physical education, are held in classrooms outside the academies. Thus, students have the advantage of a small-school setting with all the courses available in a comprehensive high school. A technologically advanced media center is centrally located within the facility and serves students from all the academies. The media center offers 16 computers for research, a large collection of print resources, a television production studio, and an editing suite. With computers, students can gain access to many resources available in the media center from their classrooms.
A commons area in the middle of the facility accommodates large groups of students and is also used as a cafeteria. Students go to lunch by academy and purchase meals from an open food court adjacent to the commons area. Also surrounding the commons area are a variety of student services, including a career resource center, a student activities room, a health clinic, an attendance office, and a security office.
Integral to the academy concept is the idea that teachers and students remain together for four years. Teachers get to know students and their families. Students feel more comfortable because they do not have to adjust to an entirely new group of teachers each academic year. Just as important, teachers have opportunities to meet together, to discuss students in common, and to plan interdisciplinary units of study. A teacher planning room in each academy has office space for 20 teachers from all disciplines. Each planning room is equipped with computers, a copying machine, and other teaching resources. Teachers can meet there daily to discuss student needs and to plan curriculum.

Decentralization of Administration and Guidance

Each academy also has an administrative suite of offices that serves students and teachers in that academy. The suite has offices for an academy administrator (assistant principal) and two guidance counselors, along with a reception area, a conference room, and a records and storage room. Both administration and guidance are now close to the students. Thus, each academy is a self-sustained unit, a true school-within-a-school. Students stay with the same administrator and guidance counselors for four years, thereby receiving more personal attention. Parents who contact the school with questions or concerns immediately speak to the academy administrator, who has all the students' records on hand.
But first, our office staff had to buy in to the concept of decentralization. Both the administration and the guidance department had become comfortable with their relative isolation from the students and teachers. However, for students to feel less isolated, they need many adults who know them, can nurture them, can help them solve problems, and can refer them to other services and agencies for help. Now each assistant principal and guidance counselor is responsible for a finite number of students and can better address student needs.

Does It Work?

Although our primary goal is and always will be to increase student achievement, we have yet to gather objective, reliable statistics concerning student achievement. However, we have noticed several successes that we attribute to the academy concept. Enrollment at Granby has increased by approximately 250 students, with a number of students coming from small, private schools in the area. Students from these schools now have the advantages of attending both a small academy and a large high school.
Another success involves school discipline. We originally believed that a smaller, more nurturing environment would give students a better sense of community and security. It would also allow teachers and administrators to know students personally and work individually with students and their families on problems. This belief has been supported by the decreased number of school and district infractions. A report from our tracking system for student discipline shows that in February 1999, there were 18 referrals for disruption and 61 referrals for insubordination. This is a significant decrease from February 1998, when there were 38 referrals for disruption and 106 referrals for insubordination.
Staff members attribute this decrease to the fact that students are more comfortable in school; have a greater sense of security; and know that caring adults are present to supervise, counsel, and interact with them. Teachers say that they are more likely to discuss student problems with one another, the guidance staff, and the academy administrator, thus enlisting the services and feedback of a variety of people who look at the whole child. Students are no longer just faces and identification numbers who sit in a class for a short time each day; instead, they are individuals with their own unique sets of concerns, problems, and attitudes.
The best evaluations come from the students, teachers, parents, and administrators who live the academy concept every day. Student reaction has been positive across grade levels. An 11th grader stated that he likes the academy because it reminds him of being in middle school, where he felt a definite camaraderie between teachers and students. Another student said, "The teachers know who you are; there isn't any messing around." Most students commented on the lack of discipline problems and on the personalized attention. The routine of school is carried out more efficiently and effectively. One student noted, "It is now much easier to get things like class changes and counselor appointments." Another benefit, according to students, is that they have to spend less time traveling between classes because all basic content area classes are in close proximity. A freshman summed up, "Overall, the academy concept works for me!"
Teachers and administrators also speak to the academy's success. A mathematics teacher described the benefits of the teacher planning rooms: We're in the teacher planning room and one teacher can say, "I had trouble with David today," another will say, "I did, too," and then we can discuss how to help David.
A member of the guidance department said that she misses not seeing her departmental colleagues as often as she used to. "But," she counters, "I don't want to go back." Academy administrators have noticed that because they see fewer students for discipline problems, they have more time to visit classes and observe teachers and students in action. One academy administrator noted that more students qualified for the National Honor Society last year, a fact that he felt was influenced by the academy concept.
Parents, too, have noticed differences. One parent talked about how his daughter no longer has three, four, or even five tests on the same day because teachers now plan together. Parents also have a telephone number that connects them directly to their child's academy. Thus, they deal with the same receptionist and administrator each time. This, too, builds a sense of familiarity and security.
Despite our successes, we have a lot of work ahead. Too many students still must leave their academy for specialized classes. Some teachers have not bought into the idea that they are teachers of students rather than teachers of subjects. In addition, some students say that they miss being with all the students in the school. However, we feel that dividing a large, comprehensive high school into smaller schools is a positive force in enhancing students' lives, their academic achievement, and their desire to come to and remain in school.

Denise K. Schnitzer has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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