- Associated Press - Saturday, October 15, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Madeline McManus is officially a senior at Lincoln East High School, but her heart and most of her time over the past four years has belonged to the small building near downtown that houses the Arts and Humanities Focus Program.

She is one of 69 students enrolled at one of Lincoln Public Schools’ first forays into offering alternatives to big, traditional high schools — smaller half-day programs that emphasize a particular subject area.

As a freshman, McManus chose the arts program and says it’s a perfect fit for her — a close-knit community with more freedom to explore subjects she and her fellow students love, and more opportunities to experience things they never would at their home high schools.

“I love it,” said senior Marissa Maxwell, a Southeast student who joined the Arts and Humanities Program last year. “This is probably the most fun I’ve had in school. We learn so much more here about the things that interest us, so much more here than in regular high school.”

In 1997, LPS opened the Science Focus Program at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, where it became known as the Zoo School. A year later, the district started the Arts and Humanities Program in the old Coca-Cola Bottling Co. at 643 S. 25th St.

The Lincoln Journal Star (https://bit.ly/2e2rkdp ) reports that the programs serve 2,267 of the district’s 11,677 high school students.

They will also likely be an integral part of discussions about how LPS will deliver education as the school board begins to update its strategic plan.

“It wasn’t part of our last strategic plan, but I think it’s going to emerge for the next five years and beyond,” said Superintendent Steve Joel. “How do we organize education in a way we can deliver it so more and more kids are being connected.”

Finding ways to connect students to things they’re interested in is part of a national conversation, particularly with magnet and charter schools, he said, and LPS officials are interested in thinking of new ways LPS can give students different options.

The process will involve asking the community to think about the type of schools they’d like to see, Joel said. That might mean more online education or a middle school International Baccalaureate program, like the one offered to students at Lincoln High, for instance.

“We are just real interested as we roll out these strategic questions,” he said. “I’m pretty excited about what they represent. Anything we talk about that represents change we can come from a position of strength.”

Last school year, LPS expanded its options for students with the Career Academy, a partnership with Southeast Community College that offers dual-credit courses in a variety of career paths.

Today, 392 juniors and seniors take a bus to the SCC campus in east Lincoln each day and spend two hours there. They’re all from LPS high schools, with the most, 87, coming from Southeast. Sixty-five North Star and 63 Lincoln High students attend the academy.

When the Career Academy opened, it absorbed two other focus programs called Information Technology and Entrepreneurship.

LPS officials also have begun calling Bryan Community, the longtime alternative high school, a focus program. While it offers a smaller environment for students, it doesn’t focus on one particular subject area. Instead, it’s often an avenue for struggling students to graduate.

Enrollment at Bryan has ranged from 91 to 221 since 2006; this year, 159 students go there.

The Career Academy and focus programs may play a part in discussions on how to handle the district’s burgeoning growth, although Joel said such programs won’t make a huge dent in overcrowding.

The district added nearly 1,000 students this year. It grew by 4,450 over the past five years and saw a 24 percent increase in student enrollment over the past decade.

“I don’t know anything we can do with a program that can mitigate what 1,000 students mean,” Joel said. “For us it’s really for offering alternatives to kids.”

Enrollment in the district’s original two focus programs has remained fairly steady in recent years.

The science program had 102 students four years ago and 98 this year. Arts had 80 students four years ago and 69 this year.

Since 2006, enrollment has ranged from 43 to 80 at arts, and 58 to 104 at the science program.

About half of the students at both programs come from Lincoln High, most likely due to its proximity.

In May, LPS began offering busing to the two programs, hoping to increase attendance from other schools. So far this year, 38 students — 26 in the science program and 12 in arts — are riding buses.

LPS officials have said they need to let busing continue for more than a year before evaluating its effectiveness.

Both programs have more girls than boys, although it’s nearly an even split at the science program. At Arts and Humanities, girls outnumber boys by more than 4 to 1.

Forty percent of the students in the science program are identified as gifted, as are 23 percent in arts.

Chloe Nore, a senior at Arts and Humanities, said she thinks classes there better prepare students for college and the freedom they have to explore their own interests. It reminds her of the Montessori schools she attended in grade school.

“They definitely don’t look at you like a student ID number,” she said.


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, https://www.journalstar.com

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