CUYAHOGA FALLS — Starting with the 2019-20 school year, high school students will no longer participate in the smaller learning communities known as "dens," but some features of the program will remain, according to the principal.

The Cuyahoga Falls Board of Education on Jan. 23 unanimously approved the change when it adopted the high school’s Program of Studies for the upcoming school year.

"We’re not going to have that den structure that we’ve had, where all ninth- and 10th-graders [were] on a den team," said Allison Bogdan, the high school’s administrative principal. She noted 11th- and 12th-graders only minimally participated in den-specific activities, so the older students will not see much of a change.

In a presentation to the School Board on Jan. 23, Bogdan said that after reviewing the positive and negative aspects of the dens, the administration decided to drop the structure. While the small learning communities are being maintained for ninth-graders, they will not be den specific, according to Bogdan.

She said changes are being made to develop a structure for students in all four years of high school, give students a chance to explore multiple options in ninth and 10th grades and focus on specific interests in 11th and 12th grades.

How the dens work now

The high school’s small learning communities currently consist of the following den groups: Arts, Media and Design; Engineering and Entrepreneurship; Health and Wellness; and Human and Public Services. The school is in the fifth year of offering this academic structure.

During the past five years, when students began ninth grade, they had to select one of the dens to participate in during their first two years of high school. The students in each den would have a team of teachers for language arts, math, science and social studies, according to Bogdan. Within their respective dens, the students would also participate in authentic learning experiences, interdisciplinary units and other den-specific activities.

Bogdan said the goals of the dens were to help ninth-graders transition into high school by working in smaller settings, to provide 21st century learning and skills, to partner with businesses and organizations in educating students, and to connect the core academic content to students’ interests. She noted the intention was to improve the learning process for students who are in the "middle" academically. Honors students and students who have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) already have a structure that they follow as they go to school, according to Bogdan.

What worked and what didn’t work

Bogdan told the board about the positive components of the den structure: team teaching, an intervention and enrichment period, keeping students and their team of teachers closer for part of the school day, and having authentic learning experiences.

However, Bogdan said several den features, administrators felt, were not working the way they had hoped:

• Interdisciplinary units are not being consistently taught in the den structure due to logistical issues and time constraints;

• Students are in dens with like-minded peers, which means discussions "aren’t so rich or deep or different," said Bogdan;

• Though she does not have data, Bogdan noted she believes a number of students are selecting a den based on a friend’s choice rather than their own interests; and

• Some dens have received more financial and resource support from companies and organizations than others. As a result, some dens are able to offer more activities than others.

What will happen in 2019-20

Starting in the 2019-20 school year, Bogdan said, ninth-graders will be placed on a team and will have some of the same subject teachers as others on their team. The teams would be set up in a mostly random fashion, but also be somewhat shaped by need based on the classes the students are taking, according to Bogdan. 

In the new structure that begins in 2019-20, all four grade levels will have an "authentic learning experience" a few times a year. Bogdan added that time will be set aside in each academic quarter for these experiences.

"They’re going to be authentic learning experience days of the week where students will choose ... different experiences [from each den] depending on their grade level," said Bogdan.

A student starting ninth grade in 2019-20 can choose from multiple options in each quarter and will be exposed to a "wide array of different experiences," said Bogdan. "We’ll ask students [in] their freshman year to pick a variety so that they can explore more than just one interest group."

As has occurred with the dens, business leaders will still be invited into the building to share their expertise with students in all four grades.

While students in ninth and 10th grades will engage in "authentic learning experiences," Bogdan said 11th- and 12th-graders will have chances to try specific career pathways. This will include opportunities for mentorships, internships or anything else "to move to the next level."

She added the administration will set up a system where each senior will have a "hands-on, real world, capstone experience."

The goal, said Bogdan, is for each student to be employed in a job, enrolled in school or enlisted in the military when they graduate.

Reaction of superintendent, board members

District Superintendent Todd Nichols said he was "proud" of the high school’s leadership team for doing a thorough review of what worked and didn’t work in the dens.

"I am especially excited about the continued emphasis on the use of smaller learning communities, especially at the ninth-grade level, the continued emphasis on authentic learning experiences through our business partners, and the incorporation of a Senior Experience for all students," added Nichols.

Board Member Anthony Gomez noted he was "deeply appreciative" of the administration’s effort to have "honest conversations about re-evaluating and refreshing our high school program."

"I believe these changes are positive in that they keep what was working and shake up what wasn’t," said Gomez.

Board Member Dave Martin added he "wasn’t a fan of the dens when they were first implemented, and my mind hasn’t changed. I don’t believe we can fiscally sustain what we’re trying to do."

Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at 330-541-9421, pkeren@recordpub.com, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.