Mville urged to pursue smaller academies
August 28, 2008 · Updated 10:21 AM
MARYSVILLE Students bond more closely with teachers and respond positively to higher expectations in smaller learning environments, according to one educational expert who told the Marysville School Board that fear of the unknown is a common thread for parents and students among the 2,000 schools in America that have already made the switch to smaller academies.
School district officials heard from a former University of Washington researcher at the Oct. 30 Marysville School Board meeting; making the switch is complicated, he said, but the calls on modern students require a change, urging them to press on with an attempt to break up Marysville-Pilchuck High School into six smaller segments.
This is rocket science, it is complicated, small schools expert Rick Lear said as the district mulled a proposal to break the 2,700-student high school into one 1,200-student section with five additional 400-student academies. The plan approved earlier this month will go into effect next fall, but some board members were gun shy after hearing from a loud and angry group of parents and students three weeks ago.
Thats natural and to be expected, Lear cautioned, noting that as a coach early in his teaching career he preferred larger schools so he had a larger pool of talent to work from. But over the years he found students learned better at smaller schools, whether those schools were small by design or by default. Now that research has backed up his findings a move to incorporate those smaller touches in larger buildings and campuses is afoot across the nation. Only a handful of the thousands of schools who have made the switch have gone back, and some of those were misfires from the start. The common response is that students feel better about learning, parents are more welcome at the smaller schools and are more engaged. A big sticking point is that some parents predict a see-saw effect as schools like M-PHS try to help the 30 percent of students who drop out. Those parents feel that if the failing students are getting more help their high achievers must be getting less. Thats just not so, according to Lear.
Learning is not a zero-sum game, he told the board.
Board member Don Hatch told Lear not to sugarcoat things, and board president Michael Kundu seconded him.
Id like to get down to the implementation stage, cause thats what were wrestling with here, Kundu said.
Lear noted some of the common apprehensions people have when making the change, many concerning the possibility that students would have fewer options in smaller schools.
There are very few elite private schools that people are willing to pay $20,000 to $25,000 per year for that have more than 400 students, Lear said. All the evidence is that this will produce better results.
Lear noted that the City of Atlanta has ten large comprehensive high schools and will be making the switch to smaller academies for all of them within the next three years. In many of the communities who have made the switch parents werent happy at first, Lear said. One Arizona school district spent an entire year explaining how the new set up would work only to have parents rebel when the plan went into effect.
We said better, not different, Lear quoted parents saying after they saw the new schools at first blush.
Lear was asked about starting a smaller school academy with one grade level such as a freshmen class and then progressing by adding a class each year. It didnt work out well in the districts that tried it. Many teachers were split between the regular comprehensive school and the new, small environment and the latter didnt click. Also, a big complaint was that seniors felt left out with one school that started with grades nine through 11.
This is the biggest change that were going to have in this district since the merger of the two high schools, Hatch said, adding that he would like to see more time to plan for the changing, citing several changes of board members this year. Its really hard to me to say Yes were going to do it.
Lear said the district might not have that option, as the country is making a commitment to educate all students. In years past a high school drop out could make a decent living but that is not the case, and the United States has recognized that and is asking more of students and schools.
Teachers are now formulating curricula for the different learning communities, which should be finalized by next February, according to M-PHS principal Tracy Suchan Toothaker.