Transformation of Metro high schools continues

Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 12:31am

Grouping children according to a wide range of career themes, from journalism and construction to health services and aerospace, is the foundation of an ongoing redesign of Metro’s high schools.

Small Learning Communities — a model that seeks to break up large, comprehensive high schools into separate career-based clusters — is nothing new to Metro Nashville Public Schools: The district adopted the approach several years ago.

But sensing Metro’s SLCs weren’t being utilized to their fullest potential, Director of Schools Jesse Register last fall recruited educator Jay Steele, known for his work in career academies in St. Augustine, Fla., to help lead a transformation inside Metro’s high schools.

Updating the Metro Nashville Board of Education on his efforts Tuesday night, Steele said he hopes the new approach will “transform teaching and learning” by connecting students with project-based learning through firsthand activities outside the classroom.

Steele envisions aligning high schools with business partners “to tear down the classroom walls — figuratively,” he said. “If Vanderbilt University Medical Center is having an open heart surgery, why can’t our kids be able to view that surgery or witness it through distance learning?

“All the research shows if we can integrate the academic core — math, science, social studies and language arts — into project-based instruction, around a kid’s focus or around a kid’s passion, then the instruction is more sustainable,” he said. “Kids learn at a higher level.”

Metro officials hope to incorporate most of the redesign effort by the 2011-2012 school year, he said, but the plan will be fully implemented over the next three to five years.

School board member Mark North, who represents the Madison area, said the key to Metro’s high school reform is “sustainability.”

“We want to be sure that as we redesign and reform that we keep an eye and focus on sustainability, so that these great programs are more than just a fad,” North said.

Under the SLC system, all rising high school students enter what’s called a “freshman academy,” which separates students into different groups taught by corresponding teachers. It’s not until the 10th grade that students start selecting career pathways.

As announced last month, Steele has also elected to move to what’s known as an A/B block schedule, which divides the school day into four 90-minute classes, alternating those classes by the day of the week.

Working in conjunction with each high school’s principal, Steele opted to keep some of the career academies offered at certain high schools but added or subtracted at other schools. He also considered the proximity of nearby businesses that could serve as potential partners.

Students can choose from five or six academies at some high schools, or as few as three at others. Every high school will offer “global courses” available to all students — foreign languages and arts courses, for example.

In the long run, Steele said, Metro must “brand and market” each high school according to its academies. For example, three Metro schools, including Antioch High School, are set to have student-led credit unions. A marketing plan is to be unveiled May 5.

“We cannot ... offer every single child every single thing at every single school,” he said. “I want the high school to take on an identity and a focus, and I want them to be known for that.”

Eventually, Steele said, the hope is to allow students to actually choose which high school they attend based on themes that are offered. He said committees are studying the idea, but its implementation is several years away. 

5 Comments on this post:

By: girliegirl on 2/10/10 at 8:25

Why limit your access to just Vandy? Why not other higher ed. learning facilities. Most every major city has a learning hospital, right?

By: girliegirl on 2/10/10 at 8:25

Why limit your access to just Vandy? Why not other higher ed. learning facilities. Most every major city has a learning hospital, right?

By: BigPapa on 2/10/10 at 9:12

Finally someone is actually thinking that HS education should actually prepare someone to go into the world of work!!! Make the HS more like Nashville Tech and such, dont make kids wait to get a "real education."

By: ckh2011 on 2/10/10 at 9:18

The Small Learning Communities may be a good idea to get kids to connect to real-life learning, but increasing a teacher's class load from an avg. of 135 students per semester to 210+ per semester is counter-productive. Teachers cannot possibly have meaningful learning relationships with so many students.

Mr. Steele could have chosen a 4 X 4 block schedule which still provides the 90 minute learning block, but gives teachers a semester class load of about 100 stidents so that they may truly get to know their students. With 4X 4, students still complete 8 subjects a year, but in a more humane and manageable way. Students take 4 classes per semester and take only four exams per semester. In addition, the district saves textbook money as the textbooks used one semester can be redistributed to other students taking the course the next semester. Offering the A/B block costs more for textbooks because you have to have 8 books for every student every day.

Administrators like the A/B block because they want to offer AP classes all year. However, the percentage of students successfully completeling AP and International Bacculaureat classes is very small in MNPS. We should not adopt a schedule that serves such a small percentage of students. Many districts offer the 4X4 block and still have great success with AP courses. These college bound students would benefit from completing a course in one semester as they will do at university.

Students under the A/B block take 8 subjects a semester! Few college students have to juggle that many subjects at once. That means 8 exams at the end of each semester. A lot of learning time is lost on the A/B block because teachers have to review every other day the material that students had two days ago in order to get them back on track. If a student misses a day, it takes more time to catch up.

Many districts abandonded the A/B block when test scores plummeted. Sadly, MNPS often adopts strategies that have been proven to be less effective in other districts.

Make no mistake, the 90 minute 4x4 or A/B block provides fewer hours of instruction than the traditional 6 subject schedule, but districts must offer more subjects per year in order to meet the new state graduation credit requirement. However, of the two 8 subject block schedules, the 4x4 provides a better opportunity for both students and teachers to be more successful in teaching and learning.

By: bobteague on 2/11/10 at 1:05

FYI - The block schedule at the 12 MNPS Comprehensive High Schools is a hybrid model of both A/B and 4 X 4 block schedules. This hybrid model will take advantage of strengths of both in order to have the best personal learning experience for every high school student.

Hear & see full description if you watch the 2/9 Metro Board of Education meeting video at

Jay Steele's portion of the program begins about 10 minutes & 45 seconds into the video.