By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Ramon Orozco, a math teacher at LEADS High School in San Diego.
In 2004, San Diego High School was transformed from a large, comprehensive high school into six small high schools on one campus, each with 400 to 500 students. The breakup was accomplished with money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
It wasn't cheap. Instead of one principal, there were six. The small school principals doubled the number of counselors to help them with their duties. Each principal also had a secretary, and the campus went from having two attendance clerks to six.
It was no surprise that when the money ran out, it was too costly to sustain. Talks are under way for "restructuring," and the discussion includes closing some of the small schools.
Breaking a large school into smaller schools was supposed to be a novel approach, but some San Diego Education Association members believe the end result was an old practice known as "tracking," which segregates students by ability, separating those bound for college from those who are not.
Tom Waller, a history teacher in the School of Business, says administrators jumped at the money offered by Gates because the comprehensive high school was in year 4 of Program Improvement (PI), and restructuring into smaller schools pushed the "reset" button on PI. It may have staved off sanctions, but it increased segregation.
The International Studies School attracted the cream of the crop with its International Baccalaureate program. The school scored 818 on the Academic Performance Index in 2009, and has fewer English learners and students with learning disabilities. LEADS (Learn, Explore, Achieve, Discover and Serve) and the Science and Technology schools attracted a mix of students.
The schools with the highest percentage of English learners and students with disabilities - the Media, Visual and Performing Arts School, the Business School, and the Communications Investigations in a Multicultural Atmosphere (CIMA) School - also have the lowest scores and are in years 3 and 4 of Program Improvement.
"Foundations are trying to coerce behavior because they want to see change," says Waller. "And schools are desperate and see it as a life preserver thrown at them. But it might be a life preserver with smallpox all over it."
"For some schools it worked; for some it didn't," says Michele Wirth, a resource teacher at both the Science and Technology School and the International Studies School. "Yes, we got to know the kids better and some kids became more motivated, but the downside was losing so many electives we used to offer, because there was no money. We lost auto shop and lots of vocational things."
Teachers at the better-performing schools are more enthusiastic about the small-schools experiment and worry about their schools closing.
"Overall, it's a better school environment at a small school than at a big school," says Rudy Shaffer, a science teacher at the Science and Technology School. "You can plan cross-curricular lessons and projects and teachers talk to each other about the kids. It does cost a little bit more; I know all of our small schools have not been successful."
Ramon Orozco, a math teacher at LEADS, says a small school environment allows him to offer students individual attention. "I've seen it make a difference," he says. "If we revert back to the way it was before, we will lose the progress we have made."
Waller, whose school has the most challenging population, disagrees.
"I would have used the money differently," he says. "I would have spent it on kids' health and things like glasses or fixing their teeth. I would have used it to employ kids for jobs that would give them skills - or at least a work ethic. I would have used it for more vocational training for the 75 percent of our students not getting a college degree. And if I did spend it on small schools, I would have set up an ongoing revenue stream."
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