Parents air concerns at small schools meeting

MARYSVILLE Smaller schools might help students learn better, but administrators were taken to task by parents and students at a raucous community forum last week.
The Marysville School District is finalizing plans to break the states second-largest high school into smaller academies concentrating on a particular theme or career path; the model will also be applied to a new 1,600-student high school in the works for a Getchell Hill site.
But about 200 parents said they were being left in the dark and questioned both the plan and the process during an open house at Marysville-Pilchuck High School. Speaker after speaker berated the idea of 400-student schools that they feared would pigeon-hole their children, forcing them to make decisions about careers and secondary education plans far too soon. Many felt that M-P would be ground zero in an experiment and complained they were guinea pigs for the new high school.
The Oct. 12 meeting was called to inform parents about the ideas, but the Marysville School Board had already unanimously approved the plan at a special meeting the night before, grating on some parents. The general concept had been approved by the board earlier in the summer, and last weeks vote was on a particular model with one large pathway-based school and five other theme-centered academies of approximately 400 kids. That model was one of three M-P teachers voted on, approving a hybrid combining a pathway and theme-based schools.
Mark Webb is the father of an M-P senior and sophomore; he was vexed at the boards decision and said he felt left in the dark.
I only heard about this from my son two days ago, Webb said. He applauded the district for trying something different but noted that the Portland school they are basing their plans on had years of preparation and implemented the scheme gradually, on a class-by-class basis. M-PHS would change for all grades nine through 12 at once, starting next school year.
You dont have a lot of answers for us because you dont know, Webb told M-PHS principal Tracy Suchan Toothaker.
Toothaker has been tasked with formulating the plans and she was quick to agree.
Youre correct, she said bluntly, adding that the smaller schools are a work in progress, and that teachers are just now putting together plans for the schools they proposed themselves. She noted that the prototype David Douglas High School in Portland took years to plan and that she has spent years in her former assignment as principal at Mariner High School in the Mukilteo School District. That school has split into six smaller schools with the help of several grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. M-P gets no grants or other additional funding.
Ed Giesler has a daughter who is a junior at the school. He pointed at the table in front of the M-P auditorium where Toothaker sat with Superintendent Larry Nyland and Assistant Superintendent Gail Miller.
What gives you the right to just make this decision? Giesler asked.
We have compelling reasons to do something different, Nyland answered, adding that large comprehensive high schools arent working as well as they should. Approximately 30 percent of students entering the school will drop out, a statistic mirrored nationally. He noted that M-P has 127 teachers on staff, an unwieldy number that hampers communication and collaboration.
You cant even get them together for a meaningful conversation, Nyland said. This is the best I know; were not trying to keep it secret.
Toothaker said ASB and athletic events will not be affected and that Advanced Placement classes will be available in each school. According to Toothaker there are currently 293 AP students, and 90 percent of their AP classes are in three subjects; English, history and political science-type classes.
Our goal is to increase the number of AP classes that we offer, she said.
One parent expressed alarm that students might have to commit to an area of study similar to a college major.
Thats a no, Toothaker said, explaining the goal is to find what interests a student and entice them with that hook. She noted that in her college years she didnt know exactly what she wanted to do but found that all her jobs involved people; that was her interest, leading her to pursue a career in education.
Theres no way we expect kids to know what they want to be when they grow up, Toothaker said.
Other questions regarded the Running Start early admission program, access to foreign languages, and honors programs. The more answers, the more hands went up. After the meeting many parents cited a dread of change and a lack of input from the community. Nyland said the district has tried to get the word out in newspapers and newsletters, but many folks said they had just gotten wind of the plans that week from flyers their students brought home.
Count Julie Nicholson and her daughter Juliesia as firm critics.
I just feel like they have not been forthcoming and upfront and I feel like they have taken their perceived power and made a decision that they had no business making, said Julie Nicholson, who said she only found out about the meeting from her daughter that day, who learned about it from a history teacher. She accused the district of having a hidden agenda.
I dont know what it is, Nicholson said. I felt like they skirted around every question that was asked. They have not done their homework.
Her 16-year-old is a junior this year and said she loves the large campus and thinks smaller schools will limit her educational choices. She wasnt phased by a 30 percent drop-out rate, noting more students are passing the Washington Assessment of Student Learning test now that passage is mandatory for a diploma.
I think that its stupid that they did this during my senior year, Juliesia said. Next year Im not going to have any options that they are going to. I cant take choir if I wanted to or different lessons. Why dont they just keep our school the way it is now? I think we have more diversity, more choice, more movement this way than with 400 kids.
Giesler and his wife Marci said they acknowledge the district is trying to do something good, but it was a case of too much, too soon. Marci suggested phasing the program in, starting with the next crop of ninth graders.
That way they start there and they work their way up, she said.
A district spokesperson said there will be more meetings to address the subject in the future.

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