By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Devindra Persaud found his home in the kitchen when he was 8 years old. He learned to cook the delicacies of his native Guyana from his father, who relied on his taste buds and sense of smell to concoct fragrant lamb and pungent curried chicken dishes.
Now Persaud's instructor is a Louisiana chef, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, who is teaching him to cook jalapeno bread and sweet potato pie.
He practices in a spacious classroom filled with gleaming restaurant equipment. He brainstorms with other students on Wednesdays, studies recipes on Thursdays, and cooks to his heart's content on Fridays.
At 17, he thinks he may become a chef himself some day.
Persaud is part of a grand experiment that places students in learning environments aligned to their interests at Northeast High, 5500 16th St. N. The school is one of five in Pinellas that are reorganizing their populations into smaller learning communities as part of a three-year $2.5-million federal grant. They are creating schools within schools in an effort to boost student achievement, said grant administrator Sheila Keller.
The district targeted Northeast, Dixie Hollins, Gibbs, Lakewood and Pinellas Park high schools for reform efforts in spring 2001. Data showed the five schools produce scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and SAT below the district average. Additionally, they experience low graduation rates, high absenteeism, and have a large number of discipline referrals and suspensions.
Although small schools do not guarantee better achievement, data suggest smaller learning communities encourage teacher innovation and increase student interest, Keller said. When career-related themes are added, parents, students and teachers have the opportunity to become participating members of a community.
Northeast's plan for reform is ambitious. In addition to fine-tuning a center for arts and communication, the school hopes to expand its center for business, finance and marketing, and develop centers for information technology and math and science by 2003. By 2004, the school's more than 2,000 students will be organized into five or six communities of 350 to 400 each.
"The grant for smaller learning communities is a perfect fit for the initiatives we already had in place, or were planning to have in place by next year," said principal Michael Miller, explaining that the money will provide resources for curriculum development and teacher training.
The smaller learning communities will be modeled on the school's transportation center, a 100-student career academy that trains students in automobile repair and maintenance, Miller said. Students with similar career goals will share a core group of teachers and pursue curricula that incorporate high school requirements with practical courses geared to prepare them for the work force or for higher education.
Assistant principal Barbara Muhly hopes the smaller learning communities will encourage parents to choose Northeast when they decide where their children will attend school in 2003. Under the district's new controlled choice plan, which replaces neighborhood zoning, Northeast will be part of one countywide attendance area for high school students, and will compete with 15 other schools for the district's 33,000 ninth- through 12th-graders. The application period, which opened Monday, ends Dec. 13.
But more important, Muhly said, the smaller learning communities will increase young people's opportunities for success.
"Sometimes students can get the feeling they're lost in a large population," she said. "One of the advantages (of the grant) will be putting them into smaller communities where they have things in common with other students and where they can pursue possible career interests."
Debbie Fischer, who will direct the center for business, finance and marketing, was one of several faculty members who helped shape Northeast's plan. One of the group's first decisions was to expand the freshman seminar class, which helps ninth-graders make the transition from middle school, Fischer said. Student and faculty mentors will introduce them to the learning communities, and struggling students will receive intensive reading and language arts instruction.
Students will choose a particular community, but they can take classes in other communities if they wish, she said. Because Northeast operates on a block-scheduling arrangement in which students attend four classes a day for nine weeks, they have the opportunity to take more electives. Besides meeting their high school requirements, those enrolled in the center for business, finance and marketing, for example, can take classes in accounting, banking and software application. They also will receive hands-on training in a functioning credit union, which will be set up at the school with the help of the Pinellas County Teachers Credit Union.
Northeast looked to other schools, including David Douglas High in Portland, Ore., to see how they set up their communities, Fischer said. Douglas, with a population of 2,200, also struggles with low attendance and below-average test scores.
"We found that a lot of our kids didn't feel they belonged here," said Douglas' grant administrator Sharon Webster. "They felt that if they weren't here, nobody would miss them."
The school began experimenting with career pathways 10 years ago. With input from teachers, students, parents and the community, programs such as education and human development and health sciences were begun. In 2000, the school secured a Smaller Learning Community grant.
