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Innovative education programs are providing a unique forum where high school students thrive as they discover their passion.

 
 
There’s no doubt the landscape of education in California and our country has changed in the last several decades—and not for the better. According to a 2009 study conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation, students in the United States ranked 25th globally in math and science, out of 34 countries, coming in well behind leading nations like China, South Korea and Finland. Within the 50 United States, California ranked a dismal 34th in education in 2012, registering in the “below average” category and down from its 30th place position the year before.
 
Attempts at national education reform have had lackluster results. The well-intentioned passage of No Child Left Behind during the Bush era made teachers hostage to standardized testing that tried desperately to level an unequal playing field. This mandate, like putting a Band-Aid on a severed limb, has created an atmosphere where educators must “teach to the test,” and largely ties their hands in presenting a truly innovative and stimulating curriculum. The result is a student community woefully unprepared for the realities it will face in today’s changing economic environment.
 

Budget woes

It’s no secret why California public schools are suffering. Nearly $27 billion in debt, the state has made education its whipping boy, cutting more and more vital funding arteries in an attempt to solve its budget deficit. The resulting trickle-down has had devastating effects at local school district levels, which have had to absorb the fiscal impact. In addition to administration and teacher/staff layoffs, funding cuts have caused the elimination of so called “non-essential” programs in the arts, social studies, science and health—leaving only the bare bone necessities of core academics.
 
Another side effect of losing these programs is a further polarization between the “haves” and the “have nots.” On one side are students from families with the financial means to defect to the private school sector, where the breadth and diversity of programs remains intact. On the other side are students from middle-class families and largely underserved brackets who can’t afford to leave the public school system.
 
In an effort to avoid even deeper cuts to public education, Governor Jerry Brown introduced Proposition 30 to the ballot last November. The initiative asked California voters to temporarily raise income tax on citizens in the top 3 percent income brackets for seven years as well as increase state sales tax by one-quarter of a cent. These measures are expected to generate more than six billion in revenue for K-12 schools, community colleges and state universities. Fortunately, the measure passed with strong support, eliciting a collective sigh of relief from school districts statewide. Those on the front lines of California education are hoping to have dodged a bullet, but only time will tell.
 
In the meantime, students who remain in public school, either by choice or circumstance, are looking for ways to distinguish themselves and gain a competitive edge. Whether headed for college or the workforce, the answer for many can be found in a new wave of innovative “school within school” programs, which are growing in number and popularity at several North Bay high schools.
 

Why schools within schools?

Innovation is important in today’s fast-paced, competitive world. Traditional education places emphasis on standardized learning in a teacher-focused environment that many students find boring and repetitive. They’re required to memorize large quantities of information on which they’ll be tested, but are often passive participants in the process. Many times, the process itself doesn’t instill a love of learning for learning’s sake. Many students wonder aloud how this kind of educational environment prepares them for success beyond high school.
 
School within school models attempt to address deficits where traditional education has fallen short. These dynamic, progressive programs engage and motivate students to be active participants in their education. Innovative, often project-based curriculum makes learning not only challenging and relevant, but engaging and fun. By definition, these magnet programs attract passionate students and help them develop useful skill sets that will drive their future success in college or the job market.
 
“Magnet schools” are part of the public school system and offer specialized courses or curricula that attract students both within and beyond zoned school boundaries. Unlike charters, which function as independent entities, they operate under the umbrella of public school administration.
 
These magnet programs are gaining popularity for several reasons. First, they address the void left by programs lost to budget cuts. Second, they bring a certain cache to their host campuses, as well as prestige to students seeking to distinguish themselves in a like-minded community. In the current, über-competitive climate of college admissions, being a part of these programs can give students a definite leg up. Finally, magnet programs let students explore possible career tracks. There, they gain not only theoretical but real-world experience that may lead to future internship and job opportunities.
 
Financing these schools is costly and relies on independent sources including annual parent donations, fund-raising events, grants, foundations and corporate as well as community partnerships. The exception here is Sonoma County’s Regional Occupational Program, which also receives state funding dedicated to technical career education.
 
The following magnet programs, available to students in the North Bay and beyond, are excellent examples of schools with schools that are creating the leaders of tomorrow.
 

Marin School of Environmental Leadership (MarinSEL)

Launched in 2011 at Terra Linda High School in San Rafael, this fledgling program offers students a multidisciplinary education with a focus on environmental issues. MarinSEL aims to provide a real-world, field-based learning experience that teaches leadership skills and encourages stewardship.
 
“Our goal is to build the next generation of strong, innovative leaders,” says Director Cyane Dandridge. “Students in MarinSEL are encouraged to think critically and creatively to analyze issues and develop action plans.”
 
