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April 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 7

The Benefits of Theme Schools

In Dearborn, Michigan, the public schools have responded tothe needs of the community and competition from charter schoolsby developing theme schools.

When talk of charter schools hit Michigan, Dearborn Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Hughes sensed that pressure would mount for choice—if not by parents, at least by politicians. Then, in 1995, the Michigan legislature passed the Private School Academy law establishing charter schools. The law presented a challenge to Michigan's public schools, which now faced increased competition for public funding.
The public schools needed something to counteract competition from charter schools, so Hughes invited Dearborn's principals to think of ways to enrich the identity of their schools with themes that would inspire teachers, maintain and enrich the core curriculum, attract and involve parents, and motivate students while preparing them for the real world. The increasingly diverse100,000 residents of this urban community west of Detroit soon discovered new opportunities in their public schools.
Within the next few years, 18 theme schools emerged among the30 district schools, offering charter-like alternatives that responded to the needs of the community, the district's17,000 students, and the parents.

Arts: Complementing the Community

In a stairwell at DuVall Elementary School hangs a mobile fashioned after Calder and Picasso. In the foyer, a stack off our painted desks represents the work of Jackson Pollock, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and Georgia O'Keeffe. The halls sport quilts and ceramic tile. Stained glass has replaced many windows.
Art permeates the core curriculum. “The mission of this school is to integrate arts into the academic areas with drama, movement, music, and a hands-on approach,” says principal Terry Biesadecki. “Students use higher-order thinking skills when they are fully engaged in the arts. The students sing their multiplication tables and use movement to understand shapes, science, and the planets.”
How did this school come up with its theme? Influenced by the school's art teacher, former principal Larry Dockham envisioned a school where the subjects merged as they do in the real world, where an integrated arts curriculum could engage nontraditional and hard-to-reach students. Teachers responded favorably to the idea of an arts theme for the school, especially after participating in a special inservice training involving hands-on learning while using the arts.
The theme was a fit for the community, located in a quaint, historic housing district where many artisans and musicians live. The school has developed partnerships with senior citizens ,the Dearborn Community Arts Council, and Henry Ford Community College. The school hosts numerous guest artists and teaches art history, art production, aesthetics, and art criticism. Students and parents have opportunities to be creative, and they have choice.
“You choose what fits,” one parent says. “It fit my kids and me. Now my daughter is in high school and plans to study art.”

Science: Meeting Old and New Needs

A different incentive inspired a science theme at River Oaks Elementary School, located in a working class community in the northwest section of the district. The teachers were not enthusiastic about science, shying away from it or just teaching from the book.
Something dramatic also needed to be done about the school's anemic science scores. Principal Susan King points out, “Getting theme school status was a way to get support and staff development.”
The district's science resource teacher offered support for changing science instruction. The principal used the district's seed money to send 8 of the school's 14 teachers to a four-day science conference. The teachers received hands-on training and got pumped up. “I needed the power of eight going to a conference,” King said. “They didn't sleep sometimes. They talked and lived science for four days.”
Now, five years after River Oaks undertook science immersion, the science theme turns out to be a good fit for the school that sits on the banks of the Rouge River. “The river is a natural laboratory,” says principal King. Working with Friends of the Rouge, an environmental group committed to preserving this important watershed, River Oaks students developed a nature trail and regularly measure the river's water quality. Along the floodplain, they learn about water systems, plants, and freshwater wildlife.
The school's wooded grounds include two learning gardens that serve as outdoor laboratories for hands-on learning, where students can make their scientific discoveries. A peace garden welcomes visitors at the entrance to the school; the extracurricular Garden Club, the school's most popular activity, is responsible for the peace garden's upkeep.
The school has an integrated curriculum. For example, students combined a study of health, art, and science when they created life-sized replicas of themselves, drawing their internal organs and biological systems. Fifth graders and kindergartners work together as science buddies, providing tutoring for the younger students and reinforcement for the older ones.
Has science immersion increased science scores? “Our science scores are going up but not as significantly as I'd like. The students who started with the program five years ago will just now be taking the test, so I'm hopeful,” says King.
Not only is the River Oaks staff now solidly behind the theme school, but other factors at the school have also changed. Five years ago, River Oaks had 18 bilingual students. Today, nearly one-third of the 379 students are bilingual. Science, however, is a universal language. “Where they sometimes struggle with language,” she says, “pictures are a common language and a great starting point for learning.” The integrated science curriculum meets the new language needs of students.

