It takes time to create a good, small school

Posted: Sunday, March 14, 2004

Among the advantages of having two smaller high schools are developing a sense of community and the opportunity to get more kids involved in activities, Juneau School District Superintendent Peggy Cowan has said.

It's easier to build relationships between adults and students in small schools, she told a group of educators and parents earlier this month.

If Juneau wants to reap the benefits of small schools, it won't be enough simply to have two 800-student high schools, education researchers suggest.

"Is 800 small enough?" asked Chris Roellke, an education professor at Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who has written about curriculum in small high schools. "That's certainly a step in the right direction, but it may not yield the benefits you want."

Juneau might have to break down the high schools even further, such as by houses, as the district does at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, or autonomous schools within a school. The high school planned for Dimond Park was designed so that its wings could be used either as traditional departments or separate houses.

And the district would have rethink the way it structures high schools if it wanted to maximize the benefits of a small school, researchers said.

The schedule can be changed so teachers have fewer students but for longer periods. Or teachers could work in teams or have the same students for two consecutive years, said principals at small schools and professors of education in recent interviews. Often teachers in small schools act as academic advisers for the same students over four years.

"These schools can suck, too," Patrick McQuillan of Boston College said of small schools. "If teachers think they can do what they always did - a half-hearted job - they'll do a half-hearted job in a small school."

The research results aren't in on the success of breaking up a large school into smaller units, said Tom Gregory, an education professor emeritus at Indiana University in Bloomington. Most successful small schools were built to be small.

Often, schools within a school don't have the autonomy they need to be creative; they're still too big to be personal; they adopt a common bell schedule so students can take electives at other schools, reducing the chance for innovative schedules; and the building as a whole is big enough that adult control of students is still part of the atmosphere, Gregory has said.

Rona Wilensky, principal at a small innovative high school in Boulder, Colo., said communities need to have a common vision of what they want from a new school. Juneau must define what it means by "personalized school" or "comprehensive curriculum," she said.

It usually takes several years for communities to agree on a set of serious reforms to their high schools, researchers say. It requires a deliberate and thoughtful process in which teachers, administrators, parents and students buy into the result, suggests Catherine Wallach of the University of Washington Small Schools Project.

The Juneau School District has set up a task force of educators, parents and business people to recommend what the programs and activities at both high schools should be.

"The smaller learning communities are definitely a vision for the new high school and more of an option for JDHS when it's not quite so crowded," Cowan said.

But the very existence of the upcoming ballot initiative suggests that Juneau still doesn't have a common vision for its high school.

When voters approved the first $50 million for a Valley high school, in fall 1999, there were nearly 1,800 high school students in Juneau. (That included about 100 students housed separately at Yaakoosge Daakahidi, the alternative school.)

The issue then was overcrowding at JDHS, and by overcrowding the district was referring to hallways and common areas. Large class sizes are the result of the district's operating budget, not a lack of classrooms.

In 1999 and since then the district has said it would provide two comprehensive high schools, with the exception of offering shop classes only at JDHS.

But now that JDHS has about 1,600 students and has been renovated - partly to better circulate students through the hallways - some of the impetus to build a second school has been lost.

To JDHS business teacher Chris Carte, who is on the task force, the real reason to build a new school is to have a different kind of school. A cardboard box filled with research on school reform sits near her desk.

"I believe that we could do it here (at JDHS), we could make this a better school, if we made changes. But the inertia is just status quo," she said. "... We've tried for 15 years, and baby steps don't work."

Carte would like to see a new school that has a focus and visionary leaders, that is broken up into small learning communities, and that finds a way to make school relevant to students.

She agrees that an 800-student school isn't small enough in itself to be personal, but there are ways to create smaller communities within it.

Carte was a teaching assistant in the JDHS Phoenix program, which emphasized four years of core academic courses coupled with project learning for up to 100 students.

"You knew who those hundred students were. There were five teachers," she said. "I'd say probably teachers (at JDHS) know 10 to 20 percent of the kids in the hallway."

Carte also has taught, along with an English teacher and a math teacher, a 90-student block of freshmen. She linked her typing and computer-applications class to what students were doing in the other classes. Students were able to do a project on the Alaska Permanent Fund and present it to fund staffers. Each teacher also acted as an adviser to 30 kids.

"It made a better connection with home. It made a better connection with kids," she said. "You can just do so much if teachers are talking and working together."

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