CONCORD -- Can too much of a good thing turn out to be a bad thing?
This is the question some teachers and students at Mt. Diablo High raise about Principal Kate McClatchy's plan to convert the campus to an "all academy" model. Academies -- small learning communities focused on specific areas of interest -- are widely praised nationwide because they allow students to delve deeply into subjects they enjoy and usually foster close relationships among participants. This, supporters say, results in greater engagement and achievement.
But at Mt. Diablo High, some teachers fear forcing students to immerse themselves in courses they aren't interested in, while increasing the sizes of the academies, could hurt the school. At the Mt. Diablo school board meeting last Monday, several people said they felt the plan was not well thought out. Some raised concerns about student safety, lack of collaboration, burgeoning class sizes and limited academy options.
"This is all being done against the will and advice of most all teacher-leaders involved in academies," said Stephanie Sliwinski, who teaches English in the Architecture, Construction, Manufacturing and Engineering academy. "Three hundred-plus students in a 'small learning community' is ludicrous. It defeats the entire purpose of the model, which is based upon rigor, relevance and relationships. Now, with 200 students in ACME instead of 150 -- and next year another 100 more coming in as freshmen
McClatchy and Superintendent Steven Lawrence did not answer Bay Area News Group questions about the plan by press time Friday. However, local, state and national leaders generally support academies because they have been proven to work.
President Barack Obama included academies in his Education Blueprint, referenced in his State of the Union address, said Pat Ainsworth, assistant superintendent for secondary education in the California Department of Education.
"This academy thing is really catching on," he said. "They called us from the White House and interviewed us on this. The statistics are there. Academy students outperform the high school population by significant amounts in terms of graduation, attendance, college preparatory course completion -- just every category."
Mt. Diablo High teachers agree that academies can be beneficial, but some say they object to a top-down decision-making process around the plan, which has not allowed them to voice their concerns. Wood shop teacher Steve Seaman said two students have suffered minor injuries in class this year; he speculated they may not have wanted to be in the academy and didn't embrace safety procedures.
Student Savannah Ridgley said she was upset by McClatchy's decision to eliminate the visual and performing arts academy, FAME, which is now a club. She also alleged that McClatchy sometimes punishes the entire student body for the actions of a few and complained to the school board about sparse Advanced Placement course offerings.
McClatchy's plan to completely convert the school to "wall-to-wall" academies in the fall was one of several concerns that led a majority of teachers to vote "no confidence" in McClatchy last month. Since then, district administrators have met with teachers and drafted plans for addressing major issues, Lawrence told trustees. The school staff expects to discuss the plans Monday, as part of a professional development day.
Trustee Gary Eberhart said he had not known of the plan for an all-academy model, and wondered how such a monumental change could be under way without any board discussion or approval.
"I don't think anything's a done deal there," Eberhart said Friday.
"If everybody's up in arms, that's not a very healthy educational environment. We need unity on our site. We need everybody to be brought into the vision and moving forward as a team. One person trying to shove everybody though a doorway is not very effective."
ACME: Architecture, Construction, Manufacturing and Engineering Academy
Digital Safari: Multimedia Arts and Computer Science Academy
IHTA: International Hospitality and Tourism Academy
MBTA: Medical Bio-Technology Academy
Eliminated -- FAME: Visual and Performing Arts Academy
More information about Mt. Diablo High academies is available by calling 925-682 4030 or visiting http://mdhs.mdusd.org. Additional details about the teachers' vote of "no confidence" are in the On Assignment blog at www.IBAbuzz.com/onassignment.