Scaled-down schools may make a big difference

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

From Staff and Wire Reports

LEBANON, Ore. -- Thinking small may be the next big thing at American high schools.

From Oregon to New York, school districts are scaling down to combat problems that are very big indeed: high dropout rates, sinking test scores and low attendance.

Over the years, plenty of ballyhooed ideas for curing such ills have come and gone. But the "small schools" movement has a powerful godfather in Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and is getting some backing from Washington, too.

Schools strategically designed to have no more than 400 students are in place or starting up in at least 41 states. Some urban districts, like Sacramento, Calif., have converted to all small high schools. In some places, the schools are new; others were created by subdividing large high schools.

Though the movement is expanding, it has not yet made its way to local schools. Officials in Jackson and Cape Girardeau said creating smaller schools is not something they're currently considering.

Most schools in Southeast Missouri, especially those at the elementary level, are already relatively small, with less than 400 students. Secondary schools are often larger, ranging from around 1,300 students at Central High School to 1,200 at Jackson High School.

But there are no plans to downsize right now, especially with the ongoing financial crunch, officials said.

"That has come on my radar screen, but right now, we wouldn't change anything anyway," said Dr. Rita Fisher, assistant superintendent of the Jackson School District.

Oregon's Lebanon High School, with about 1,400 students, opened in September with the building divided into four "learning academies," each one specializing in a different academic area, and each with roughly 300 teenagers. The students in each academy will stay together through all four years of high school, with the same corps of teachers.

"We'll get to know more and more about them so we don't lose them down the road," said Aaron Cooke, a history teacher.

Lebanon High, along with a few other Oregon schools in Portland, Eugene, Woodburn and the Medford area, got a grant partially backed by the Gates Foundation to go small, a decision administrators made after concluding they had reached a dead end.

"We were not serving the needs of 100 percent of our students," said Leanne Raze, assistant principal of Lebanon High. "We had a high dropout rate, underperformance on state tests and low attendance rates. We were looking for an upheaval."

Research had shown that going small can produce higher graduation rates, lower dropout levels and more students attending college. That has been the case in cities such as New York and Chicago.

For example, a 2002 study done by researchers at the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota singled out El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice in New York City. The Brooklyn school has about 165 students, mostly from poor communities, and had a graduation rate of more than 90 percent, far higher than that of large neighboring high schools. Its students also scored near the top of all the state's schools on New York's Regents exams.

In the past decade, the Gates Foundation has poured $745 million in grant money into promoting small schools, including $35 million for the creation of 75 schools in Texas, and $20 million in Ohio. Also, the federal government is operating a $142 million grant program for subdividing larger high schools.

Making the changeover work is not easy.

"A lot of schools that launch into this will get stuck," said Tom Vander Ark of the Gates Foundation. "They might spend several years debating schedule options or structural options and never get to the heart of the matter, which is instruction."

A 2003 report commissioned for the Gates Foundation found that many of those working with new small schools were running into similar roadblocks.

Start-up schools, especially in urban areas, often had trouble finding locations and hiring teachers with the right training. Also, some students were thrown by the independence offered in their new school. Other missed the wider choice of courses available at their old schools.

At Lebanon High, during the first weeks of school, some students complained about being "career-tracked" into one of the four academies -- biological sciences, physical sciences, information and technology, or social systems.

"I don't think it is fair that the ninth-graders have to make their career choice now," said Kayla Jones, a 16-year-old junior. "In a couple of years they might not want to be a scientist. High school is supposed to be a time to have choices."

Scheduling glitches abounded during the first few weeks of school in Lebanon, and some students found themselves forced to take courses outside their academies, because of lack of space. Teachers said it was tougher than they thought to rework the curriculum.

Still, teachers in Lebanon said they are optimistic and are looking forward to serving as mentors to their students for four years running.

The moral of the story, English teacher Anne Williams said, may be that going small takes time.

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