Dandridge is no stranger to progressive thinking. As founder and executive director of nonprofit Strategic Energy Innovations in San Rafael, she's spent more than 15 years helping underserved markets develop and implement strategies to improve resource efficiency and sustainability. Bringing this wealth of expertise to MarinSEL has been a labor of love for Dandridge, whose son is a member of its current ninth grade class. “Changes in our environment will be one of the most critical issues his generation will face,” she reflects. “It’s essential that today’s students have an understanding of these issues to bring to their careers.”
 
Students accepted into the program participate in activities designed to build community and team spirit. Before classes officially begin, students and faculty bond during a three-day leadership retreat. The activity-centered getaway fosters trust and camaraderie through art projects, a ropes course challenge and more. MarinSEL also requires students to go through Toastmasters training to gain confidence in public speaking.
 
Building a sense of community empowers students to experiment—and even fail—as part of the natural learning process. In this atmosphere of acceptance, both teachers and pupils feel free to take risks, because they’re invested in each other and the program.
 
MarinSEL relies on the 21st Century Learning Skills (creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking) as benchmarks for student assessment. Specially developed curriculum combines core academics and project-based learning with an environmental focus. Last year, student teams implemented an action plan to measurably reduce plastic water bottle use at Terra Linda High, resulting in 50 percent less water bottle use on campus. On a broader scale, students are currently working on ideas to reduce pollutants and improve water quality in San Francisco Bay.
 
At the end of the term, student teams present their projects to a panel of teachers and industry professionals in multiple formats. Businesses like U.S. Bank and Marin Sanitary Service, and organizations such as Turtle Island Restoration Network and Conservation Corps North Bay, among many others, have stepped up to partner with MarinSEL, offering financial support and expertise. As the program continues to evolve, these partnerships may provide pathways to future careers. Even if MarinSEL students don’t ultimately pursue jobs in the environmental sector, the skill sets they’ve acquired as students will help them become successful leaders in their fields of choice.
 

Marin School of the Arts (MSA)

Celebrating its 10th year on the Novato High School campus, Marin School of the Arts offers students a multidisciplinary, fine arts-centered program with intensive study in theater arts, musical theater, dance, music (both vocal and instrumental), film and video, visual and digital arts, photography and creative writing. Additionally, because of a belief that public school can and should offer comprehensive arts programs, MSA offers both advanced level arts study and unusual curriculum including an extensive rock band program, composition, recording, graphic art and design. Part of its curriculum is guided by the interests and goals of the students. The school’s philosophy centers on the belief that creative expression through the arts should be available to all students as part of a well-rounded educational experience. To that end, MSA’s open enrollment policy attracts students from around the Bay Area who are in search of academic and artistic rigor.
 
“Our goal is to create a program on par with the best arts magnet schools in the nation,” says Mark Peabody, founder and executive director of the program. “As a multi-award winning school, we ensure that quality arts programs in any subject area are available to students in our region. MSA provides a place where a culture of young artists, 500 strong next fall, have a safe place to thrive and explore their passion for the arts.”
 
Peabody’s innovative vision for the magnet school included giving equal access to underserved populations. “My dream was to design an arts school that could go anywhere in California, especially places where doors were traditionally closed,” he reflects, noting that the school’s Marin County location makes it unique. “Most magnet schools for the arts exist in large metropolitan areas, but we wanted to create a model that could be replicated in regions where programs like this have traditionally been excluded.”
 
Potential MSA students apply to study the discipline(s) of their choice through an audition/interview process. If accepted, they take core academic classes at Novato High and devote their two elective periods to MSA. The partnership with Novato High means students have access to a wide range of academic courses including honors and A.P. classes, extensive foreign languages and a full range of competitive sports.  This gives arts students the best of the arts and a traditional high school.With 460 students currently enrolled, MSA comprises one-third of the total population at the school’s campus, and that figure will increase to almost 40 percent in the fall.
 
And succeed it has. Producing a quality product is paramount at MSA, where competition is encouraged. “At MSA, we embrace competition with other schools as a way to measure our success and improvement. We challenge ourselves to put our program up against any other program anywhere,” says Peabody, “That’s when you find out who you really are.” The school has challenged the best arts programs in the country and received numerous distinctions—too numerous, in fact, to list them all here, but check the schools’ website for a complete rundown—among them a prestigious California Golden Bell Award in 2007 for excellence in visual and performing arts, as well as a coveted Grammy Signature Award for excellence in music education, one of only 36 schools nationwide to receive this honor in 2011.
 
Peabody is quick to point out that the tenets taught in MSA—skills like creative thinking, problem solving, teamwork and articulate communication—provide essential skills regardless of career path. Extensive collaboration among departments and with students creates synergy that transcends individual disciplines and produces incredible art: Art students design the program, set or posters for a theater production with musicians providing accompaniment to performers; strings become the pit orchestra for a ballet performance; students write, film and produce their own movies using student theater actors; and the list goes on. This team spirit gives students a broader sense of community. Whether students go on to pursue careers in or outside of the arts, the MSA experience will serve them well in their professional careers.
 
