New faces, a new schedule and a new pilot program mark the 2003-04 school year at Centreville High. It, along with Marshall, is one of two Fairfax County high schools piloting the Professional Learning Community.
"We build 30 minutes into the day, via a special schedule, for students and staff to practice, reflect and think about their development," said Principal Pam Latt. "Every student will have three, 90-minute blocks, one 45-minute constant class and one 30-minute learning seminar."
She found the time for it by taking a little from the blocks, the constant classes and hallway-passing time. During the learning seminar, most students will be in the same class as their 45-minute constant.
"IT'LL BE A QUIET, study period where they can do research in the library, work in a computer lab on PowerPoint or technology projects or use the school's free, peer-tutoring service if, for example, they need help in any subject," explained Latt. "Students in grades 10-12 who are screened for it can apply to be peer tutors."
She said the in-house tutoring program can usually help students with their homework better than their parents can, "so it's got to improve kids' grades, and they won't fall so far behind. They'll get help when they need it — not a month later."
But that's not all. Also during this time, screened seniors may work as varsity mentors with four freshmen — with whom they're paired for the entire year — helping them acculturate to the high-school environment. In addition, a testing center will be available in the lecture hall during the learning seminar so students may re-take tests they need to make up.
"There are two, 30-minute learning seminars before and after the 45-minute constant class, and also built around lunchtime," said Latt. "So half the students will go to one seminar, and half to the other."
Special seminars will also be given then. For example, Fair Oaks Mall representatives could discuss clothes and makeup with freshmen and motivational speakers could talk about higher achievement or the dangers of substance abuse. Or students could use this time to study for tests, read, do homework or work on projects with other students.
Half the teachers will be assigned to classes in the learning seminars, with the other half free to work on staff development, assessments and improving SOL, SAT and AP scores. They may use this time, as well, to evaluate the quality of instruction, new textbooks and materials and students in need of academic help.
"EVERY TWO WEEKS throughout the year, teachers would trade off so everybody would have time collaborating with their peers and working with kids in the learning seminar," said Latt. "The idea of a Professional Learning Community has been around in business for 20 years."
She said teachers need this time to collaborate with each other to develop a "core community of vision and understanding," and Centreville's teachers are excited to have this chance. This way, all teachers and students get a break, every day, and the time is built into the schedule, instead of having teachers try to shoehorn in some time to talk with each other, at the end of the day, when they're tired.
"There'll be a quality consistency from teacher to teacher," said Latt. "And research indicates that the best way to increase the quality of instruction in the building is teacher collaboration. It's gigantic — it's the biggest thing we've ever done because it required so much research and time to pull it all together. I've been working on it four years — three years with the faculty."
To see how well it's working, teachers will report to her every two weeks about what they've accomplished during their time with their peers. For instance, P.E. teachers could decide what they want all students to know after taking P.E. Instructors could also explore what kind of personal staff-development their department needs for improvement.
The school already sent home information about the program and, at back-to-school night, parents will receive brochures — also written in Spanish and Korean — explaining it further. "Their kids will be getting something special, and they're excited about it, too, because it'll give them time to do their homework and projects," said Latt. "They have such busy lives and so much work to do."
She said teachers even applied to come to Centreville just because of this new program. "I'm thrilled about it," she said. "Assistant Principal Sterry McGee, guidance director Elyse Fidler — plus the department chairs and teachers — worked really hard to create the best possible program for the kids and teachers in this school."
Before it was adopted, though, the faculty voted, and 97 percent supported the idea "overwhelmingly," said Latt. "It's rejuvenated the whole school — everybody's excited about it. It has the ability to do so much, it's incredible."
SHE'S STARTING her 11th year at Centreville and began September with nearly 2,100 students. A couple trailers (for four total) will arrive, the end of the month, and will mostly be used for health and some social studies classes.
As for the new faces, the school has about 31 new staff members — including secretaries, two counselors, teachers, instructional aides and two administrators — because it's grown by more than 100 students, since last year.
The two new administrators are Assistant Principals Ting-Yi Oei and Cathy Benner. Former Centreville Assistant Principal Jim Oliver switched places with Oei, who held that post at Mountain View School.
And Benner, from Orange County, Va., replaces former Assistant Principal Holly Messinger, who's now doing that job at Woodson High. Centreville also has a new assistant activities director, Frank Tranfa — a 1993 graduate of the school.