In 1991 community advisory groups struggled with how to populate a new high school that would be built in the northeast corner of Montgomery County to relieve overcrowding at Paint Branch, Sherwood, and Springbrook high schools. No plan worked both demographically and geographically. They researched other school systems across the country and decided that a "choice" model--in which students and parents selected their schools based on distinct programs--made the most sense. The concept intrigued them, because it solved the boundary issues and because it served as a vehicle for reform.
The Board of Education followed community recommendations and established study groups and task forces over the years that eventually resulted in the Board resolution in 1996 to establish the Northeast Consortium of Paint Branch, Springbrook, and the new James Hubert Blake high schools.
The Board decision established that each high school in the Consortium would have a unique programmatic identity, or signature, while continuing to offer the comprehensive high school curriculum for all levels of ability. The signatures selected for each school are Blake--Arts and Humanities, Paint Branch--Science and Media, and Springbrook--Information Technology and Global Studies.
The Board determined that these three signatures would be phased in over four years. School year 97-98 was designated a planning year, and in 98-99 signatures were to be ready for students in Grades nine and ten. In 99-00 signatures expanded to include Grade 11, and in 00-01 signatures will be fully implemented Grades 9-12. The Board funded three signature coordinator positions, staff development, and a Consortium office, as well as transportation for all students to attend their selected schools.
The Board decided that the signatures at each school are whole school programs, which means that all students in the school have access to signature courses, activities, and programs. The signatures are designed to meet the needs of all students in the school, offering rigorous curriculum for able students and programming for special needs and ESOL students. Each school incorporates technology into their programs to a great extent and each is building connections with businesses and university programs related to their signatures. Students have the opportunity to participate in career-based experiences throughout their four years and they have the opportunity to earn college credit and take courses that articulate to two- and four-year colleges.
This same Board resolution also put into place a student assignment system that was first referred to as Controlled Choice and was finally revised to address parent concerns and renamed Preferred Choice. Under this system, students and parents receive information about the three schools through school system literature, videos, and meetings in the fall and they designate their preferences by December. A computer program designed for this purpose then assigns students according to their choices. If the program determines a school’s numbers don’t meet the school system’s criteria for building capacity, race, or gender, the program then resorts to a lottery system.
In 97-98, students in both eighth and ninth grades at five middle schools and three high schools (some of Sherwood High School’s students were reassigned to the Consortium to relieve overcrowding at Sherwood) participated in Preferred Choice to select their schools for school year 98-99. 100% of the eighth graders and 87% of the ninth graders received their first choice. Altogether, 25% of the students chose out of their home schools, which by all accounts of other choice models in the nation, is a very successful percentage for the first year.
In 1998, signature coordinators at each of the three schools worked with central office staff to write and submit a three-year, multi-million dollar grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Education, which would fund additional equipment, positions, instructional materials, staff training, and student activities. USDE granted the three schools and NEC office $3 million over three yers, running from October 1998 to October 2001 to implement the signatures.
In 1995 at Paint Branch, the staff saw Controlled Choice and signatures looming as a distinct possibility in their future and they decided to establish a signature at the school whether it was mandated or not. They realized they were in competition for students with schools in other systems, with private schools, and with other schools in Montgomery County--either magnet schools or comprehensive schools through the transfer process. They acknowledged they needed to develop a program that built on Paint Branch’s substantial and somewhat ignored strength’s to improve the school’s marketability.
Using funds from two separate Innovative High School grants, Paint Branch staff conducted extensive research during 95-96 and entered into discussions on philosophy, student and staff needs, use of time and space, program, organization, and curriculum. They conducted surveys in-house and within the community to determine strengths and areas for improvement and to identify staff preferences for a signature theme. At the end of the year staff narrowed their choices to six themes and a group of staff members developed descriptions of each--including possible courses, cross-discipline connections, business and university connections, field trips, and projects that might develop in a school with such a signature. After considering these descriptions, staff and community members then selected their signature at the beginning of 96-97-- a dual theme signature, Science and Media, with a strong emphasis on research, experimentation, and communication.
During 96-97, staff began to develop the framework for the signature in Science and Media, with the goal of piloting the program the following school year. When the Board made the decision to establish signatures at the three schools, Paint Branch was ready with their selection and a draft of the program design and they were ready to pilot the program during the formal planning year of 97-98.
Paint Branch staff and parents lobbied the school system for facility modifications to support the signature. As a result, during 97-98, contractors expanded the lobby; improved the exterior; built a medical careers teaching space and clinic, a research and experimentation lab, and a biotechnology preparation lab; and reconfigured the television studio to include editing suites. In addition, the system funded new computers for the media center and research and experimentation lab and they purchased new equipment for the studio. Computer wiring will be added by the school system to support the additional computers to the network.
During 97-98, Paint Branch piloted the signature by offering Medical Careers to juniors and seniors, Physics to highly able freshmen; a modified Fundamentals of Art class to include Web page design, digital photography, and animation to all grades; a modified Comprehensive Health class which includes health occupations and bio-sciences to sophomores; a college freshman-level Engineering Science class (in conjunction with the University of Maryland) to seniors; and Advanced Television Production to juniors and seniors. In addition, science teachers infused biotechnology concepts into all biology classes and all teachers worked to bring speakers into the classrooms and to take students out of the school and into the working community on site visits.
Also during 97-98, the official "planning year," staff at Paint Branch developed common tasks for Grade 9 classes in each discipline to teach transferable skills in technology, investigation, information, and interpersonal areas (the school’s seven page document, T3I© , outlines these skills culled by Paint Branch staff from national education and labor and industry standards). Paint Branch sent interdisciplinary teams to Maryland State Career Connections institutes and work sessions and to numerous conferences and workshops on effective teaching practices. Staff also secured a Career Connections grant to send students and staff to Johns Hopkins Hospital for a week of job shadowing during summer, ‘97. Staff members participated in the Montgomery Education Connection job shadowing week and visited five different businesses in the DC area. The internship coordinator and Cooperative Work Education teacher doubled the number of students participating in internships and career-based experiences and the school entered into partnerships with Holy Cross Hospital, Olney Theatre, U.S. Army Research Lab, and United Parcel Service. The first meeting of the Paint Branch Business Advisory Council met at the end of the year, with more than two dozen businesses represented.
During the summers of 98 and 99, staff attend College Board courses in Advanced Placement Biology, Statistics, English Literature, and English Composition. Thirty staff members wrote or revised common tasks to integrate T3I skills into all Grade 9 - 11 courses in every discipline and teachers/authors trained their colleagues on the tasks in August. A group is working on an interdisciplinary, academic, and career-based portfolio system and an implementation plan. Another group is developing a career-based experiences continuum for the four years of high school. Yet another group developed a monthly speakers series and a job-skills lunch bunch for students in Grades 9 and 10. Staff are also working on a research continuum that will cross all four grades and every discipline in the building.
In 98-99, in addition to continuing courses and activities already in place, Paint Branch officially implemented the signature in Grades 9 and 10. The following include some of new strategies that staff employed: adding Nutrition Science and a double-period Chemistry/Biology option to the course line-up; implementing the monthly speakers series and job skills lunch bunch; offering assemblies and field trips related to the signature; conducting at least one job-shadowing day for underclassmen who have successfully completed training; and employing "experts in the field" in individual classrooms.
In 99-00 PB added Medical Terminology to the courses, in partnership with Montgomery College, and has added an extensive experts-in-residence program that allows students to participate throughout the year in workshops on medical illustration, documentary films, animation, and biotechnology.