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Innovative new high school planned for Howard Co. to be like no other in Md.


When the first freshman class enters Howard County's newest high school in September 1994 it will have a cluster of classrooms all its own.

And the upper class students will no longer go to the math department's space or English department's classrooms. Instead, they will enter specially designed clusters where teachers from different disciplines will work together in presenting information.

Daniel L. Jett, director of the county's high schools, outlined the new approach last week in a report to the county school board on how the design of the $24 million, 1,400-student high school planned for Clarksville will be unlike any other secondary school in the state.

"The new high school will put Howard County in an ideal position to implement the new principles in the state board's proposed graduation requirements, which emphasize multidisciplinary programs and science, math and technology," said Michael E. Hickey, the Howard County school superintendent.

"I think we are way ahead of the trend. The principal and staff will be on the cutting edge because there is no textbook that tells you how to do this," he said.

Ninth-graders at the new school will spend two-thirds of their day in one area, where they will take English, math, social studies, science and health courses.

They will move to other areas only to take physical education, art, music and foreign language classes.

"All the research shows us that it is real important to have transition time for youngsters moving from middle to high school," Mr. Jett said.

"We are trying to provide them an area of their own without having them think they are protected," Robert W. Widger, an architect with the Calverton firm of Grimm & Parker, said of the area for ninth-graders.

Theodore R. Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University who has written about interdisciplinary instruction, said the concept of aninth-grade cluster would help "in breaking up the anonymity that a new kid of 14 faces in school with what seems a thundering herd."

The idea of isolating ninth-graders attracted attention when the Warsaw, Ind., school system built a separate building for them in 1987, which "has worked out well," said C. William Day, a national educational consultant from Bloomington, Ind. But he said the building will be expanded into a four-year high school for economic reasons.

"It is unwise to throw naive youngsters in with experienced high schoolers without giving them time to adjust and adapt to a school of 1,400 students," said Mr. Day, who will advise Howard County on technology in the new high school.

For older students, the new high school will stress interdisciplinaryeducation, with clusters of classroom space for related subject areas. A humanities cluster will house English language arts, social studies, foreign language and some art and music classes. Science, mathematics and technology will form another cluster, and arts and physical education will be another.

"When they enter each of the clusters, they will know by the architecture and design of the space that they are in that center for that purpose," Mr. Jett said.

Under this approach, a student will not only be taught literature, music and art, but how each discipline fits into the overall culture and society.

"For example, a student will learn what is taking place in society when a certain type of literature was developed," Mr. Jett said.

"It is important that students make use of the natural connections and relationships between and among areas of study to solve problems and to create new knowledge."

Mr. Sizer endorsed the approach as a way of bringing coherence to education. "It is good for students to see relationships such as the tie-in between math and meter in poetry," he said.

The concept also drew support from Martha J. Fields, assistant deputy state superintendent of schools. She described the school as being "based on the needs of students rather than the traditional way of doing things" and said she knew of no other Maryland high school taking a more comprehensive interdisciplinary approach, although Walbrook High School in Baltimore has done something similar.

Mr. Day said the cluster interdisciplinary approach is an emerging trend in public education.

"We don't have any hard evidence that the cluster concept will help academic performance, but most conscientious educators realize that thetraditional high schools are not structured very efficiently," he said. "It is one more attempt to see if we can find a way to improve teaching and learning, and we may not know for another 10 years how effective it will be."

Howard County's innovative high school will be based in part on Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind., near South Bend.

Penn has five divisions set up and administered by division leaders, who report to the principal. The interdisciplinary approach was implemented last year, creating divisions of technology, humanities, fine arts, practical arts and physical development after a system-wide study recommended an innovative approach at a traditional high school.

"For the most part, it has worked pretty well," said Andrew J. Parker, associate principal of Penn High School. He said academic achievement appears to be about the same as under the old system but that it was too soon to tell. "We are now in our second year, and people are just starting to settle in and get involved."

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