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Thursday, February 22, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Building flexible schools for the 21st century

Special to The Seattle Times

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First, let us congratulate the majority of voters in Seattle who supported our aspirations for our children's education with their wallets. The 70 percent-plus of the voters who said yes to the operating levy and to the capital levy have taken a significant step toward continuing the improvement of our public schools in Seattle.

With these capital funds, the Seattle School District plans to rebuild Roosevelt, Garfield and Cleveland high schools and Madison and Hamilton middle schools (actually, the former Lincoln High building will be renovated for the latter school). But what kind of school buildings do they intend to construct?

Take a look at the new Ballard High School, built with funds from the previous capital levy. It's a spacious, inviting and comfortable place with lots of natural light and quality facilities. Indeed, it's a fine, comprehensive high-school building.

But it's also a very limited structure, because it can only be used efficiently as a comprehensive high school with 1,300 or more students. The building is fine, but the concept behind the building was already old 50 years ago. And today, the concept of the large, comprehensive high school is becoming obsolete, particularly in urban areas with diverse populations and large numbers of students from low-income families.

Research in schools across the country has shown convincingly that students of all ages - and particularly adolescents in middle school and high school - learn more effectively and behave more appropriately in small, personalized schools. You don't have to believe my claims about this. You can read a study by Craig Howley and Robert Bickel, "Small Schools, Poverty and Student Achievement," which looked at 13,600 schools in Georgia, Montana, Ohio and Texas and found convincing evidence of the academic value of small schools (on the Web at www.ruralchallenge.org).

Or you can ask Dr. Pat Wasley, the new dean of the School of Education at the University of Washington, who helped to lead a large study of the effects of school size in Chicago, which found that small schools work better for young people of all ages (the study, "Small Schools, Great Strides" is also on the Web at www.bnkst.edu).

You can ask Tom vander Ark, director of education programs at the Gates Foundation, who has found the research about the efficacy of small high schools sufficiently convincing to direct close to $100 million of the Foundation's grants toward the establishment of small high schools throughout the nation.

In light of this research and the dramatic commitment of the Gates Foundation, the last thing we need to do in Seattle is to rebuild Roosevelt, Garfield and Cleveland as splendid, comprehensive high-school facilities for the 1950s - at $40 million to $60 million each.

High school is very likely to transform its size and shape and function, probably over the very next decade. Middle school may very well do the same. But a new $60-million school must be usable for 50 years or more.

What can the school district do, given the need to operate comprehensive high schools now and the likelihood that these schools will be transformed sooner than later?

We need to design and build secondary schools that are flexible, that can be used in multiple configurations. Take Roosevelt, for example. Rather than a building that can only be used for a single, 1,600-student school, let's build a school that can be readily configured in several ways: as one school; as two schools, each with 800 students; as four schools, each with 400 students; or perhaps even as eight schools, each with 200 students.

The new Ballard High School has good-sized classrooms, but most of them are set up for 30 students - and only 30 students. But just as the overall school size of secondary school is likely to change, so is the size of student groupings, if we begin to develop different kinds of secondary schools. So let's build new schools that offer flexibly-sized classrooms, so we can have groups of 30, 60, 90 or 120 students together easily and comfortably - and groups of 12 or 16.

The Seattle School Board could guarantee that the money we have just decided to spend on new and rebuilt schools will be spent wisely by establishing a 21st Century School Design Commission to identify key design principles for all new and rebuilt secondary schools. Such a statement of principles and its application to all building projects could ensure that our new and renovated schools are flexible in their potential use and that we will not be spending our money to build school dinosaurs.

David Marshak is an associate professor in the School of Education, Seattle University.

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