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For Students, Ventura Magnet School's Draw Is Academic

The 4-year-old campus focuses on small class sizes and an innovative approach to learning.

March 15, 2004|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

There was a time when Principal Joe Bova had to hunt for new students, searching far and wide for youngsters to fill slots at Ventura's magnet high school after it opened nearly four years ago.

Not anymore. Word is out on Foothill Technology High School. And now prospective students, drawn by the school's innovative approach to learning and its growing reputation as an academic powerhouse, are on waiting lists to get in.

The 800-student campus solidified its standing last week by pulling off a rare academic double, scoring a pair of perfect 10s on the state's Academic Performance Index, an annual ranking of public schools. The marks reflect the school's ranking on a composite of standardized tests and a head-to-head comparison of that performance with California high schools having similar demographics.

Foothill was the first Ventura County high school to achieve that feat and one of about two dozen high schools statewide to earn perfect scores, officials said.

"There's a lot of excitement around here," Bova said. Teachers and students peppered their clothing with stickers and plastered school walls with posters bearing the number 10.

"It's definitely satisfying, because there has been so much hard work going on at this school," he added. "Obviously it's about preparing kids well, but a huge part of it is about motivating them. They take this to heart and they want to do well for the school."

Built to ease overcrowding, Foothill was the first new high school in Ventura in three decades when it opened in August 2000. The school was housed in portable units on the Ventura College campus before it moved in its second year to permanent quarters across from the college.

There was some confusion early on about what the school was supposed to be and who it would serve.

As one of two magnet high schools in Ventura County -- along with Santa Susana in Simi Valley -- Foothill set out to provide a small learning environment for students across the district, focusing primarily on communications, technology and health-related services. Equal emphasis was placed on college and career preparation and a concerted effort to get away from a "one-size-fits-all" approach to public education.

"I would love to have been at this school," said Ventura native Jason Dinkler, who joined his brother, Josh, as an English teacher at Foothill two years ago. "It is such a great opportunity for students to be in this environment, to work toward their individual strengths. It's something they can't get at other high schools."

Still, some worried early on that Foothill would be little more than a glorified vocational school. Others expressed concern that it would become an exclusive learning academy, noting the school's initial entrance requirements -- at least a 2.0 grade point average and grade-level proficiency on standardized tests.

Ventura Unified School District Supt. Trudy Arriaga said it has taken time and a few adjustments to allay those anxieties.

Last school year, Foothill scrapped its entrance requirements, employing a lottery system to choose from among applicants. The campus received 430 applications from prospective freshmen for the next school year and already has filled all 251 available slots.

Arriaga said the school also has tried at every turn to highlight its innovations, including smaller class sizes and block scheduling. Four days a week students have extended periods, rather than 45-minute classes, to focus on a handful of subjects.

The school employs project-based learning, where students work toward mastering academic standards by exploring and explaining a range of complex topics through extensive Internet research, Power-Point presentations and Web page design.

It's also a campus where computers and other technology are used as teaching tools in every classroom, with projection monitors hanging from the ceilings and teachers funneling class work through them onto the big screen

"I think Foothill has done a real good job of making learning come to life," Arriaga said. "There's a real willingness to be innovative, to not be satisfied with the usual way of doing things. And I think you're seeing students respond to that."

It wasn't easy getting off the ground, especially when it came to convincing students to attend.

Senior Jordan Frye, 18, the current student body president, remembers struggling with the decision as an eighth-grader at Cabrillo Middle School. He was a member of the first freshman class at Foothill, drawn by the small-school atmosphere and the opportunity to be a pioneer in a new endeavor.

"We were all reluctant; it really wasn't a popular choice," Frye said. "But it was just such a privilege to be part of something so fresh. I really did try from Day One to soak up the high school experience, and after four years I feel I did that."

Like Frye, senior Darren Goldsmith, 18, said the release last week of academic rankings served to show the kind of school Foothill has become.

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