Maricopa Unified School District Administrative Office

As it decides how to start a school with $26 million, Maricopa Unified School District has been investigating concepts from around the country.

In particular, the curriculum department has a steering committee looking at “small learning communities” and career academies. The governing board looked at a presentation on the ideas at its meeting Wednesday. Curriculum Director Wade Watson said the district has been studying small learning communities for a couple of years.

Small learning communities operate within the larger school. Students and teachers are scheduled together and frequently have a common area of the school.

One version of the so-called SLC is a heterogeneous team of teachers and students number from 350-500, with subteams of 150.

Watson said it was similar to the middle school model of pods, “where students may be grouped by core teachers so they have that smaller community where they kind of know each other a little bit better and build those bonds and don’t feel part of such a larger school.”

He said it has become popular across the nation because it helps students make connections with their peers. Some versions of SLCs have students in the same pod all four years while others change it up year by year.

The SLCs are part of the concept of the career academy.A career academy may have three or four academy focuses. As presented, each academy has a broad-based career theme, an integrated sequence of courses, work-based experiences, and strong alliances with business and community partners. These designs include a career theme, and may lead toward industry certifications or earned college credit.

“I’m really excited about this,” Board Member Patti Coutre said. “I think this is kind of a cool thing for us to embark on, especially with our limitations we’re going to have building a new school.”

Board Member Torri Anderson said large schools in Arizona, such as Phoenix Union, are going with the career academy model because parents have been requesting it.

How freshmen would come into a career academy without getting stuck on an unwanted path remains a question. Watson said some schools use the freshman year as career exploration, allowing students to study one field per quarter and see if there is one they lean toward as a career.

Funding is an important element. Though Watson provided internet links to successful programs, Superintendent Tracey Lopeman said MUSD cannot afford to fully duplicate those programs at this point.

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