JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
A bloodless but high-stakes revolution is under way at Durango High School.
On Tuesday, freshmen and sophomores arrived early to spend their morning holding hands, rock climbing, and scavenger hunting. The activities – typically lighthearted for the first day of school – were a Trojan Horse through which teachers would initiate them into Small Learning Communities, an ambitious new program that Durango School District 9-R hopes will improve academic performance by better engaging students.
Like Hogwarts’ houses in the Harry Potter book series, each of the SLCs at DHS has a distinct personality, its own geographic base on campus and an evocative name: Atlas, Basecamp and Da Vinci. (Technically, Big Picture High School also is an SLC, but it is off-campus, next to the district’s administration building.)
But unlike the fictional wizarding scholars of Hogwarts – who are sorted into Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin by a strong-willed magical hat according to the properties of their soul – DHS students chose which SLC they enrolled in based on their learning styles.
Academically, SLCs are a big bet for the district, one on which it has spent money and time, and for which teachers underwent extensive retraining since 2010.
As the new principal of DHS, Leanne Garcia, formerly an assistant principal, is deeply invested in their success.
She replaces Diane Lashinsky, who resigned last year and now is principal of Blue Heron Middle School in Washington state.
Standing in DHS’s main entrance, Garcia, who is tall, calmly authoritative and a vivid if careful speaker, said that 95 percent of students are in their first-choice SLC and emphasized that though juniors and seniors would not be participating in SLCs, they, too, would benefit from teachers’ new techniques.
“The age of ‘because I told you to’” is over, said Garcia, as she walked away from the tennis courts where small teams of Basecamp underclassmen (motto: “Crew, Not Passengers”) had been building structures with deliberately baffling materials.
The winning model rose to 83 inches, and relied on erect straws – other teams’ straws wilted – to clinch victory. With patient coaching, the team eventually attributed their victory to leadership, teamwork and communication – Basecamp’s bedrock values.
Garcia said Basecamp, which has a male-female ratio of about 2-to-1 and is the largest SLC, was a pedagogic continuation of the Expeditionary Learning program that currently is in place at Miller and Escalante middle schools. Garcia said Basecamp’s primary methodology was hands-on experiences.
“Instead of telling them about being a mathematician, you have them do what a mathematician does,” she said.
Inside DHS on the second floor – Da Vinci’s dominion – administrators and teachers pressed their backs to the wall, as though bracing for a land mine. Moments later, Da Vinci kids exploded through the doors, intent on winning the scavenger hunt that teachers had designed to familiarize them with Da Vinci’s various classrooms.
“Sarah, get my pen,” yelled one girl, whose forearm was covered in doodles, racing through the hallway, holding the scavenger-hunt instructions above her head like a flag.
Garcia said Da Vinci, which is the smallest SLC, disproportionately attracted girls and is aligned with the STEM – or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – movement, which promotes creativity and innovation.
“How do you be creative in math? How do you sketch out a math problem the way an artist draws?” she asked.
Smiling Da Vinci students said they’d joined Da Vinci because “it’s creative,” “involved art,” and “you can draw in class and not get in trouble.”
Atlas, the final SLC, is based on the prestigious International Baccalaureate curriculum and quartered downstairs. Garcia said DHS was seeking IB authorization and hopes to get it in 2013.
Interestingly, there is no gender imbalance in Atlas. Atlas students take classes in eight subject areas – English, math, world languages, science, the arts, physical education, social studies and technology – an unusually broad education in high school.
“It’s internationally minded, emphasizes a holistic approach to academic, social and emotional growth,” Garcia said.
In the Atlas orientation, students played memory games, while in the adjoining room, they diagrammed the animating precepts of the Atlas education – “inquiry,” “communication” – many showing an impressive command of vocabulary.
At 9:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, three DHS freshmen discussed, rather ostentatiously, that they were playing hooky while aboard the trolley. One young woman mischievously insisted that she had “gotten lost.” A young man later suggested that the group “blow off the whole first week.”
Their behavior raises an uncomfortable question, one that educators heroically avoid: How educable are teenagers?
Every year, there are students who get into Harvard from terrible schools and students who drop out of terrific high schools. Every year, DHS fails some students, who drop out, become pregnant or get expelled.
Garcia said that with the majority of such students, “you see a disconnect between school and their personal lives. The point is to engage them.”
“When I was a high school student, I knew how to get good grades – but I wouldn’t say my high school experience had a lasting effect on me,” she said. “I did it because I had to do it, and I knew I was supposed to.
“But I don’t look back on it and think one aspect was instrumental in making me the person I am today. That’s why, with SLCs, I want so badly for students to be engaged,” she said.