small learning communities

Oregon newspaper documents one year at innovative Salem high school

Oregon's Statesman Journal launched a creative new multimedia series today chronicling one of Salem's most ethnically diverse student bodies, McKay High School, as the school pilots a new formula for increasing academic success.

Each month for the full academic year, reporters will feature a student, teacher, administrator and alum from the school. The profiles kick started today. But what really makes this project interesting is the progressive curriculum this school has developed, resulting in higher attendance, lower dropout rates and improved test scores -- in one of the most impoverished schools in the state.

They're calling the school model "career academies," or smaller learning communities geared toward helping students explore their interests. As freshmen, students are quizzed to help them choose from three possible disciplines they will study for the next four years: Arts & Communications; Business, Engineering & Technology; and Health & Human Services. From there, they can explore more specific pathways. The class of 2010 is the first to root themselves entirely in the program.

It's the kind of template that has been used in foreign countries for years, but one that has not yet caught on in the United States, though it has been around for more than 30 years. Some fear dividing students into sub-classrooms will increase segregation in an already ethnically divided school. Others worry that the system could limit students' potential by restricting their interests too soon. But administration and staff working at the high school and witnessing the changes disagree.