ARE SMALLER SCHOOLS THE ANSWER?
Big high schools hinder learning, some teachers say
Granholm proposal would cut enrollments to 400
February 18, 2008
BY LORI HIGGINS
FREE PRESS EDUCATION WRITER
Dozens of high schools -- including 43 in metro Detroit -- could be chopped into pieces in coming years as a movement to break their big populations into smaller chunks gains steam in Michigan.
It's a practice already seen from Huron Valley Schools in Oakland County to Chippewa Valley Schools in Macomb County, where school districts are finding ways to turn large, impersonal high schools into smaller communities.
And now Gov. Jennifer Granholm wants the Legislature to endorse a plan she announced last month to create the 21st Century Schools Fund, which would allow schools that enroll more than 800 students and fail to meet goals of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law for two years or more to create small high schools of 400 students.
But are small schools the answer? Research has been mixed on an increasingly popular way to achieve the small-school effect -- by creating schools within schools -- with many findings showing that simply going smaller is not a panacea.
Yet John Telford, a teacher and curriculum leader at Finney High School in Detroit Public Schools, says he believes it can save urban schools.
"Is this the way to go? There's no question. This is the answer," Telford said.
But he doesn't have to look far to find dissent. Dominique Harris, a Finney junior, is unconvinced. Though Finney would be eligible for the money, she doesn't like the idea of breaking up her school's population of nearly 1,000 students.
"I don't think they should do that. It's not going to change anything. It's just going to make a whole bunch of little schools," with the same problems as the big schools, Dominique said.
And just last year, University of Michigan education professor Valerie E. Lee coauthored a book that tells a cautionary tale about the method of breaking large high schools into schools-within-schools.
"People are grasping at straws," said Lee, who also is a faculty associate with U-M's Survey Research Center. "Schools within schools is seen as the new magic bullet that's going to save large urban high schools. Maybe so. But not in the way that most people are going to do it."
Teaching is the focus
Many school districts in metro Detroit already have invested time and money into creating smaller, more personal high school environments.
Advocates say smaller schools allow students to have better relationships with their teachers, staff to have more support, administrators to have autonomy and the focus to be on discipline and teaching that is relevant to what will matter in the real world.
Southfield Public Schools is opening a new small high school next fall that will focus on math, science, technology and engineering. The district already has five academies at its two high schools -- each with separate themes such as arts and communications, medicine and natural sciences, and engineering and manufacturing -- in an effort to not only expose students to careers but to create smaller learning environments.
Southfield High enrolls 1,400 students, but it doesn't feel that way to Malcolm Hayes, a senior. He's enrolled in the engineering academy, and though he takes core classes such as language arts and math with students from across the school, the rest are with his peers in the academy.
"We share a lot in common," said Malcolm, 17, of Southfield. "We're able to connect more than with students I have in my English classes. We share interests."
At Lakeland High School in White Lake Township, the district created ninth-grade teams several years ago, in which students are divided into groups of about 90 students and paired with three teachers who teach core classes such as math, language arts and science within a three-hour block.
Shannon Schwarb, a Lakeland math teacher, likes sharing the same group of students with her colleagues. If she notices a student struggling, she can talk to her teammates to see if they're noticing the same difficulties.
And with high school graduation standards getting tougher, students need to have better relationships with their teachers, she said.
"That's why the teams are important, because it gives them that extra support. It makes them feel more comfortable."
Lakeland also has divided its school into two sections, with freshmen and sophomores occupying one side of the building and the upper-class students occupying the other side, another effort at creating smaller environments for kids.
The efforts seem to be paying off. Lakeland Principal Bob Behnke said the school's ACT composite scores have increased faster than the state and national averages.
Although Lakeland's ninth-grade teams share a building with older students, Chippewa Valley Schools is taking a different approach. Two ninth-grade academies are opening in September, one adjacent to Dakota High School and the other next to Chippewa Valley High.
Both academies are expected to enroll 600 students, reducing the population at Dakota from 2,500 and Chippewa Valley from 2,200, said Ed Skiba, executive director of secondary education.
"We're trying to create a separate culture that tells kids that we're all in this together," Skiba said.
Making school more personal
The small-school method is working for Jules Cooch of Pinckney, an 18-year-old who attends a small school of 330 students.
"It's one-on-one; it's really personalized. Someone is actually saying to you ... that you matter," said Cooch, a senior at the Washtenaw Technical Middle College, where students can graduate with not only a high school diploma, but a technical certificate or an associate's degree, in four years.
Programs like the one Cooch attends were touted by Granholm as examples of small schools that work.
Fifteen high schools in Detroit and about 28 other schools in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties would be eligible for the funds Granholm wants to make available, though the priority would be on the nearly two dozen schools with serious academic troubles.
Those pushing for the small schools say they'll keep kids in school and produce graduates who are prepared for postsecondary education, whether that be a 4-year university, community college or trade program.
"If you can make school more personal and have kids have ongoing relationships with teachers in smaller settings, you really tap into their motivation, their willingness to stay in school," said State Superintendent Mike Flanagan.
Contact LORI HIGGINS at 248-351-3694 or firstname.lastname@example.org.