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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Getting to Know You: School Restructuring Promotes Positive Academic and Social Growth

Placing students in smaller groups at this Wisconsin high school has fostered a sense of community among its students.
By Diane Curtis

Students contributed their designs for the ideal 'neighborhood centers' at the remodeled James Madison Memorial High School.

Credit: Students from James Madison Memorial High School

The idea of breaking down James Madison Memorial High School into smaller units began to jell when a teacher at the 2,100-student, Madison, Wisconsin, school told her colleagues about moving to a new neighborhood.

Welcome Wagon goodies and kindly advice put the teacher in a positive frame of mind about her home-buying decision. A block party where she got to know her neighbors helped connect her to the area and made her feel part of a social group. With such pleasant experiences, the teacher felt she had a stake in her neighborhood and was quickly committed to becoming an active member of the community.

So when Memorial High School received a three-year post-Columbine grant from the United States Department of Education to help combat student alienation, the teacher's neighborhood metaphor struck a chord.

Memorial was divided into "neighborhoods," "blocks," and "backyards." Backyards have about twenty students, blocks about one-hundred, and neighborhoods about 500 students chosen at random from all ninth through twelfth grades.

"I thought it was a really good experience because a lot of freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors got to meet each other and get to know each other through the backyard," says graduate Anastasia Vener. Younger students, she says, asked her about classes and college, and she was glad to share her experiences and knowledge. "It helps [the lower classmen] feel more a part of the school," she said. "It builds a better community."

Each neighborhood has a group meeting space the size of two classrooms that is furnished with tables, chairs, lamps, Internet-accessible computers, laser printers, and couches. Each neighborhood will also eventually have its own outdoor space. The school was remodeled to create the neighborhood centers, which provide after-school tutoring as well as a place for studying and socializing. Homeroom time was also expanded.

"Space itself has rules," says Jeff Lackney, an architect and assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has been working with Memorial on its new learning environment. "You can tell when you walk into a church, you have to sit down and be quiet. When you walk into a school, what does it tell you? Does it tell you to be creative and express yourself, or 'Open your book, be quiet and go to Chapter Two. You're not supposed to have fun here.'"

A good environment, he says, will "make you feel like you'e supported. People are listening to you and people are caring about you. It makes it easier for you to relax and achieve."

The one-hundred-student blocks eventually will be committed to community service, but most of the initial activity these days takes place in the twenty-student "backyards," which are similar to homerooms and focus on socializing and getting to know fellow students and teachers as well as on academics. Each 500-student neighborhood has its own student government (with representatives from every backyard), which gives more students the opportunity to become leaders. Students and teachers stay with the same backyard, block, and neighborhood for all four years.

During the 2001-2002 inaugural year of the neighborhood concept, backyard activities were as varied as the teachers and students in them. Some started out with name games. Others got to know each other by playing laser tag. Some designed T-shirts to identify their backyards or planned bathroom cleanup chores or mural paintings to brighten up the school. Others collected food for the needy, had cookouts, sports tournaments, or chats about the most unusual thing they had ever done, or invited in speakers.

There are some early indicators of success: Attendance is up, and suspensions, retentions, and discipline problems are down. Students, says Principal Pam Nash, are adopting the vocabulary of neighborhoods, blocks, and backyards, which indicates to her that the idea is catching on.

"It does seem like an improvement in the school," says junior Ashley Kollberg. "Not only do you get to know each other better, you see people in the halls, and it's kind of nice to say hello to people you didn't know before."

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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