Engineering: A Way of Thinking

At the high school level, some of Dearborn's theme schools take the shape of half-day academies that offer students dual enrollment with their home schools. Fordson High School's Academy of Engineering and Technology, for example, was started to reach students with aptitudes for math and science. The three-hour program meets each day to focus on math, computer design, computer-aided design, and computer manufacturing. Students take these half-day programs as electives and then travel by bus back to their home schools for the core high school curriculum. The district also buses students to various work sites.
The academy approaches engineering as a thought process. “We see engineering as systems—industrial, environmental, computer systems,” says principal Paul Smith. “It is a thinking process, not necessarily a career path. Perhaps some of these students will become engineers, but many will go into law, medicine, or technology.”
Students learn how to solve problems through nontraditional classrooms, team-based learning, and projects. For example, students work on design teams to create, with general specifications from the instructor, a robotic car. They apply the concepts of electricity and mechanics that they learned in physics class and then demonstrate these elements to their classmates.

Responsiveness, Flexibility, Innovation

Each theme school has a focus that responds to different needs of the community. At Long Elementary School, the theme is service learning. Students learn about needs in the community and how to respond to those needs. For example, students adopted a senior citizen home. The senior citizens take the bus to visit the computer lab at school, where the students help them use the Internet and set up e-mail accounts.
One of the newer theme schools focuses on international studies, featuring global studies. This year, for example, the school is reinforcing the core curriculum through its focus on continents, involving science and math while students intensively study the geography and history of several countries. Meanwhile, students receive 45 minutes of instruction in French or Arabic three times a week, with bilingual teachers reinforcing language learning on a daily basis.
Principal Nada Harajli emphasizes that this new school is a foreign language school but has the same core curriculum as all other Dearborn public schools. “Let's say teachers are talking about oceans. They can talk about it in Arabic or French and integrate the foreign language,” Harajli says. “Most classroom instruction, however, is conducted in English.”
Designing theme schools demands flexibility. “Perhaps it's the Academy of Engineering and Technology today, but it may be something else five years from now,” academy principal Paul Smith says. “We may need to make modifications as certain interests run their course. We always need to find themes that keep students motivated, and when we tie it directly to the core curriculum, we win.”
Parent input is crucial to the success of theme schools. The school board abandoned three theme schools that experimented with an extended school year when parents resisted the concept in spite of documented success in increasing student achievement for both low and high achievers. By contrast, a strong contingent of parents of children at a public Montessori Academy has petitioned annually for the addition of another grade. Despite budget and space issues, the school board has maintained the program in response to its popularity among parents.
Theme school principals say that a primary benefit of launching a theme concept is that it motivates staff members to implement innovative strategies in the classroom. The transition to a theme school often brings cohesiveness to a school's staff and offers new opportunities for leadership.
The challenges of developing theme schools include covering costs and meeting the demand. Superintendent Hughes estimates the cost of implementing schools at $1 million since inception. And except for the half-day academies, students who go to a school other than their home school must provide their own transportation. Meanwhile, because the population of Dearborn is increasing every year and theme schools are popular, most schools are overcrowded, and there are few openings at several theme schools.
Success, however, is the best kind of problem to have—especially in the face of competition from charter schools. As Hughes says, “I believe parents will continue to choose us because we have quality schools.”
Dearborn's Theme Schools and Academies

Dearborn's Theme Schools and Academies

Character education

Creative arts

Environmental studies

Foreign language

Gifted and talented

International studies

Language arts


Service learning

Business partnerships

Health technologies



Science and technology


Mathematics, science, and technology

Engineering and technology

Margaret Weertz has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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