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Education Reporter

Small Learning Communities:
The New Face of School-to-Work

MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL, MN — Established by federal law in 1994, the School-to-Work (STW) program is alive and well with a new disguise and a new name: Small Learning Communities (SLC). Their establishment in the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul made national headlines early this year when 8th-grade students in Minneapolis were required to apply for a career path by Jan. 15.

Many parents and citizens expressed shock and outrage, believing - like most Americans - that the passage of the 2001 federal education law "No Child Left Behind" relegated STW to the dustbin of education fads. STW has long been criticized by vigilant parents, educators, pro-family activists, and legislators at both the federal and state levels as a big-government takeover of U.S. education, the economy and the labor force.

SLC is the system outlined by Marc Tucker and his National Center for Education and the Economy (NCEE) 10 years ago. Promoted from the beginning as "voluntary," STW is entrenched in all 50 states thanks to the allure of federal grant money and executive orders issued by some Governors.

In St. Paul, the foundation for SLC was laid in 1999 when the school district hired superintendent Patricia Harvey from the NCEE, where she worked closely with Marc Tucker. According to St. Paul's Small Learning Communities' blueprint, students will be forced to make career choices by the 2002-2003 school year, despite the Minnesota legislature's passage of a 2001 law prohibiting school districts from forcing students into curriculum or career path choices or related job training. Parents are now questioning whether the new system violates that law.

While SLC is being touted by the U.S. Department of Education and some state education departments as providing "smal-ler, more personalized learning communities" in order to "raise academic achievement," the focus is on job training, not academics.

According to the Maple River Education Coalition of Minnesota (MREdCo), a grassroots education research organization, "'Small Learning Communities' is pleasant sounding verbiage used to restructure schools along vocational lines. It is political spin - ambiguous and evasive about its real intentions - used to sell a radical reform agenda."

MREdCo's website and materials explain that, in practice, a "small learning community will correspond to a career cluster (or embryonic version of it in the elementary grades). A school will be divided into a number of small learning communities that cut across grade levels, each aligned with a specific career cluster," such as cosmetology, global studies, automotive, or "Triple E (Environment-Empowered Essentials)."

"More than half of Minneapolis 8th graders will likely have their career goals chosen for them by the schools," asserts MREdCo Executive Director David Thompson. "Our children's rights are violated and educational flexibility goes out the door. The school district is literally substituting hairdos for history and other genuine academic learning."

SLC in Kansas 
At least one school in the Kansas City, Kansas area has been operating under the new system since 1998. According to a U.S. Dept. of Education "Community Update," April 2002, Wyandotte High School was "restructured" into "eight small schools inside one large school: seven centered on themes that would lead students into careers in business, technology, health, hospitality, humanities and performing and visual arts," and one that helps kids who have fallen behind "stay on track for graduation." The article notes that students "attend classes within their community, [in] an allotted space of the building."

'Smaller is Better'? 
In the fall of 2000, then-Secretary of Education Richard Riley announced $42.3 million in federal grants to help high schools embrace Small Learning Communities, using the catch-phrase "Smaller is Better." Suggested strategies for grantees include: "career academies which offer students academic programs organized around a broad career themes"; "mentoring and other teacher advisory systems in which teachers, counselors, other school staff, volunteers, and employees who work with the students serve as mentors to help students on an individual basis"; "schools-within-schools and 'houses' which operate within existing schools, reporting directly to the school district and not to the school principal," with "their own staff, students and budget"; and "career clusters" which map out "a curriculum that would provide the academic and technical education necessary for their particular field."

St. Paul Blueprint 
Excerpts from the "St. Paul Small Learning Communities Plan," courtesy of MREdCo, make clear that the system involves mandatory work-based learning:

  • "The Saint Paul Public Schools [are] committed to ensuring growing percentages of student and teacher participation in work-based learning opportunities directly connected to classroom learning." 
  • "The percentage of students participating in comprehensive, relevant work and community-based learning opportunities will grow . . . to 100% by 2005-06." 
  • "Every student will be engaged in a small learning community by 2005-2006." 
  • "Learning must also be more closely connected to industry standards . . . and the careers for which students are preparing." 
  • "Students will participate in structured career education starting in elementary school." 
  • "All students participate in a variety of career exploration opportunities including job shadowing, mentorships, internships and service learning connected with their life plan." 
  • "Each student has a comprehensive life plan, which is considered in planning learning experiences." 
  • "Students identify a career cluster through which their work on standards is made relevant . . ." 
  • "Students maintain a portfolio that reflects academic and applied skills within the context of their life plan." 
  • "Portfolios and exit interviews will be a graduation requirement for students in the class of 2005 and beyond." 
  • "Every student will have a mentor/advocate by the 2005-06 school year."

The St. Paul blueprint also states: "Standards will end the practice of holding different expectations for different students." But as MREdCo notes, the only way to accomplish this "is to have minimum expectations - which is precisely what the new system does, and why it is such a tragedy. It reflects a key goal of the system: one set of outcomes for all [OBE]" by focusing "on minimum competencies, and defining those as the standard of success by which educators will be judged."

One St. Paul teacher whose high school is already in the SLC system says it shortchanges students academically. "They are only allowed to take two trimesters of a subject; thus, many subjects such as science, band, and foreign languages are only offered to students for two-thirds of the year. During the other one-third they take an 'elective.' This has caused a 'dumbing down' of the curriculum . . ."

Profile of Learning 
MREdCo reports that the SLC system is aligned with Minnesota's Profile of Learning, a dumbed-down, paperwork-heavy curriculum focusing on "standards" and "tasks." (See Education Reporter, April 1998.) "One is inextricably intertwined with the other," explains David Thompson, an example of "school reform, high standards and local control in the new education and workforce system."

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