In high school, I was one of those students that had a hard time understanding how Calculus or Chemistry mattered in the “real world.” I knew I wanted to do something like psychology or education – not engineering or med school. But I couldn’t see how my math or science classes were connected to that.

When I became a teacher, I didn’t forget what it was like to be in high school (although some parts I’d like to forget — like having braces for what seemed an eternity). Every year, I knew I had students who were just like I was in high school, and I wanted to figure out how to close that gap between school and “the real world.”

I’m going to start from the idea of Learning Communities in general and, from there, move to discussing Professional Learning Communities. Finally, I want to explore this notion of Student Learning Communities and how we might adapt them for our high school students.

Professional Learning Communities

Many of us in education have heard the term “learning community,” but for those of us who are unfamiliar with this term, a learning community is defined generally as “a group of people who share common academic goals and attitudes, who meet semi-regularly to collaborate on classwork. Such communities have become the template for a cohort-based, interdisciplinary approach to higher education.”

Currently, all teachers at Cross Keys High School (and at many other schools around the country) participate in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) that center around:

  1. collaboratively developed lesson plans
  2. common assessments (both formative and summative)
  3. reflections on data (eg. analyzing student performance on common assessments or engagement during specific lesson plans)

By setting aside time at least once a week to design lesson plans and assessments, teachers have emerged from their practice of simply shutting the door and teaching and hoping that what they’re doing is effective. Instead, they are constantly reflecting on their pedagogy, their lesson delivery, and their assessment design. Teachers observe one another and often gain new strategies, while also providing critical feedback when necessary.

These PLCs – while difficult to introduce at schools that have become accustomed to “teaching in isolation” – have led to increased student achievement and increased faculty collaboration.

Student Learning Communities

Another type of learning community exists within the realm of higher learning. Universities often have “Student Learning Communities,” and this can more specifically be defined as “any purposely designed curricular program where the same group of students take a common set of courses together, which are connected in same meaningful way or share a common curricular experience (improve curricular coherence).”

Researchers Chun-Mei Zhao and George D. Kuh explain that SLCs take “four generic forms”:

  1. Curricular learning communities are made up of students co-enrolled in two or more courses (often from different disciplines) that are linked by a common theme;
  2. Classroom learning communities treat the classroom as the locus of community-building by
    featuring cooperative learning techniques and group process learning activities as integrating pedagogical approaches;
  3. Residential learning communities organize on-campus living arrangements so that students taking two or more common courses live in close physical proximity, which increases the opportunities for out-of-class interactions and supplementary learning opportunities; and
  4. Student-type learning communities are specially designed for targeted groups, such as academically underprepared students, historically underrepresented students, honors students, students with disabilities, or students with similar academic interests, such as women in math, science, and engineering. (Lenning and Ebbers, 1999)

Current Models of Student Learning Communities

I have been studying this idea for quite some time and would like to explore ways to bring SLCs to Cross Keys High School (and other DeKalb schools). Combining SLCs with Community Engaged Teaching practices (read more here) seems to be one of the ways that we can not only engage our students in meaningful learning, but also effect more immediate change in our neighborhoods.

Gwinnett County Public Schools is creating a model similar to this by instituting “Academies” or “Career Pathways” in their high schools. Many school districts have a Career, Technical, and Agricultural Education (CTAE) program, but this idea of “academies” applies to all students. Academies include areas like Business and Entrepreneurship, Fine Arts, Health and Human Services, or STEM (to name a few), and all students must choose which area they would like to pursue. This is akin to choosing a “major” in college and having all classes tailored in a way that complements the student’s academy of choice.

In 2014, the Georgia Department of Education (GDOE) informed school districts that they must choose one of the following organizational structures: Strategic Waiver School System (SWSS/IE2), Charter System, or Status Quo System. This was intended to provide school districts more flexibility in order to increase student achievement. DeKalb County School District chose to become a SWSS (as did Gwinnett), and it was part of this flexibility that allowed GCPS to create these academies.

Since DeKalb County School District is a SWSS, one of the ways that DCSD could use this flexibility is to create something similar. By instituting academies at each of our district high schools, we would be able to create more connections between what students do in the classroom to what students do in the “real world.”

When students see the synergy between different curricular areas, and when they realize their academic studies directly transfer to a coherent area of interest, then they are more engaged in the learning process. The fragmented learning that high school students are often participating in disconnects each subject in a way that harms their ability to see its relevance. Academies (or similar ideas) combat this notion that Biology isn’t connected to Algebra which isn’t connected to English or Social Studies.

Constructivism in Action

I also believe that school districts (like DeKalb County Schools) could take these ideas a step further. While enrolled in an academy within the high school, students could also participate with other students in way similar to Professional Learning Communities. This would include a more constructivist approach to learning, “whereby knowledge is not simply ‘discovered’ but is socially constructed. As a result, rather than an authority (instructor) transmitting information, students actively construct and assimilate knowledge through a reciprocal process” (Zhao and Kuh). In my class, this means that students not only complete the assignment, but often they also design the project. This ensures that students are more likely to take ownership and to be interested in their topic.

This would also mean that students would frequently meet with their Student Learning Communities to design projects, reflect on implementation, and analyze student academic growth – all best practices for the leadership of any public or private organization.

Business and University Partnerships

These academies could also partner with organizations and universities in the Metro Atlanta region in order to tap into the existing community assets. During the past couple of years, my classes have engaged in projects facilitated by the University of Georgia, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Georgia State University. These types of partnerships have the ability to expose students to college-level projects and ideas, while also augmenting the studies of undergraduate students in a meaningful way.

Within each academy, then, students could partner with organizations or universities that share their focus. For example, students in the Engineering Academy could partner with Georgia Tech or with local engineering firms. These institutions could provide invaluable connections to real-world, actual projects that impact the students’ community – and the high school teacher could work to ensure the material was tailored for students’ needs and academic levels. (These types of business partnerships already exist and work well for schools like DeKalb County’s very own Warren Technical School.)

Community-Engaged Teaching

If formal partnerships with organizations and universities were not available, students could identify needs and assets within their own community and then devise solutions and ideas to carry out their goals. Take for instance students living in a “blighted” neighborhood. Students could use their academy’s focus to create asset-based community development strategies. The Business Academy might address the economic needs of a community, while the Health and Human Services Academy might focus more on ways to improve the physical and mental health of residents within the neighborhood.

These are just a few of the ways that this idea of “academies” could benefit students and breathe much-needed life into our education system. Opportunities like the ones mentioned above exist for certain students in certain schools, but how could we open the doors to opportunities like this for every student?