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School size: Is smaller really better?
Times Snohomish County Bureau
Mountlake Terrace High School was supposed to lead the way in the national movement to remake large high schools into smaller ones that graduated more students and better prepared them for college.
But the school that reorganized itself into five small academies with one of the first Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Small Schools Grants in 2001 is also serving as a cautionary tale about the difficulty of change.
The Gates Foundation announced last week it is moving away from its emphasis on converting large high schools into smaller ones and instead giving grants to specially selected school districts with a track record of academic improvement and effective leadership.
Education leaders at the foundation said they concluded that improving classroom instruction and mobilizing the resources of an entire district were more important first steps to improving high schools than breaking down the size.
Mountlake Terrace isn't giving up on its independent small schools organized around themes such as technology and the performing arts. But the Edmonds School District is rethinking how to organize its three other large high schools, which have all received federal small-schools grants.
"I think we're finding that it's not necessarily about the structure of the school as much as it's about the quality of instruction. It's the relationship between teacher and student that's critical," said Ken Limón, the district's assistant superintendent for secondary education.
Lynnwood and Meadowdale high schools are just beginning discussions about how they might reorganize, said Meadowdale Principal Dale Cote.
Edmonds High last year created freshman and sophomore "houses," a modified small-schools approach that places first- and second-year students with the same core teachers and gives those teachers more time to plan and collaborate.
"Our primary focus is we want kids to be connected to at least one adult in the school," said Matt Delaney, a social-studies teacher who also leads one of the new houses. The traditional high school, with its wide range of course offerings, remains unchanged for juniors and seniors.
But education researchers say there's no evidence that a hybrid approach that tries to combine the personalization of small schools with the broader course offerings of a traditional high school will be any more effective than the old big school.
Lear is also co-author of "A Foot in Two Worlds," a study of 17 comprehensive high schools around the country, including Mountlake Terrace, on the way to becoming 72 smaller schools. The study, released last month, says the most successful small schools have highly focused curricula and a high degree of autonomy for teachers to adapt instruction to individual student needs.
In many ways, Mountlake Terrace demonstrates both the promise and the challenges of the small-schools effort. Teachers there said students who might have gotten lost in the larger school formed closer bonds with teachers and were more likely to get help.
But reorganizing into five separate academies, each with its own staff, curriculum and daily schedule, consumed teachers' and administrators' energies.
Mountlake Terrace Principal Greg Schwab thinks the Gates Foundation was overly optimistic about how long it would take for the small-schools experiment to show measurable improvements.
"We haven't given it enough time," Schwab said. "We're seeing real successes with students, but more importantly, our staff view their work in a different way. That's the real key. The rest will come."
An ongoing question is how the district will pay for the "teacher-leaders" who coordinate and run the day-to-day activities of the high school's small schools or houses.
Schwab said Mountlake Terrace will reduce expenditures for office supplies and equipment to fund its teacher-leaders for one more year.
Funding is also an issue for Edmonds-Woodway, where the heads of the new houses get time off each day from teaching to handle the additional duties of running the house. The school is also using grant money to allow teachers more time to confer about individual students and instructional strategies.
Students have largely been left out of the planning process for the small schools. And though they are supposed to reap the most rewards, those at schools just contemplating the conversion process share some of the concerns of students at Mountlake Terrace and Edmonds-Woodway about the potential loss of the big-school choices.
Meadowdale freshman Dylan Griffiths said he's focusing on math and science, but also taking weight training and photography. "If I can't do those electives, it would be a pretty boring school," he said.
Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807
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