Monday, November 11th, 2002  Magnet as Role Model 

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 activities.

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."

Bridgeport Central |  Calendar |  Search Engine |  Directions |  E-Mail Us
© 2002  Central High School . All Rights Reserved.