“Our goal is to create confident, talented, creative and motivated citizens who have a positive sense of self and who realize that the system can work for them,” says Peabody. “This is a unique and wonderful place for students to learn, discover, grow and succeed.”
 

STEM programs

STEM is an acronym for “science, technology, engineering and math.” The education approach in STEM schools couples rigorous academics with real-world problem- and performance-based lessons in these subject areas. The program is geared toward students bound for post-secondary education in careers requiring a sophisticated grasp of these concepts.
 
Statistics show jobs in these industry sectors are among the fastest growing in today’s evolving workplace. STEM students engage in project-based learning designed to bridge the gap between academics and the current job market.
 
Future generations will be faced with critical challenges to mankind, like climate change, over population and depletion of resources. To address these challenges, the STEM program uses the 21st Century Learning Skills (outlined earlier) as the framework for putting concepts into action. Teams collaborate to research, design and implement solutions, empowering students to become reflective, technology-savvy learners.
 
Educators become active facilitators in this model, using integrated curricula to help students apply concepts in real-world situations. Opportunities for explorative study outside the classroom are encouraged through field trips, apprenticeships, internships and opportunities to job shadow with mentors. Because students are able to participate in actual workplace settings, they gain relevant insight and experience.
 
An excellent example of the STEM program in action can be seen at Technology High School in Rohnert Park. Located on the Sonoma State University campus, this self-contained school is part of the Cotati-Rohnert Park District, offering a full range of core academics with an integrated focus on science and math.
 
Established in 1999, Tech High combines the highest level of instruction with state-of-the-art technology tools to prepare graduates for jobs in an evolving marketplace. The school has received numerous accolades including a Magna Award from the American School Board Journal, and recognition as a California Distinguished School in 2005. It also earned a bronze medal in the U.S. News & World Report America’s Best High School Program in 2009.
 
Adam Littlefield, principal at San Marin High School in Novato, is an enthusiastic proponent of the STEM program set to launch this fall on his campus. As a former principal at Technology High School, he’s well versed in the program’s attributes. “We want to make STEM accessible to all communities regardless of socioeconomics,” he says. “One of our goals is to capture students who would otherwise leave our district to find this kind of opportunity in outside areas or private schools.”
 
San Marin High’s inaugural STEM class will have 60 incoming freshman. Littlefield believes these programs are becoming more widespread because they prepare students for the future workplace. “We’re experiencing a technological revolution where students will need to synthesize and interpret information to meet changing demands,” he reflects. “Learning to master the skills taught in this program will be essential to success.”
 

Regional Occupational Program (ROP)

Established in the 1970s and governedby the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE), ROP offers elective vocational training classes to juniors and seniors at 15 public high schools throughout Sonoma County.
 
Though not considered a “magnet” program, prospective students may be drawn to a particular school in their district based on an ROP course offered there. With no application or audition required for entry, the program is accessible to all students. “Classes are more than just an elective,” says Adrianne Brounstein, instructor of the popular ROP culinary arts program at Healdsburg High School. “They’re a resource for skill-based learning that helps students discover their passion in the workplace.”
 
Classes are hands-on and help students develop applicable skills leading directly to careers in agriculture, culinary arts/hospitality, business, media/communications, trades (construction, automotive, manufacturing), energy/utilities and more. These industry sectors have been identified by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board as key to the county’s future growth and prosperity. By providing instruction and technical training to students, the county hopes to attract new businesses and keep graduates in the local workforce. An estimated 5,000 students are currently enrolled in the countywide program.
 
“ROP gives kids a unique opportunity to explore different fields and gain hands-on experience,” explains Stephen Jackson, director of career development and workforce preparation services at SCOE. He notes that while some students may ultimately choose careers outside the industry sector in which they’re trained through ROP, they still develop assets valuable to employers, like work ethic, good communication skills and customer service. Partnerships with businesses in the community may lead to opportunities for internships, apprenticeships, paid summer jobs and even employment offers following graduation.
 
Jackson also believes involvement in ROP makes for a more engaged academic student. “They begin to see the connection between subjects like math and its application to careers like engineering,” he observes. While many students in ROP or career technical education programs will continue on to college or technical training to prepare for their careers, there remains a significant portion of high school students who may enter the job market directly after high school. For these students, ROP can help design a path to achieve their career track goals.
 
Nobel Prize-winning poet William Butler Yeats once said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” These innovative North Bay school within school programs are providing a unique forum where high school students thrive as they discover their passion. Whether headed for college or the job market, they’re reengaging students in education and helping them find their place as leaders of the future.
 
 
Karen Pavone is a freelance writer and passionate farm to table advocate living in Novato.