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Volcano Vista High School Pioneers Small Learning Communities

The new Volcano Vista High School  (VVHS) recently built at 8100 Rainbow NW just south of Paseo del Norte, was the first high school to be built in Albuquerque in 20 years. It is also the first school in New Mexico to adopt the small learning communities (SLC) concept for the entire school. Fundamental to the design and development of the new school are the findings from extensive APS research conducted 2001-2003 regarding SLCs, micro-environments in which students are well known and supported.

The key concepts of SLCs include community groups, or teams, of no more than 150 students; four core main curriculum team teachers; coordinated schedules in interdisciplinary teams; distinctive thematic focus; and an autonomous administration. Rather than 2,200 students learning independently in a large school environment, students are members of a defined small school within the larger school and learn in defined teacher and student units. SLCs, because they are small enough and collaborative, effectively and efficiently match students to teachers. Unlike in the traditional environment, the team teachers collaborate in working for the wellbeing of each student. "The SLC unifies the students while providing them with as much personalization and concentration as possible without limiting their options," said Rose-Ann McKernan, Director of APS' Research Development and Accountability and head of the SLC research program.*

Each SLC has a distinctive thematic focus which develops a clear sense of identity and purpose. "It's an interdisciplinary concept," said Yvonne Garcia, VVHS principal. All subjects, for example biology, chemistry, and business, are integrated into a theme to bring relevance to a student's learning. Three to four SLCs comprise one larger Career Academy with an academic subject focus determined by student interest. An Academy's focus will have a post secondary education career pursuit theme, such as technology, health, business, sciences, math, or even fine arts. "The Academy is a career path," said Garcia. "As the students proceed they take course work that steers them toward higher learning and a college or profession. The electives are selected by influence of the Academy and are a part of the career pathway." And according to McKernan the themes are broad enough that students have flexibility within the Academy, yet the SLC is flexible enough that a student can shift to another Academy if necessary.

The APS research findings, supported by other district and national research, clearly indicate that students do better when they are in smaller learning environments. Finding results include significant improvement in students meeting attendance requirements; reduced dropout rate; meeting academic growth expectations; increases in earned credits for promotion; and increased positive attitudes about homework, attention in class, getting good grades, school attachment, and instilling mutual respect. Students and faculty also reported an increased sense of safety and security that came with belonging to a group. As a result of students' participation in a Career Academy their knowledge of career opportunities doubled (to 70%) and 42% had clear career goals compared to 24% previously. "This concept is intended as nothing but a new opportunity and findings to date indisputably indicate that students are seizing the opportunity," said Karen Alarid, Director of APS' Facilities Design + Construction.

Other improvements reported as a result of SLCs were: declines in the number of disciplinary problems; improved teacher morale; a focus on prevention rather than remediation; higher levels of student classroom participation; and higher extracurricular participation rates.

"When we, the architectural team, discovered the SLC work, we knew what we had to do," said Allison Abraham, lead designer with SMPC Architects. "The APS research findings clearly defined the parameters which was delightful for the design team." The design team began by keeping the SLCs together and autonomous. As physical separation must be preserved and autonomy is critical to the success of a SLC, each Academy is housed with its own administrative office headed by an assistant principal, and its own food court (fed by a central kitchen).

The concourse is at the center of the campus and the internal circular spine connects to all Academies. The library, named the Learning Resource Center as it provides extensive computer access in addition to the book collection, is the central focus of the school. "The Learning Resource Center is a real contribution to the experience of school," said Abraham. Described by the design team as regional modern, the architecture responds to the color pallet of the area's landscape; it looks like it belongs sitting there on the volcanic rock. And with attention to both aesthetics and cost, it is beautifully simple. The buildings offer a buffer to the athletic fields from the strong west winds. Also in consideration of the environment as well as security, the design includes open view native landscaping. "I like the way we helped APS figure out what they needed to accommodate the SLC concept and I'm delighted with the result of our building," said Abraham.

The ninth grade academy, with room for 750 students as well as administrative offices, food court, and athletic fields, opened in the fall of 2007. The entire school, which accommodates 2,200 students and relieved overcrowding at Cibola, opened in the fall of 2008.

"The SLC concept of VVHS is a very different way of looking at high schools," said McKernan. "We have to acknowledge that the world isn't what it used to be and we need a new educational system to address the new world." The SLC concept brings the best of the small and large together. "It's a place where people really do know your name," said McKernan. Yet, all the advantages provided in a large environment, such as upper division science and school spirit, are still available.

Due to the high rate of mobility and population dense communities, the American society has become much more anonymous since the parents of today's high school students were in high school. As such, the traditional American high school consists of immense and faceless total student bodies and large impersonal classrooms. No one, however, will be invisible, faceless, or anonymous at VVHS.

*Note: Rose-Ann McKernan and Debra Heath of APS' Research, Development and Accountability, presented a paper on their SLC research to the Council of Great City Schools in Atlanta in October 2005. The Council is comprised of the largest 100 public school districts in the United States. The complex and sophisticated APS 'cause and affect' type research study is being used as a model in other large school districts nationwide.