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Upheaval at San Diego High illuminates a broader question: Just what is a small-schools model?
Friends, parents, fellow patriots,
Over the past few months, I’ve enjoyed working on The Learning Curve, a weekly column in which I help find answers to the questions you send in.
Since March, together we’ve tackled a range of topics, among them: how school choice works, how charter schools serve students with special needs, what’s up with dress codes and how to choose the right school for your kid. With your help, I was also able to produce a hard-hitting report on why schools require the recorder – the world’s most annoying musical instrument – for young music students.
About 10 years ago, San Diego High was split up into six autonomous schools. It was fashionable at the time. There was money from the Gates Foundation on the table to support restructuring, and Kearny and Crawford high schools did the same thing.
Large high schools are uninspiring models, the thinking went. Break a school into smaller academies, each structured around a unique theme, and you’ll be able to create a personalized learning environment that treats kids like humans instead of factory employees.
Small schools at San Diego High have been structured around themes – business, media and arts, international studies, and science and technology. Going into ninth grade, students choose based on their interests.
After years of declining enrollment, the school board voted in April to shut down its school of media and arts. That made it San Diego High’s third school to close in the past decade.
Then, this week, parents at San Diego High learned the school’s makeover will go deeper. Instead of having three schools next year, led by three different principals, one principal will now oversee the whole campus; three vice principals will oversee the remaining schools.
At the April board meeting, trustee Richard Barrera blamed Bill Gates. He’s the one who waived a big wad of cash in front of schools if they agreed to restructure.
“This is an example of why public school districts should absolutely never let themselves follow flavor-of-the-month ideas coming from big corporate philanthropy,” he said.
Despite the stumbles, there are bright spots on campus. The School of International Studies, for example, offers a kind of advanced placement program and has been ranked multiple times as one of the best schools in the country.
But other programs haven’t shared in that success. Disparities in outcomes are stark. Parents have fled to other schools en masse.
One problem, Barrera told me, is that having students choose their own courses of study in ninth grade can act as sort of a self-selected tracking mechanism. Kids might not think they’re smart enough for the International Studies program, so they choose a less rigorous school.
Little collaboration between programs happens, and principals compete for resources. Students in one part of the school have access to more rigorous courses and better teachers.
The result has been a fractured campus, where autonomous schools, segregated by race and socioeconomic status, act as silos. Having one principal oversee the campus will help ensure resources are shared, Barrera hopes.
The latest twist in the saga at San Diego High is its own story. First, let’s consider how the small schools model works in the first place.
Question: What is the small schools model?
A lot people attribute the small schools idea to school reformers. There’s reason for that. Gates funneled hundreds of millions into the idea, starting in the early 2000s.
But by 2009, the small schools model had shown only marginal benefits. That year, Gates sent a letter to foundation supporters indicating the initiative had about run its course. It was an opportunity for critics to point out the folly, the hubris, of philanthropists thinking they can solve public education by throwing cash at problems.
But just because the benefits of small schools weren’t seen across the board, some schools, including Kearny High, have flourished under the model. Kearny has been recognized as a national Blue Ribbon school. And while they’ve languished in other district schools, English learners, who’ve historically been among the hardest to reach, are succeeding there to an astounding degree.
In 2013, the most recent year data is available, English learners at Kearny’s International School of Business had an 837 API score, a composite score based on standardized tests. To put that into context, that was higher than the district-wide average for all students that year. The API scores for English learners at San Diego High ranged from 564 to 689.
Though traditionalists might thumb their noses at Gates for small-school stumbles, some of the brightest minds in education believe the idea can work.
Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor of education, is well regarded by principals, teachers – and San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten.
In 2002, she outlined 10 features of successful small schools that went on to become sort of a guiding document for educators.
I won’t detail every feature, but I’ll describe several big ones. I also invite anyone who has had experience at San Diego High to tell me the degree to which these things have happened there.
Consider the way good small schools are supposed to look, according to Darling-Hammond:
It’s no accident that students in successful small schools describe their teachers and classmates as a kind of family.
This can be accomplished by organizing a large high school into smaller programs. Students might feel lost in the shuffle in a school of 1,200. Break that into four schools of 300, and students get to know their peers and teachers over multiple years.
Class schedules can also be tweaked in these smaller schools so students take classes for longer blocks of time. A 90-minute block, instead of a 45-minute block, allows for more time to master content. A good part of this depends on small class sizes, which isn’t always possible on strained budgets.
Set high standards for kids and expect they’ll achieve it. This doesn’t mean simply telling a student to aim high. It means setting a high bar, then supporting students to get there.
Establish a school-wide culture. Students should have a good idea of how they’re expected to study and act when they enter a new class, with a new teacher.
Student work should be visibly displayed, and should be the focal point of much discussion.
Content must be intellectually challenging and interesting to students. Assignments and projects should call for students to make a personal connection to the material.
