SOAR sets lofty standards for students in Waterbury
Teachers at Kennedy High School in Waterbury are on to
some-thing. It's not a charter school; it's not a magnet
school. It's SOAR the School of Academic Renown.
SOAR is a school within a school, a tough, demanding program
designed to encourage students to stretch themselves to
the limits of their capabilities. Originating from a faculty
committee searching for ways to improve the high school
curriculum, and approved by the Waterbury Board of Education
as a two-year pilot program, SOAR opened this past September
with 38 Kennedy freshmen in its first class.
The idea is to push those students along at a pace even
faster than the school's honors curriculum in language arts,
math, science, social studies, history, and foreign language
studies, to offer them technical skills such as word processing,
and to maintain their links with other students through
electives, health, physical education, and extracurricular
Raising the bar for all students
The long-range plan is to extend and expand the program
each year, not only by adding one more class to SOAR itself,
but also by incorporating many features of SOAR into the
academic, honors, and remedial programs at the school. There
is no reason, Principal Anthony Azzara points out, why remedial-level
students who are struggling, but are really determined to
learn, and academic-level students who are willing to push
themselves harder, cannot benefit from the discipline and
high expectations of their own school within a school. The
objective, Azzara suggests, is to raise the bar not just
for the best students, but for all Kennedy students.
The SOAR curriculum is designed to constantly challenge
its students. This is achieved, first, by placing the students
in courses normally not required of freshmen. For their
science course this year, for example, SOAR freshmen are
taking applied physics, a course normally taken in the senior
year. "We're trying to push them a little harder, to
put them on a more advanced plane," says Science Department
Chairman John Mangini.
It is also achieved by teaching methods that encourage
independent thinking on the part of the students. In a recent
physics class, students used toy pistols shooting suction-cup
arrows to determine muzzle velocity. The subject could be
taught simply by explaining how to apply a formula, says
teacher John Naugle. But, adds Naugle, "I want them
to think. I want them to learn lab savvy."
To ensure that they develop that lab savvy, Naugle sent
one team of three students outside to do their measurements
by firing the toy pistol up the wall of the building. One
student returned and asked, "Don't we need the long
measuring stick." Naugle inquired why they had to measure
the entire wall, and the students quickly realized that
because the wall consisted of blocks, they could simply
measure one block with a small ruler and count how many
blocks up the toy pistol shot the arrow.
Immersed in the ancient world
SOAR students are challenged, too, by the depth of the
instruction and coursework they are asked to do. In a recent
history class taught by Rocco Donofrio, 16 SOAR students
traversed virtually the entire political, economic and social
landscape of the ancient world in a discussion of the Shang
and Chou dynasties of early China. With only occasional
prompting from Donofrio, they described the class structure
of each dynasty, its government, its achievements, and the
differences between and the similarities to the other dynasty.
The discussion ranged beyond China as students offered comparisons
of Chinese religious beliefs and social customs with those
of ancient Mideast cultures.
Their English class the next period began with a discussion,
led by teacher Patricia Azzara, of how Greek theater evolved
from plays at harvest celebrations, and then moved on to
a consideration of different kinds of love and the depiction
of love in Greek mythology. The parallel emphasis on the
history and literature of the ancient world in back-to-back
classes is part of the strategy of showing students how
subjects frequently interconnect so that they develop the
broadest possible perspective.
The lesson on Greek theater and mythology was augmented
and enriched by an entire month of studies on those topics.
The SOAR students' work in English alone for that month
included readings from the works of Edith Hamilton about
mythology, from those of psychologist Carl Jung on the collective
unconscious, from Dante's Divine Comedy, and from
early Norse myths about the creation of the world. In between
were essays to be written, presentations to be made, vocabulary
words to be memorized and five tests.
Paper airplanes teach aeronautics lesson
The linking of different subjects was evident, too, in
a recent algebra-geometry-physics project which interjected
a bit of fun into the strenuous curriculum. The students
built paper airplanes and flew them in the school cafeteria
to determine whose plane would remain aloft longest. At
stake were not only bragging rights, but an understanding
of the principles of aeronautics what makes an object glide,
what factors are critical for it to remain in the air, what
design and construction techniques give it staying power.
While one half of the SOAR students flew their airplanes
and used stopwatches to record their times under the direction
of teacher Nancy Casey, the others developed statistics
and graphed the results of their own test flights with the
help of teacher Pat Cole.
SOAR originated with faculty committee
The SOAR program originated in a total quality management
committee which was given free reign to explore any and
all ideas to boost the quality of the educational program
at the 900-student Kennedy High School. "We were told
it was OK to think out of the box," said Kennedy teacher
Ray DeLeo. The committee members did just that, ranging
far and wide in their search. They visited the famous Boston
Latin School, and they traveled just down the road to see
Bridgeport Central High School's School Within a School,
which DeLeo describes as "one of the best kept secrets
in education in Connecticut." Picking and choosing
from what they saw, committee members began to piece together
what would become Kennedy's own school within a school.
Students will take AP courses
The pieces included a course of studies which Principal
Azzara describes as "the basic honors curriculum plus
another dimension." He compares SOAR courses to Advanced
Placement courses, which are actually college courses taught
in high school. Kennedy already offers five AP courses,
and when this year's SOAR students move into the sophomore
class, they will take the AP European history course.
Another piece was the workload. "We believe,"
says the principal, "that if you raise the level of
expectation, then the kids will rise to that level. Our
job is to help them rise to it."
Within the high expectations, however, there is room for
mercy. Earlier this year, SOAR teachers inadvertently scheduled
five tests on one day. The slip-up wasn't discovered until
it was too late, but the next week the teachers and principal
treated the students to a free breakfast in the cafeteria,
and now test dates are coordinated to avoid saddling the
freshmen with too much work. The faculty also eased the
difficult transition from middle school to SOAR work by
scheduling some instruction in time management.
Still another piece was the establishment of a quiet academic
setting for SOAR. Several classrooms were set aside in an
unused wing at Kennedy for SOAR classes and teachers.
SOAR students are not isolated, however, because elective
courses, physical education, and extracurricular activities
keep them in contact with other students.
A final piece of the SOAR formula was enactment of a code
requiring SOAR students to "dress appropriately for
the business of education."
Students, teachersparents pleased
Thus far, just about everyone seems pleased with the program
Kennedy has fashioned from those pieces.
Freshman Nicole Ferrazzi was in the honors program at West
Side Middle School, the feeder school for Kennedy, when
she learned of the plans to start SOAR. "My brother
told me to try it," she says, "and I'm glad I
did. We do a lot of work, but we also get a lot out of it."
Teacher Pat Cole says, "It's wonderful just to walk
into that class and see all those happy faces with no anger
and no excuses." History teacher Mike Ieronimo finds
the stability of the SOAR class rewarding, "You can
do what you plan to do with no new students walking in every
week and forcing you to change plans."
"I love it," says Natalie Perrotti, whose daughter
Shelley is enrolled in the program, "and my daughter
loves it. It was her decision. I didn't want to push her.
It's a lot of work, but the teachers are phenomenal. It's
especially challenging, but I think it's wonderful."