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Thinking outside the school building

Malls, zoos and museums among the most unusual places to learn

Posted: Wednesday, December 08, 2004

 

  Henry Ford Academy ninth graders Shelee-Ann Flemmin, left, and Reyna Rangel take notes Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2004, in The Dymaxion House in The Henry Ford museum where the school is located in Dearborn, Mich. High school students in school districts that think outside of their big brick box buildings are finding some unusual locations for learning these days--in the zoo, at the mall, in a museum and even at the airport. AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Henry Ford Academy ninth graders Shelee-Ann Flemmin, left, and Reyna Rangel take notes Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2004, in The Dymaxion House in The Henry Ford museum where the school is located in Dearborn, Mich. High school students in school districts that think outside of their big brick box buildings are finding some unusual locations for learning these days--in the zoo, at the mall, in a museum and even at the airport.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

SEATTLE Students at Aviation High School learn in the shadow of the massive jetliners this region has produced for decades.

Holding classes at Boeing Field and the Museum of Flight, the Highline School District believes moving students out of large, big box high schools and toward smaller learning communities will keep them engaged and en-rolled.

''The key thing is this school is trying to capture the interest and inspiration of kids and maintain that,'' said Principal Reba Gilman, noting the Highline School District's ''appalling dropout rate.''

Aviation High School, which opened its doors this fall, is one of many creative approaches highs schools are taking across the country: learning in new settings from the airport to the zoo.

The 105 students in the school's first freshman class travel from throughout the region to attend the college-prep high school using aviation and aerospace as a context for learning.

''I would describe it as a school of science, math and technology. Aviation is the application,'' Gilman said.

Along with the usual high school subjects, Aviation High School teaches a seminar on aviation law, where students will investigate an aviation disaster and do a mock trial. A ground school course teaches meteorology, navigation, geography and everything else a pilot learns before getting in an airplane. An aircraft design seminar includes humanities and math and is taught at the Museum of Flight.

Gilman said another school taking a similar approach is set to open in Oakland, Calif., in 2005.

''We learn best when we're known, we're cared about, when a teacher has time ... to give individual attention to kids,'' Gilman said.

Individual attention is also the theme at a Seattle public high school that meets at Northgate Mall.

The Northgate Mall Academy is part of a national chain of high schools set up by the Simon Youth Foundation, an arm of one of the largest mall developers in the nation.

The foundation supports 21 schools in 10 states; the Indianapolis-based company has malls in 37 states and has dreams of spreading its high school ''franchise'' across the nation.

''I have yet to meet a young man or a young woman in this country who doesn't like going to the mall,'' said Rick Markoff, executive director of the Simon Youth Foundation. Markoff said 90 percent of the students who make it to the 12th grade at a mall academy get their diploma.

Students eat lunch in the food court and some have jobs in the mall, but the school curriculum has no connection to the mall. Simon donates the space used for the mall academies and builds the schools to the school district's specification.

Although the school specializes in kids who are falling through the cracks, Seattle Principal John W. German said the curriculum is challenging and the goal is to not just hand these students a diploma but to get them enrolled in college.

Sophisticated, adult-level learning is also the focus at a creative school in the Detroit area.

At the Henry Ford Academy, which is located at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich., students learn by interacting with museum displays and staff.

''We know that kids do not learn best by sitting in a seat all day and listening to people talk,'' said Principal Cora Christmas. Many lessons begin with a hands-on project. To learn about the early 1900s, students studied documents, visited houses, plowed fields and made candles.

School administrators are ready to put what they've learned about teaching teen-agers into a kit that could be used to replicate the museum learning experience in other cities at other museums.

''Ford wanted to build one school that would be a catalyst for change for other schools,'' Christmas said.

Change of another sort motivated the Los Angeles school district to create the North Hollywood High School Zoo Magnet Center about 20 years ago.

Lee McManus, coordinator of the school, said it was established to foster integration without forced busing and was part of the school district's plan to create smaller schools around specific topics like performing arts, math and humanities.

About 300 students spend part of the day in nine classrooms in semi-permanent buildings in a Los Angeles Zoo parking lot. The rest of the time they are learning within the zoo itself.

The curriculum focuses on biology, zoology and conservation. Students may choose several electives not available at other Los Angeles high schools, including physiology and animal behavior.

As seniors, students have an opportunity to study animal husbandry and work directly with keepers in animal care.

''We get a lot of students who just like biology and zoology, and a lot of students who just like the idea of coming to a smaller school,'' McManus said.

Some students go on to universities where they study anything from veterinary science to zoo keeping; others have become animal trainers for the movie industry.



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