WASHINGTON – Eleanor Roosevelt High School senior Dena Hall said she does not feel overwhelmed when she wades into the halls of her 3,200-student school, the largest school in Maryland.
For Dena, 16, the Prince George’s County high school is just the building that holds what to her is her real school — the smaller academy for Law, Global Affairs and Public Service.
“There’s 20 of us all in four or five classes together. It gave us the chance to really get to know one another,” Dena said. “We became a family. . .In a school like this, that rarely happens.”
Roosevelt is one of three Maryland high schools, along with Northwestern in Prince George’s County and Middletown in Frederick County, that won three- year grants from the U.S. Department of Education for their successful academies, which break students in large schools into “smaller learning communities.”
The department also awarded one-year planning grants to Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties to develop similar programs.
Todd May, co-team leader for the federal Smaller Learning Communities Program, pointed to a two-year study in Chicago that showed smaller learning environments increased student achievement, decreased dropout rates and lowered the level of violence.
“I think if you look at what we’re seeing across the country, there’s a lot of negative factors (in large schools). We have issues in performance, behavior issues, violent incidences,” said May. “There’s a real pressing need for small, personalized high schools or we’ll continue down that path with a negative impact for students.”
The schools that won grants this fall were left to decide how to use the money.
While Northwestern and Roosevelt operate “career academies” — courses of study that are almost like a college major for high school students — Middletown has a “first-year academy” that physically separates freshmen from the rest of the student body.
“It’s so important for us to transition them efficiently and effectively so they feel as quickly as possible like an integral part of school,” Middletown Assistant Principal Marge Lyburn said of the school’s ninth-graders.
Freshmen at the 1,255-student Middletown High take classes in a separate wing, which Lyburn said “leaves the rest of the school with only 900 students — an easier school to manage.”
She said the $121,849 federal grant will let the school continue providing freshmen with mentors and will let it begin “After-the Bell” activities to give freshman extra help from teachers. It will also be used to set up intramural sports and after-school activities for a greater number of students.
“Just like all other schools, we have our sports teams, but the basketball team can only play a few people,” Lyburn said.
At Roosevelt, Director of Academy Programs Laura Grace said the school’s $308,600 grant will be used to train more teachers for the academies and to create more internships and mentoring programs.
As part of the six credits they take in their major – and sometimes even minor — course of study, Roosevelt students either intern in a workplace or enroll in a program called Vital Links, in which they create online resumes, tour different jobs and visit college campuses.
“It’s a flexible way of doing education because students get to choose from an array of courses,” Grace said. “I feel it’s a win-win situation. Students have all the advantages of large high school and all of the advantages of a smaller one.”
Roosevelt senior Semhara Tewelde, a Health and Human Services Academy student, is interning at Washington Hospital Center where she works with a doctor to analyze medical errors. Semhara, 17, said she has gained a “renewed self-confidence” from the program.
“Academies give motivation. (You’re) with students with the same aspirations and goals. It’s not people randomly in a class with different focuses,” she said.
Pat Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said she thinks the academies are a good way to personalize large schools.
“A lot of common sense goes into that idea,” she said. “When schools have 3,000 kids, I have a hard time understanding how academies wouldn’t work.”
Foerster said she only questions whether students would feel “trapped” by a major. But Grace said students at Roosevelt are allowed to change majors at anytime without losing credits.
And May, of the federal Education Department, said the smaller learning environments will help students while making for many more “satisfied teachers.”
“I think a lot of kids feel lost in huge schools. I know I would as a teacher,” she said. “Teachers sometimes feel like a cog in the machinery.”