- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

SEATTLE — Students at the new Aviation High School learn in the shadow of the massive jetliners this region has produced for decades.The Highline School District thinks that moving students out of large, big-box high schools and toward smaller learning communities will keep them engaged and enrolled. District officials also are hoping the school, which holds classes at Boeing Field and the Museum of Flight, will help boost a dismal district graduation rate of 63 percent.”The key thing is, this school is trying to capture the interest and inspiration of kids and maintain that,” said Principal Reba Gilman.

Aviation High School, which opened its doors in the fall, represents one of the many unconventional approaches high schools nationwide are taking to keep an interactive generation motivated: From the airport to the zoo, students assemble in unfamiliar settings and participate in hands-on projects that trigger their creative juices.

The 105 students in Aviation High’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,” Miss Gilman said.

In addition to core subjects, there is a seminar on aviation law, in which students investigate an aviation disaster and participate in a mock trial, and an aircraft-design seminar taught at the Museum of Flight that includes humanities and math. Students also learn meteorology, navigation and geography.

“We learn best when we’re known, we’re cared about, when a teacher has time … to give individual attention to kids,” Miss Gilman said.

Another school taking a similar approach to learning is set to open in Oakland, Calif., in 2005.

The Northgate Mall Academy, which meets at Seattle’s Northgate Mall, 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. With malls in 37 states, Simon Property Group Inc. has dreams of spreading its high school franchise nationwide. The foundation supports 21 schools in 10 states.

The academy, whose enrollment primarily includes students who are falling through the cracks, houses 76 students in a windowless corridor one floor above the mall’s main passageway. The bustle of shoppers rarely intrudes on the quiet academic setting, in which students study math, science, social studies and English. Rick Markoff, the foundation’s executive director, said 90 percent of those who make it to the 12th grade at a mall academy eventually earn their diplomas.

Mall officials say the students are ideal community members and that merchants appreciate having them as customers as well as potential employees.

A year ago, Abukar Abdalla was thinking about dropping out of Northgate because he was having trouble coordinating his classes with his job, and his family was depending on his income. His adviser, Beth Brunton, helped him find a way to stay in school and still earn a paycheck. He could take a bus to work from the regional transit hub located in the mall’s parking lot.

Abukar is back on track, focusedonce againon earning his diploma.

Miss Brunton, who teaches civics and world literature, said she values the opportunity to work with students navigating their complicated lives in a small school setting, in which help is actually possible.

“A lot of us have taught before at schools with great needs,” she said. “It’s great to be here, where you can do more for them.”

To that end, the faculty at Henry Ford Academy at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich., thinks that students learn by doing. To help students understand the hardships of the early 1900s, teachers had them study museum documents from personal and business collections, visit historic homes on museum property, plow fields and make candles.

“We know that kids do not learn best by sitting in a seat all day and listening to people talk,” said Principal Cora Christmas.

The academy’s administrators are ready to compile what they have learned about teaching teenagers in a kit that could be used to replicate the museum learning experience at museums in other cities.

As part of the Los Angeles school district’s plan to create smaller schools around specific topics such as performing arts, math and humanities, North Hollywood High School Zoo Magnet Center was created about 20 years ago.

About 300 students spend part of the day in nine classrooms in semipermanent buildings in a parking lot at the Los Angeles Zoo, studying biology, zoology and conservation. They may choose several electives not available at other city high schools, including physiology and animal behavior.

As seniors, they 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,” said school coordinator Lee McManus.

More than 90 percent of the seniors go on to graduate, he said. Some even go to universities where they study veterinary science or zookeeping. Others have become animal trainers for the movie industry.

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