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Two schools consider theme-based curricula

Hernando High and Brooksville Elementary principals think the change could make education more meaningful for students.

Brooksville Elementary is interested in connecting its kids to foreign cultures, adding the Internet to its bag of technology and pushing for stronger ties between the school and families.

Just next door, Hernando High is considering a focus that would create several schools within the school, each aimed at a particular career field, such as business, engineering and health.

Though still in the planning stages, both Hernando High and Brooksville Elementary are targeting the 2000-2001 school year as the launch date for their new looks.

Together, they potentially represent a second wave of schools with a theme-based curriculum.

The first, Chocachatti Elementary School, debuts next week as a magnet school for the arts and a microsociety. It will feature arts courses, such as dance and drama, and devote three hours per week to a miniature society where kids apply what they've learned in class. It will draw students from every corner of the county.

What Brooksville and Hernando have in mind are not magnet schools in the strictest sense. Both Brooksville principal Sue Stoops and Hernando High principal Elaine Sullivan expect to keep their current attendance zones. Each principal wants to involve teachers in planning what will go on, so much is undecided. Neither expects the programs to be costly.

But each principal says her school would definitely take on a new personality.

At Hernando High, Sullivan wants to knock down the walls between teachers _ the types of walls that exist among teachers from different grade levels and among teachers from different subject areas. "What's happening in American schools is that teachers go into their classrooms and teach in isolation," she said.

Sullivan says it's important that students see how what they are learning can be applied to the real world and to careers they might pursue.

"It makes it more meaningful to the kids," she said.

Already, teachers do some sharing regarding their course goals and are being asked to work together more. This year, students will actually declare an interest in one of five career clusters _ agriscience and natural resources, business and marketing, communication and the arts, engineering and manufacturing, and health and human services.

Sullivan wants those clusters to become minischools with their own sets of teachers and students. Teachers in a team would not just share vague goals but would design ways to tailor even core subjects, such as English or math, to fit the needs of each particular career cluster. That would enable students to explore their interests in greater depth.

And, she says, teaming faculty members together in a minischool would allow teachers to get to know their students better and benefit more from the insights of other teachers.

Sullivan says these principles will be built into the foundation of Hernando County's newest high school, which is due to open in 2002 and emphasize vocational and technical programs.

But that school will go several steps further. It will be outfitted with modern equipment and labs geared to specific career fields. It also will feature some new courses that will be, in some cases, very job-specific.

Sullivan, who intends to retire after the 2002-2003 school year, says she has no interest in taking what she learns at Hernando and becoming the new high school's first principal.

At Brooksville Elementary, Stoops wants her students to begin their journey into the world of work by opening their eyes to other parts of the geographic world. She wants to form partnerships with schools in other nations that will help her students understand other cultures and erase prejudices.

Initially, the distance could be crossed by setting up pen pals between students from Brooksville and students from the other nations. Eventually, it might involve faculty and student exchanges.

This year a team of educators from Sweden visited Brooksville Elementary and Hernando High as part of a University of South Florida program. Sullivan says an international component could be part of one of her school's career clusters.

Stoops says pen pals would not just offer Brooksville students an idea about what's for lunch today at a cafeteria in Stockholm. It would give kids new ways to practice their writing skills, something Brooksville has emphasized in recent years.

It would also play into Brooksville's technological strengths. Each year, Brooksville receives extra money under the federal Title 1 program, which pumps cash into schools with high numbers of students from low-income families.

That money has equipped Brooksville with a strong arsenal of computers. Stoops wants her kids to be more familiar with computers and the Internet as a preparation for a world that increasingly has people working behind a personal computer.

"Not everyone has a computer at home," Stoops said.

A final aspect of Brooksville's new focus would be the essential components of a fundamental school, which Stoops defines as a school that emphasizes student responsibility and parent involvement.

That may include a requirement similar to one Chocachatti Elementary intends to employ _ that parents are required to spend a certain number of hours doing service work at the school. But Stoops said that, like many other issues, is still being discussed.

"We just thought it would be a good direction for our school to go," she said.