For several days last month at North High School in Torrance, the ninth grade talked about virtually nothing but dead fish.
Math classes, using various-colored dried beans, learned how the state Department of Fish and Game estimates the number of fish killed in polluted water. In physical education, students considered how a pond full of dead fish would affect the health of people nearby.
In science, they studied how polluted water kills fish. And language classes concentrated on different cultural beliefs about the environment.
"I kept hearing, 'Oh my God, here it comes again,' " said Principal Timothy Scully. "But (students) saw that the subjects are related and how you could take a project and relate it to everything . . . After all, no science exists purely in application. There's really no such thing as just biology or just chemistry or just geology."
North High is among several South Bay schools on the crest of educational reform that are shelving old assumptions about teaching and learning while seeking innovative ways to engage students' interest.
Because of the unusual cooperation among its teachers, North was selected for a statewide network arranged to encourage schools to adopt sweeping reforms proposed by California's Second to None program.
Second to None, started in 1992, asks high schools to change almost every aspect of school life. The program advises schools to prepare students for work as well as college, to create subjects for students to "major" in and to promote teacher collaboration whenever possible, so students will learn to approach a problem from several perspectives.
Schools competed for $4,000 grants, and the winners organized into local networks last month. They were required to pool their money and must decide together how to spend it.
North, Peninsula High School in Rancho Palos Verdes and Mira Costa in Manhattan Beach are the only South Bay schools selected for the networks.
At North High School, Second to None has meant encouraging teachers to collaborate with colleagues. Mira Costa is trying to help ninth-graders make a smoother transition to high school and to use technology in all aspects of learning. Peninsula also is increasing the use of technology and setting up a Pacific Rim curriculum similar to a college major program.
North High created an integrated science course for ninth- and 10th-graders to demonstrate how, in daily life, problem-solving can require a combination of skills.
For example, in a forensics project last month, students analyzed the scene of a fabricated hit-and-run, assault or murder. To solve the crime, students used principles of biology and chemistry to test blood, fibers, fingerprints and hair samples.
"They have to understand about swirl patterns to do the fingerprinting and fiber analysis because some fabric filaments won't (show up) under ultraviolet light and others will," said teacher Glen Tanaka. "Then they have to determine whether they have enough evidence to move ahead and prosecute." During a mock trial, Dawn Tsuyuki acted as an attorney presenting evidence to a jury. Tsuyuki grilled students posing as medical examiners and other specialists about blood under the fingernails of a subject and fingerprints on a gun. The jury finally found the "suspect" guilty.
Mira Costa officials determined their school, which is in an affluent district and sends about 85% of its students to two- or four-year colleges, had dismal computer and technological resources. The school now has two up-to-date computer labs for students and has computerized its library.
Through the recently formed network, school officials hope to learn how other schools integrate computers into their classroom lessons.
Mira Costa was selected for the network in part because it aggressively seeks grants and partnerships with businesses to help pay for technology.
"We just had a demonstration from Microsoft (Corp.) on an amazing new laser disc program that showed how kids can take, for example, the solar system and learn about it from scientific, historical, mathematical and cultural perspectives," Vice Principal Kate Nelson said.
Mira Costa also is working on more effective ways to help freshmen make a smoother transition into high school.
"We do well in preparing our students for college," said Principal Darlene Gorey. But we need to do something for our entering students."
A team of teachers will help the students understand how expectations change in high school.
"In middle school you tell the teacher, 'My dog ate my term paper,' (and the teacher says) 'That's fine, turn it in next week,' " Gorey said. "In high school you say that, and the teacher says, 'That's fine, and you've failed the course.' "
Peninsula High has created a Pacific Rim major for about 70 students who study Asian economics, history, cultures and languages for four years. If the Pacific Rim option is successful, majors in health and technology may be added, said Peninsula Principal Kelly Johnson.