Already, students are showing improvement, Webster said. They report less test anxiety and are achieving higher scores. More important, she said, they are excited about coming to school and are showing more interest in two-year and four-year college programs.
Teachers and staff at Northeast are looking forward to similar success.
"A program like this can be vital," said chef instructor John Beck as he watched a student pull a tray of golden-brown pies from the oven Friday. "If students aren't academic superstars or athletic superstars, this is an area they can succeed in. It could be one time in their lives when they can be stars."
What the grant pays for
Here is what the five schools included in the Smaller Learning Community grant expect to feature in 2003-04.
Dixie Hollins High School
-- Continuation of a ninth-grade "freshman experience" using faculty coordination with middle schools, student and teacher mentors, and academic planning and assistance.
-- Continuation of a graphic arts career academy focusing on graphic arts printing.
-- A technical arts community for students interested in arts-related technical entertainment careers, TV production and computer repair.
-- An applied sciences community, including environmental and marine science.
-- A community for cosmetology, hospitality and military science.
-- A business technology community including marketing information technology courses.
-- A community for arts and sciences with a global perspective.
Gibbs High School
-- Expansion of a freshman transition program, including mentoring and career investigation.
-- Continuation of the Pinellas County Center for the Arts, an arts magnet.
-- Continuation of a business, economic and technology career academy for technical arts.
-- A communication arts community with a focus on humanities, ethics, and literature.
-- A tourism industries community with classes in hotel management and tourism management.
-- An international studies community with a focus on languages, planetary ethics, and cultural diffusion.
Lakewood High School
-- Continuation of the Center for Advanced Technologies, a technology magnet.
-- Expansion of an environmental technology/marine science program.
-- An athletics studies community with a focus on careers in sports and recreation management.
-- A cultural studies community with a liberal arts focus on government, journalism and education careers.
-- A business arts technology community with a focus on business administration, banking and finance.
Northeast High School
-- Continuation of a ninth-grade freshman seminar that includes career and college exploration.
-- Continuation of a transportation career academy focusing on automobile repair and maintenance.
-- A center for business, finance and marketing that will include information technology and customer service training.
-- A community for math and science featuring pharmacy, marine science, meteorology, and environmental science courses.
-- A community for information technology including programming, networking and multimedia design courses.
-- A community for arts and communications featuring TV production, theatrical arts and culinary arts.
Pinellas Park High School
-- Continuation of a freshman forum incorporating social and study skills.
-- Continuation of a criminal justice academy magnet.
-- A community for media communications that will feature an integrated experience-based program in biological, medical and environmental sciences.
-- A business technologies community focusing on managerial, interpersonal and leadership skills.
-- An arts and humanities community with performances, festivals and shows to showcase student work.
High school populations
Here are Pinellas high school population figures after this year's 10-day count.
Boca Ciega High 2,118
Clearwater High 2,331
Countryside High 1,941
Dixie Hollins High 1,854
Dunedin High 1,955
East Lake High 2,253
Gibbs High 2,152
Lakewood High 1,656
Largo High 2,017
Northeast High 2,181
Osceola High 1,439
Palm Harbor University High 2,365
Pinellas Park High 2,333
St. Petersburg High 2,353
Seminole High 2,234
Tarpon Springs High 1,782
Plan to attend discovery nights at the five high schools to learn more about what they will offer in 2003-04.
Dixie Hollins High, 4940 62nd St. N, St. Petersburg, 547-7876, 7 to 9 p.m. Nov. 18
Gibbs High, 850 34th St. S, St. Petersburg, 893-5452, 7 to 9 p.m. Nov. 12
Lakewood High, 1400 54th St. S, St. Petersburg, 893-2916, 7 to 9 p.m. Nov. 13
Northeast High, 5500 16th St. N, St. Petersburg, 570-3138, 7 to 9 p.m. Nov. 7
Pinellas Park High, 6305 118th Ave. N, Largo, 538-7410, 7 to 9 p.m. Nov. 14
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