Almanac

Cover Story - December 15, 2010

Hillview School's other transformation

Major change is playing out at the middle school, but no bulldozers are required for the one within the walls

by Renee Batti

Anyone driving along Santa Cruz Avenue past Hillview Middle School can see that major change is in the works at the school: It is five months into a major rebuilding project that will reconfigure the campus and create new facilities to accommodate a burgeoning enrollment.

But another significant change is taking place at the school — this one unfolding within its mural-adorned walls. Beginning this school year, Hillview — which brings together the nearly 700 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders of the Menlo Park City School District — launched a new initiative that revamps the traditional teaching approach at the school and positions teachers in teams of four to focus their collaborative efforts on up to 100 students assigned to their care.

Known as the Hillview Academy, the new program is designed to give each student the close attention and support he or she needs to successfully navigate all areas of the curriculum, according to Principal Mike Melton, who led the charge in establishing the program.

"No student can fall through the cracks in this program," said Mr. Melton, who began his tenure as principal in the 2009-10 school year.

The initiative was developed in part to satisfy a list of objectives endorsed by the district's school board to improve the Hillview program, Mr. Melton said, adding that those objectives, or "focuses," meant that "we needed to make some changes" at the school.

Mr. Melton had helped develop an academy model at a middle school in the Rocklin Unified School District before coming to Hillview, and he believed a similar model could help meet the board's objectives. But creating such an Academy at Hillview wouldn't be a cake walk: It would require more teachers, among other expenses, and in a district that was experiencing both a significant enrollment boost and declining revenue, that requirement could have doomed the initiative.

The combination of the passage of the Measure C parcel tax in March and a $350,000 grant from the nonprofit Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation effectively green-lighted the program.

How it works

With the August launch of the Academy, the most obvious change for students has been the elimination of the "core teacher" program. In the past, students were in a single classroom, with one core teacher, for three periods each day, and that teacher delivered instruction in a range of subjects — including areas outside his or her field of expertise.

The Academy has created a new schedule in which students move from classroom to classroom (or gym) for each of the seven periods.

While this may be a bit more challenging at first for the younger students, the rewards of the new teaching approach should outweigh any disadvantages, Mr. Melton said.

With the Academy, teaching teams at each grade level were created, each team having teachers in four disciplines: English, math, social studies, and science. Each team is known as an academy, with names such as Olympus, Explorers, Trailblazers, and Vesuvius.

Students are assigned to an academy — there are three at each grade level. The academies, Mr. Melton said, are like small schools within a school, and are capped at 100 students — an important development during a time when enrollment continues to grow and is projected to reach 1,000 in five years.

In addition to five periods a day devoted to academy instruction, the school day includes one period for an elective and one period for P.E. It's during these two, non-academy periods, that teachers work together collaboratively to plan complementary instruction within their own academy and, one day a week, meet with teachers in other academies to maintain a "big picture" view of what students are working on at any given time.

The advantages of this approach to students are many, Mr. Melton said, and among the top on the list is the ability of teachers within an academy to confer and identify areas individual students may need extra help in.

"Four heads are better than one" when assessing student progress and coming up with methods to bolster a child's achievement in an area of weakness, said Sharron Thompson, a seventh-grade English teacher and part of the Zambezi academy. This concept applies too, she said, in planning a cohesive curriculum for the 93 students in her academy.

Mr. Melton said another key benefit of the team approach is that teachers now can focus on their strengths in the classroom — a change over the core teacher approach in which an English teacher, for example, would also have to teach social sciences and other subjects beyond their field.

Enrichment

In addition to English, social studies, math, and science periods, the Hillview Academy includes an enrichment period, which creates a flexible space for creative work, extra help for students, planning for field trips and other special class projects, and other activities that in the past took up academic time during the three core periods.

Seventh-grade math teacher Sayre Dolan, who also teaches in the Zambezi academy, said much of his time during the enrichment period is devoted to tutorial sessions with students. "Many kids need a little extra help with math," he said, adding that before the Academy was launched, he often had to tutor students during recess.

Getting to know you ...

Mr. Melton said another benefit of the Academy is that it allows teachers and students to get to know each other better, and makes it easier for teachers to tailor instructional methods to an individual student's needs.

But the core-teacher approach has its advantages, among them: A teacher has the same students for three periods a day, said Kim Staff, the Zambezi academy social sciences teacher. "The academy is a much more efficient system, but I don't know if it's as emotionally based" as the traditional approach.

Ms. Thompson countered, "That's not necessarily a bad thing," and Ms. Staff acknowledged: "That's true. There's not as much chance of becoming a dysfunctional family."

Mr. Dolan and Zambezi academy science teacher Rebecca Jasmin noted that because of their disciplines, they didn't have core-classroom assignments under the old system, and therefore taught about 150 students each trimester instead of the more manageable number they teach now.

Parent response

Libby Tinsley, co-president with Kitty Roellig of the Hillview PTO, said some parents were apprehensive of the change to an Academy model, but she is seeing a great deal of enthusiasm for the change as the fourth month of the school year progresses.

A threshold, she said, was the recent parent-conference week. "When some of (the parents) learned they were going to have to meet with four teachers instead of one, it was scary for them," she said. But the feedback she has gotten since the conferences has been positive: "Parents came out of those sessions very happy," she said.

Happy, too, is her son, a Hillview seventh-grader. "He uses the enrichment period wisely," she said. Also, he learned the new system of moving from classroom to classroom very quickly. "That's the hardest thing about a new system — figuring out how it works."

Mr. Melton said he too encountered apprehension on some parents' part, but that seems to be fading. And a number of eighth-graders had concerns, which they expressed at an open forum, that some of their cherished programs would disappear, but appear to be accepting of the Academy model now that the programs remain in place, he said.

What's ahead

Scott Lohmann, co-president with Alison Leupold of the Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation, said the foundation "jumped all over" the idea of supporting the Hillview Academy when members first learned of its possible creation.

Although the foundation "typically funds (programs that are) icing on the cake" and not fundamental academic programs, "we thought it would be a great thing for the district," he said.

Months into the Academy's launching, foundation members have heard "rave reviews" from parents, he said.

To maintain small academies within the Academy, the school will have to add more teachers as enrollment swells, Mr. Melton said. The foundation is committed to continuing its financial support of the Academy "as long as the district wants to keep it," Mr. Lohmann said.

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