Long Beach schools think small

The days of students feeling lost in the crowd at Long Beach’s giant high schools are numbered.
As students file in for the first day of school Wednesday in the Long Beach Unified School District, more will find themselves at smaller schools and matched with close-knit learning communities as the district works to reinvent its campuses and curriculum.
With about 80,000 students, Long Beach Unified is the third-largest school district in the state and has six large, comprehensive high schools – enrollment tops out at 4,500 at Poly High. But the district is creating half a dozen small high schools that link textbook knowledge with real-world know-how and job skills.
By connecting students with large employers and industry leaders in the city, students are simultaneously preparing for college and the workforce.
Last year, the district opened its first new small high school, McBride in East Long Beach, which has an emphasis on medical, law enforcement and engineering careers.
Next year, the district is poised to open a small high school near the Cal State Long Beach campus that emphasizes biomedical and engineering fields, and others across the city will open through at least 2017. Large high schools also have themed areas of study, called pathways, that are linked to industry fields, creating small learning communities on big campuses.
“The whole idea in the pathways is that kids learn why their studies, their core subjects, are related to a field of study,” said LBUSD Superintendent Chris Steinhauser. “It just helps them understand the connections between what we call ‘real work issues.’”
That approach has resonated with students in programs throughout California, who have shown gains in graduation rates, attendance, earned more credits toward graduation and are more likely to be on track for completing per-requisite courses to attend a public university, according to research on the programs.
Linked Learning, as the program is called, goes back no more than 10 years and is rooted in California schools, said Jared Stallones, who is a professor of education at Cal State Long Beach and manages the single-subject credential program that licenses teachers.
Such teaching reaches students who previously may have felt their studies had no practical application and rewards talent.
“I think it really does have the potential to engage students who haven’t been excited to go to school every day,” Stallones said. “I think it has a lot of potential to sort of level the playing field of education inequity.”
Long Beach City College drafting professor Adrian Erb has seen this firsthand. She has students from Long Beach high schools who didn’t enjoy math class but in using machinery realize its importance.
“When we do the 3D printing, the hands-on, that’s when they take off,” Erb said. “They really get enthusiastic when they get to do something. They really understand why they’re learning. It’s meaningful. It’s applied.”
The connections students make in careers are real and lasting by providing students with internships and working with industry professionals while still at the high school level.
“The thing that makes Linked Learning unique is it’s not just sort of ‘Let’s make believe we’re NASA scientists.’ They make real-world connections in the industry,” Stallones said.