MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- When students return to class Tuesday, the state's two largest school districts will have a new approach to keep students interested and the dropout rate low.
The Minneapolis and St. Paul districts are breaking up their student bodies into smaller learning groups in hopes of increasing a student's chances of graduation.
In Minneapolis, all ninth-graders will study in small learning communities either chosen or assigned.
St. Paul's high schools are phasing in the change. Two schools -- Harding and Highland Park High -- will open Tuesday with an array of small learning groups for ninth-, 10th-and 11th-graders.
Students will still study the basics -- English, math, science and social studies -- but their courses will be tailored to a particular theme. For example, students in an aviation program may discuss issues involving the Metropolitan Airport Commission when studying civics.
Small-community topics range from fine arts to cosmetology to finance to tourism and hospitality.
The driving force behind the changes has been low graduation rates.
In Minneapolis, just 47 percent of students entering high school in 1996 graduated four years later. About 58 percent finished within five years.
Across the river in St. Paul, at least 33 percent of all ninth-graders do not go on to earn a high school diploma, school officials say.
"We're saying, can we connect those kids to the schools and to the communities so they say, 'Oh, this is different, and it's not worth dropping out,' " said Bob McCauley, the administrator in charge of Minneapolis' high school reform effort.
The goal is to have 80 percent of students finish high school in four years by 2010.
The St. Paul district also plans to build more connections between the classroom and the outside world through job shadowing and other programs, said Kent Pekel, district program coordinator.
All St. Paul schools will have designed their small communities by 2004.
The revamped high schools have raised some concerns and criticism.
The Maple River Education Coalition argues that the small learning communities are just code words for career-oriented tracks that turn high schools into job training centers.
Some parents also have objected, worrying that their children will be locked into a particular career early in their lives.
McCauley and Pekel say the idea is not to lock anyone into a particular career. Rather, it's to get students invested in what they're learning by allowing them to choose something that interests them.
Students can change their focus at the end of the year if they change their minds, McCauley said.
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