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Originally published Monday, June 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Small-school experiment doesn't live up to hopes

Oregon's highly touted small high schools this month graduated their first class of students who spent all four years in intimate academies...

Newhouse News Service

PORTLAND — Oregon's highly touted small high schools this month graduated their first class of students who spent all four years in intimate academies intended to revolutionize the big American high school.

Armed with $25 million from billionaire Bill Gates and other education reformers, backers of small schools heralded the academies as the best way to curb high dropout rates, forge connections to keep teenagers on track and prepare every graduate for college. Four years into that effort, however, the small schools have yet to deliver on those promises.

Instead, their statistics look a lot like results from the lumbering, impersonal high schools they are supposed to replace. Lots of students quit, and most of the graduates aren't ready for the rigors of college.

At Marshall and Roosevelt high schools in Portland, which each house three academies, about half of the students didn't make it to graduation. That's the same low graduation rate as when they were two big schools instead of six small academies.

"At first, I loved going to school," says Victoria Sargent, 17, who attended Pauling Academy, a science- and math-focused school on the Marshall campus. "After a while, it was boring to me. Nothing was a challenge. I never had a connection with teachers."

Sargent said she was frustrated that she couldn't get classroom help with math and that teachers weren't clear about their expectations. This spring, she switched to night school at Marshall.

In Hillsboro, Ore., Liberty High broke into small schools four years ago, but its dropout rate remains the highest in a district with three other traditional high schools. Despite progress in getting more students to take college-prep courses, three in five Liberty graduates fall short of entry standards for the University of Oregon — the district's definition of college-ready.

Twyla Baggarley, who graduated from Liberty this month, passed Advanced Placement calculus as a junior but worries that she might not be primed for college after a lackluster senior year. Tired of teachers who taught straight from the textbook, she chose to take just one full-year core course, AP English, and padded her schedule with photography and two periods of PE.

A sobering lesson

She and other students say administrators seemed so caught up in tinkering with the small schools' structure that they didn't pay enough attention to the quality of teaching.

"I saw no point in taking another class where I have to just teach myself," Baggarley says.

The lessons for other high schools are sobering. Even with millions of dollars for teacher training, an army of experts to coach schools and the backing of top philanthropies, fixing high schools so they work for all students remains a formidable and elusive task.

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Oregon's small-schools initiative was launched in 2004 with grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Meyer Memorial Trust. Nationally, the Gates Foundation has donated more than $1 billion to create and support small academies.

Eleven big high schools got grants of about $1 million each to break into academies of fewer than 400 students each. Two schools have since backed out.

Marshall, Roosevelt and Liberty jumped in first and are graduating the first class of seniors who spent all four years in academies.

Educators at the Portland schools made the switch four years ago after mounting pressure to improve. At Marshall, former Principal John Wilhelmi had to cut band, auto shop and other popular programs because so many students left to attend other schools.

"We felt our graduation rates could be better, our school climate could be better," he recalls. "We felt we could stop the loss of kids with this vehicle of personalization."

Few results from changes

Despite the smaller classes, key indicators of student success at Marshall and Roosevelt — test scores and attendance, for instance — haven't changed much since the campuses split into small schools.

At Marshall, students missed on average more than five weeks of school last year. At Roosevelt, the average was six weeks.

Students in two academies at Roosevelt and two at Marshall have shown improvement in reading since the change, but math performance declined. At Roosevelt, math performance remained flat.

Administrators say students at both schools pose special challenges to educate. Officials say many of these students enter high school less prepared than their counterparts at other high schools, and many work part time to help support their families.

Nevertheless, some students and parents say the small-school transformation overpromised and underdelivered for the class of 2008.

"The idea and the potential are great, but the actual execution has been less than great," said Cindy Adams, whose youngest son, Brandon, graduated this month from BizTech.

Gates Foundation leaders also have grown impatient at the uneven results when big schools break into small ones. This fall, Gates probably will switch the focus of its grants for fixing high schools to target teaching and raise teacher quality, says Vicki Phillips, who directs Gates' education initiatives.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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