This means not just learning out of textbook. We’re talking high-level thinking: learning how to analyze, make an argument and defend your thesis. As a former college TA, I can say a shockingly high number of students enter college without a hint of these skills.
Consider project-based learning, which encourages students to use skills from a variety of disciplines and solve complex problems, which can have real world applications. Engineering students might undertake a project on how to design and construct a building in downtown San Diego, for example.
Kids have unique learning needs. Teachers need to recognize them, and help students work through barriers. A large number of students are misdiagnosed with learning disabilities simply because teachers aren’t able to crack the code.
Provide extra support without pulling kids out of class. Either put more support in the classroom, or offer tutoring sessions after school or on weekends.
Establish a culture of revision and redemption, which differs from the traditional “teach, test and hope for the best” approach. Allow for multiple revisions within the framework of the grading system. That’s how people get better in the real world, including teachers, athletes and writers.
This goes back to segregation. Here, Linda Darling-Hammond says it best:
“Within large schools, tracking systems segregate students and allocate lower-quality curriculum and teaching to those in the bottom tracks—once again, disproportionately those students who have the least political voice. Young people are very observant. They note these patterns. They understand when they are not considered to be deserving of a rigorous and humane education. It is little wonder then some students create an identity that is oppositional to school: How can you buy into something that has identified you as unworthy or incapable of succeeding?”
Build a diverse school or program by not allowing students to segregate. Teachers need to understand the communities that students come from so they can communicate more effectively with them and their parents.
Building school-family partnerships is key. Begin to see parents as experts on their kids. Don’t keep them out of school – invite them into the classrooms and enroll them in student work. This could take some work and perseverance by school staff if the parent is hard to engage.
Knowledgeable and Skilled Teachers
This is more than having a teacher with the right certification (though that’s important, too). Good teachers make content accessible to their students.
Teachers should be experts in the subject matter as well as understanding how students learn. Effective educators are continually learning and honing their practices. They need to learn from one another, and they need time to do it.
Collaboration is important. Consider planning lessons with other teachers, including those from other departments. A history and literature teacher might plan units so material in one class complements the other.
Educators might practice lessons on each other, and get feedback from peers. They can also talk through how they work with individual students, and figure out ways to support them.
Of course, these qualities are harder to establish when funding is scarce. But with some ingenuity and smart choices, principals can make a lot of them work even on meager budgets.
Tradition can be a huge, unseen barrier to a lot these changes. Teachers and parents might be stuck in the way things have always been, and resist the shift.
Darling-Hammond wrote a great guide, but there’s a key piece she didn’t really touch on: great leadership. Kearny has had it, San Diego High hasn’t. And it’s made a huge difference.
By now, the structure at Kearny is pretty well established. But while the school was still building its culture, it was overseen by two principals, Cheryl Hibbeln and Ana Diaz-Booz, who sort of kicked ass. Hibbeln has since moved up to the Central Office to oversee high schools districtwide. Diaz-Booz is holding down the fort at Kearny.
How did they do it? They talked to each other. When they shared a campus, each operated her side with a different style, but they were aligned in the features Darling Hammond lays out. They collaborated regularly.
School board member Richard Barrera gives them credit for that. “The big difference between Kearny and San Diego High or Crawford is that [Hibbeln and Diaz-Booz] worked really closely together and didn’t think in terms of individual schools,” he said.
• Can We Really Prepare Kids for both College and Career? (The Hechinger Report)
Speaking of Kearny, here’s a closer look at the way it does business.
Since the beginning of America’s public education system, the nation has tried to prepare some students for careers and others for college, as if the two are mutually exclusive. The question is when – or whether – to choose these paths for students. The problem is that it can become a way of tracking, a sort of determination we’re placing on kids based on what we think they can accomplish.
But what if we can do both at the same time? Kearny thinks it’s found a way.
• Study: Kids Can Learn as Much from ‘Sesame Street’ as from Preschool (The Washington Post)
It’s quite possible that this is the most important study that’s ever been done. It turns out that “Sesame Street” is good for the developing brain, which is a big win for me … I mean, for my daughter.
• L.A. Retreats on Higher Graduation Standards (Los Angeles Times)
San Diego Unified to Los Angeles Unified: Told you so.
A few years back, both Southern California school districts decided to make a series of classes that are required to get into UC/CSU schools – known as A-G courses – a requirement for high school graduation.
L.A. Unified set the bar higher than we did in San Diego. L.A. decided that starting in 2017, students would have to earn a C or better in A-G courses in order for them to count. San Diego, on the other hand, only requires Ds.
Requiring Cs makes sense. A D may count for graduation, but not for admission to UC/CSU schools. School board members in San Diego wrestled with fears that if they set the bar too high for students, not enough of them would be able to graduate – which is the reality L.A. Unified now faces.
It’s hard to identify a winner in this situation, except for maybe top brass at L.A. Unified. They’ll have to worry less about explaining to the public why graduation rates dropped so starkly.