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July 6, 2005
Page: 01G

Innovative N. Oldham High reaps acclaim

'May term' keeps students engaged
Tonia Holbrook


The Courier-Journal

North Oldham High School's contributions to a statewide effort to reform high school education have earned acclaim from state officials, and North Oldham's May term - its most recent project - won school board approval last week.

The board heard a mostly favorable report June 27 on May term, an experiment in which juniors and seniors took classes designed to hold their interest during the last two weeks of school.

Board Vice Chairwoman Joyce Fletcher, whose son Nathan participated in May term as a senior, said she is pleased with the project, both as an official and a parent. She also said she's glad the school is looking at ways to enhance it.

Students could take up to four May-term classes, which were designed to inject fun into academics. Some of those included a hands-on forensics class a la the popular television show "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation"; how to cook healthy meals using only dorm-room essentials, such as the George Foreman Grill; and spelunking at Mammoth Cave National Park while learning about conservation and preservation of karsts.

Fletcher said she had concerns about some classes being held off campus.

Superintendent Blake Haselton, who retired Thursday , said that North Oldham administrators are looking at ways to keep all of the special classes on campus and to better address the needs of special-education students, but he said May term is "90-95 percent" where it needs to be.

Haselton said the concept is intended to achieve the district's goal of keeping students engaged in learning during the whole school year, not wasting one day.

North Oldham is one of a handful of schools chosen by the state Department of Education to try out programs aimed at improving the high school experience. State officials call the project the Vanguard initiative.

This comes as high schools are getting a critical look nationally for failing to prepare students for college and the modern work force. Educators and politicians alike are pushing to restructure high schools to produce better-educated graduates.

In May Kentucky's Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence called for changes that include more rigorous classes, end-of-course exams and teacher bonuses - all intended to improve high school students' achievement.

Oldham schools had made changing the high school experience a priority long before then, Deputy Superintendent Charleen McAuliffe said. Among the efforts:

Block scheduling at Oldham County and South Oldham high schools began in the mid-1990s. In this format, students attend fewer classes each day but for longer periods. The intent is to allow more time for in-depth study.

Oldham County High began its Freshman Academy in the 2000-01 school year. Ninth-graders are put on a schedule separate from upperclassmen, and teachers focus on study skills. Since the program began, McAuliffe said, fewer freshmen fail classes.

As of last fall, the "D" grade was eliminated at Oldham County and North Oldham high schools. That raises the threshold for a failing grade, which administrators hope will encourage students who aim only to pass classes to do better.

May term is only one element of North Oldham's Vanguard project. The school, which opened in fall 2003, was designed to include other unusual features:

The school is organized into "houses," in which each teacher advises several students and acts as their advocate, to foster closer relationships between students and teachers and generate a feeling of teamwork.

The student body is divided into lower and upper schools. The lower school works to focus freshmen and sophomores on the basics of graduation requirements. Lower-school students have the same teachers throughout the two-year period. The upper school, for juniors and seniors, allows more electives and classes linked to students' career and academic goals.

Students are required to complete a senior project. They choose a topic they're interested in and research it, giving written reports and, finally, a presentation to a jury.

The high school shares a campus with North Oldham Middle School, and the two are trying to create a seamless connection. High school students act as mentors to those in middle school, and the two schools' staffs meet periodically.

Students have had a large role in developing North Oldham High since before its opening, with a committee suggesting what the school include. Students have remained involved, and some have participated in the Vanguard initiative at the state level.

Andy McCormick, who graduated in May, devoted his senior project to high school reform, traveling around the state collecting students' thoughts about what's wrong with high school as it is now. McCormick delivered his findings to the state Board of Education on June 8.

"I think students probably know better than anybody what needs to change," McCormick said.

Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, attended the meeting of the state board and said its members "were all very complimentary of what North Oldham and those kids are doing."

State Education Commissioner Gene Wilhoit told the board that North Oldham High is a model for others in its focus on cultivating relationships between teachers and students.

File photo; North Oldham High student Chris Wallace took a yoga class during the school's May term program in the final two weeks of school.

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