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Who gains, who loses in small schools?

Posted: Sunday, February 01, 2004

If voters have to decide in a special election whether to block the construction of a second high school in Juneau, they'll have to make some value judgments.

One large high school is more likely to offer specialized courses that appeal to advanced students, some local teachers and parents say.

But two smaller schools will benefit struggling students and would-be dropouts, said Joan Shaugnessy of the Recreating Secondary Schools Project of the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Ore.

Teachers at a small school may have the same number of students as in a larger school, but they are more likely to see the students again in other courses, said Rick Lear, director of the Small Schools Project at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The closer contact between teachers and students results in a more personalized education and stable relationships over the students' high school career, he said.

The failure rate of students goes down and fewer kids have to retake classes, alleviating some of the need for remedial sections.

"If kids get behind in ninth grade, they're way more likely to drop out because they don't feel they can catch up," Lear said.

At 800 students each, two smaller high schools in Juneau wouldn't be much different in size from the national average of 900 students. But educators said even going from 1,600 students to 800 students would allow for the benefits of smaller schools.

Juneau School District Superintendent Peggy Cowan said the proposed new school has been designed for flexibility in offering programs. The classroom wings can be assigned by department or as schools within a school, for example.

Although the Juneau-Douglas High School building doesn't have the same flexibility, simply having fewer students will free up room and create more opportunity to organize the school differently, she added.

Vivian Dailey, principal of 900-student North Pole High School near Fairbanks, has headed schools of 200 students and 3,000 students.

"High schools of 800 to 900 are what research says are the best settings academically for students," she said. "Students know their teachers well. They know all the people in the school well."

But some residents fear that each of two smaller schools won't offer the same range of courses that JDHS now has, given a tight budget.

"My whole concern is that if a second high school means we dilute the program and reduce the opportunities for the high school kids, how's that good for the kids?" asked Dave Palmer, one of the sponsors of the intiative to block construction of a high school at Dimond Park in the Mendenhall Valley.

Shaughnessy agreed that some students won't get the same courses at a smaller school as they would at a larger school. But they may get more personalized college recommendations from teachers or more opportunities to work on personalized projects, she said.

There's no evidence that small schools harm students' chances of getting into college or affect how they perform there, Shaughnessy said.

North Pole manages to offer eight advanced placement courses, more than JDHS, although some courses aren't offered each year, and it offers numerous arts courses.

North Pole, the smallest of the borough's high schools by several hundred students, nonetheless offered three physics classes last year, the most of the borough's high schools.

"It's the way you plan your schedule and hire your teachers," Dailey said.

JDHS business teacher and parent Chris Carte favors two schools. It's not important to her that the two schools offer the same courses. What she wants is a high school that can start fresh and be innovative.

"I think we should have another school so we could try different things," she said.

Part of the staff at JDHS doesn't want anything to change, she said. "They want this to stay the school it was in the 1950s."

• Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.



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