Carson: high, middle schools need changes
By Lynn R. Parks
In light of poor state test scores and what superintendent Kevin Carson calls a "lack of excitement" at the middle and high schools, the Woodbridge School District is instituting several changes with the start of the school year next week. Along with block scheduling, which has been in the works for three years, students will encounter strict enforcement of the existing dress code, three new "academies," or courses of study, and a required senior project when they return to school Tuesday.
"We have not been satisfied with our performance at the middle school and high school," said Carson. "This is not due to a lack of effort on the part of the staff, but because we haven't provided the situation that allowed the schools to be successful. Therefore, we will be making significant changes." He added that the changes will better enable the district to satisfy its four goals: Provide a safe, orderly environment for learning, provide opportunities for all students to progress toward meeting state standards, provide staff development to support school and district improvement plans and provide opportunities for parents and community members to become partners with the district.
Dress code to be enforced
The decision to strictly enforce the dress code the district approved last spring was made by a 15-member committee, made up of parents and teachers and headed by Kay Lewis, director of curriculum. After debating requiring students to wear uniforms, the committee voted to instead follow the existing code, which bans short shorts and short skirts, see-through blouses, hats and tank tops. "Clothing with any reference to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, illegal [activities], sacrilegious [ideas] and/or sex will not be permitted," the code adds.
In addition, the code mandates that students wear pants up to their waists and that all shirts be tucked in so that belts are visible.
The dress code will apply in all schools in the district. Carson said that teachers will have received training on its provisions and will help in its enforcement. Failure to follow the dress code will result in a school administrator contacting the student's parents and asking them to either bring in appropriate cloths or take the child home. Violation could also result in detention. "We are preparing young people for careers," said Carson. "The business community has clothing expectations in the workplace and our kids should learn how to obey them. In addition, there was a safety concern. We have students who wear loose clothing and who have trouble walking in it. If we have a fire drill and they have to rush down the steps, they will fall."
Students to have career tracks
Block scheduling in the middle and high schools will permit the establishment of "academies," or courses of study, that at first will be limited to three: agriculture, business and child care.
Carson foresees a day when that number will expand to include other career tracks.
Beginning in June 2001, students will select one of the three academies in which to specialize; each of the three will include math, English, science and social studies courses and will be designed for students on all levels, from college-bound to special education.
Creating the academies will eliminate the isolation in which teachers work now, Carson said. The students will participate in projects that focus on the academy and that span all subject matters. For example, in the agriculture academy, students might study insecticides in their science class, he said. That could expand to a math lesson - determining the correct application for a field of a certain size - English - writing a report about the chemical - and social studies - exploring the social applications of man's use of insecticide.
A college-bound student in the business academy would take all required courses for college admission but would also get lessons in office machinery and business practices.
Teachers will be required to report to their classrooms at 7:30 a.m. and classes will not start until 8:20. That common 50-minute period will be used by staff members to plan cooperative learning exercises, Carson said.
"Our classes will still focus on the basics," he said. "But in an 85- or 90-minute period, teachers cannot just stand up there and talk. The students have got to have project work and have got to be involved in the process."
Under the new schedule, students will take the same courses all year long. On one day, they will go to periods 1,3,5 and 7 and on the next day, 2,4,6 and 8. Carson said that the district chose that model as opposed to having two distinctly different semesters because administrators believe that in such a model, retention of subject matter and continuity of thought patterns are improved.
Grouping policy could expand
The district is also considering expanding its heterogeneous grouping into the 10th grade and into math classes. Social studies and science classes are already heterogeneously grouped, which means that students of all ability levels are in the same classes; there are no honors, college prep or general classes. English classes through the ninth grade are also mixed.
"We are contemplating requiring every ninth grader to take algebra," said Carson. "Maybe after that, every 10th grader to take geometry. Our seventh and eighth grades are good preparation for ninth grade and should let any students succeed in any math." Carson said that by setting high standards for every student, the district encourages the students to succeed.
And he added that the content of a heterogeneously-grouped class is not diluted; instead, students who have trouble grasping the concepts get after-school help as well as assistance in group-learning activities.
Even more changes
Additional changes at the high school include the doubling of the agricultural teaching staff, from one to two, and the addition of a Marine Corps Junior ROTC program, if a teacher can be located. Modular classrooms, predicted by Carson in February when the district failed to pass a tax increase referendum, are being moved in, six to the middle/high school and 11 to the elementary school. All sports have been cut back to just two teams, a varsity team and either a junior varsity or a middle school team. The vacant assistant superintendent position is not being filled.
Carson pointed out that none of this year's changes costs anything. "I don't need money to set up a student dress code or a new methodology of teaching," Carson said. "We are doing things that don't cost dollars." "We do a very good job at the elementary level," Carson added. "I believe we have one of the top 10 elementary schools in the state. But the administration has not provided a situation that allowed the middle and high schools to have the same success. "We have fostered isolation there, and now we are opening the doors. We are making a significant difference."
Carson, who before coming to Woodbridge was an administrator at Sussex Tech High School, Georgetown, said that he has faith that these changes will made a difference.
"I believe in our program. I believe in this model, I've seen it work. I've seen it improve education for a lot of kids. And I expect to see results this year in academics, in athletics and socially."