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Wednesday, February 16, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Complicated conversion gets big school to think small

Times Snohomish County bureau

Big suburban high schools are often as busy at night as they are in the day. Basketball players grab rebounds in the gymnasium. Students lug instruments for a band concert. Parents sit on folded chairs in the ground-floor commons, strategizing about fund raising.

But down the corridor that holds The Discovery School, one of the five small academies that replaced the traditional 1,800-student Mountlake Terrace High School in 2003, the big-school din quiets to a single student's voice.

Bradley Jackson, a junior, talented artist and hip-hop dancer, stands at a wide lab table in a nearly empty classroom and explains to his parents and adviser about his C-minus grades in chemistry and math.

"I've been slacking," he said. "I don't use my time wisely in class or out. I could use our advisory period to do homework in class and to get help from teachers."

Jackson told his parents that he planned to stay on task, raise his grades and explore art institutes or technical colleges as options after graduation. His father, Jerome, a Lynnwood real-estate agent, wasn't quite reassured about the grades. But his mother, Elvie, a loan officer who came to the U.S. from the Philippines as a young woman, appreciated her son's honesty and was proud of his work, particularly in social studies and English, where Jackson's grades had gone up over the past year from low B's to A's.

His adviser, Vince DeMiero, who meets with Jackson and 18 other students each school day, and who had helped Jackson prepare for the conference, added his praise.

"With your talent, skill and charisma, I expect you'll reach your goals," he said.

Like almost every aspect of Mountlake Terrace High these days, the student-led conferences are something new, one feature in a grand national experiment in converting large high schools into smaller schools with the aim of increasing student achievement and preparing more people for college.

A year and a half after opening the five small schools-within-a-school, each with no more than 400 students, observers say it's too early to draw conclusions, except that the process has been arduous and often chaotic.

But with nearby Lynnwood and Meadowdale high schools recently receiving the same federal Smaller Learning Community planning grants that set Mountlake Terrace down the small-school road in 2000, even more attention will be paid to Mountlake Terrace, which was among the first schools in the nation to embark on such a transformation.

Supporters warn that significant results may not be seen for three to five more years. Right now, the biggest unknown at Mountlake Terrace is whether the school can sustain the changes put in place when grants — $833,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2001 and $462,000 from the federal government in 2002 — run out at the end of the school year.

"This is really the challenge," Principal Greg Schwab said. "We're going to have to do this on our own."

5 schools, 5 staffs

Each wing of Mountlake Terrace High houses one of five largely autonomous schools, each with its own staff, curriculum and organizing theme. The Renaissance School, for example, draws students involved in performing arts; the Terrace Arts and Academics School (TAAS) attracts students interested in visual and literary arts. Within its distinctive focus, each school also offers college-preparatory courses in English, social studies, science and math.

Gates-foundation money paid for new computer labs in each of the five schools, software to help teach math and reading, and a coach for each school to support teachers as they implemented advisory periods, lengthened class periods, adopted new strategies for teaching reading and integrated curricula.

The remaining Gates funds and the federal money allowed staff members to spend time away from their regular duties to meet, plan, research and visit other small schools.

A grants administrator at the school keeps detailed information about spending and performance measures, including student attendance, grades, yearly progression, standardized-test scores, dropout rates and college admissions.

Gates-foundation researchers, who have pored over the data, say the Mountlake Terrace experience is a textbook conversion effort — difficult and messy, with mixed views about how well it's working and only modest academic achievement gains to date. They're virtually the same results seen at other Gates-funded high schools at this stage of the conversion process, said David Ferrero, the director of research and assessment for the foundation.

Mountlake Terrace did see a jump in Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) scores last year, but so did Lynnwood High, which didn't have the extra federal and private help.

Discipline is another measure of small-school success. Students attending smaller schools are supposed to act up less often, but incidents at Mountlake Terrace have actually risen, from 130 short-term suspensions in the 2001-02 school year to 172 in 2003-04. Administrators speculate the staff's greater familiarity with students may mean more awareness of when to intervene.

Despite the mixed results, support for the undertaking remains strong at the Gates foundation, where Ferrero said the old Mountlake Terrace High wasn't working for too many students.

In 2002-03, more than a third of the school's students dropped out before graduation or didn't graduate on time. Only 40 percent of 10th-graders met the state standard for math and 56 percent for reading on the WASL. Asians and whites outperformed blacks and Hispanics by considerable margins on the assessment, Ferrero said.

But before the small schools could be opened and given a chance to work, he said, a great deal had to be undone, including institutional red tape, some teachers' resistance to change and a doubt that persists among some of the faculty today about whether all students, given adequate support, can succeed.

"What we've found is that there are a complicated set of things we have to undo before we can redo them," Ferrero said.

Scheduling challenges

If student-led conferences suggest the promise of small schools, the principal's office bears witness to the pain. On two walls adjacent to Principal Schwab's desk, grids of what appear to be about 500 paper sticky notes quiver whenever the door opens or closes.

Each color-coded note corresponds to one of the schools' 93 teachers and where each teacher is during each period of the day. Within the five schools, there are two different schedules and two different start times.

Schwab said scheduling classes for the upcoming year used to take about a week. Now it takes a month.

"There are days when it's just hard," Schwab said. "Hard to keep it all straight."

Schwab, who moved to Mountlake Terrace last fall, did not initiate the small-school conversion. That fell to the former principal and an assistant principal, both of whom left last year to take new principal assignments.

But Schwab, 41, is an articulate proponent of small schools, of the enhanced connections they allow between students and teachers, of the greater likelihood that struggling students will get help instead of slipping through the cracks. He's quick to praise the work of his staff members, who since the initial planning grant have spent thousands of hours creating the five schools.

Schwab, however, is also worried about whether the changes can be sustained. School leadership is already stretched thin. Two vice principals each lead two of the small schools and often must choose between events and meetings occurring at the same time.

Though last year's effort was largely focused on the logistics of running five autonomous schools, this year the focus is on improving teaching and giving the staff time to collaborate, try new instructional techniques and to further develop curriculum that integrates each school's theme.

With the grant money about to expire, Schwab said it's not clear how the school will compensate teachers for their out-of-class time, particularly those who have taken on leadership roles that involve administrative duties.

Underlying those concerns is what will happen to students if the efforts can't be sustained.

"We're finding kids who might have been anonymous in a larger school, but it's a double-edged sword," Schwab said. "Now that we're finding them, how do we get them the help they need?"

What's been lost

Not every student at Mountlake Terrace is a fan of the small schools. On a recent afternoon, cheerleader Marisa Mitchell, a junior in TAAS, was sprawled in the main hallway painting a sign for Love Week, five days of activities around the theme of friendship and romance.

What's been lost, in the minds of students such as Mitchell, is the social activity, the friendships and rivalries, the big-school excitement that made high school such a compelling place for a teenager.

"Everything is segregated," she said. "If you're in TAAS, you have to do this. If you play an instrument, you have to be in Renaissance. You can only take classes in your own school.

"I have so less opportunity to meet people. That's what high school is all about."

Meron Asaad is a sophomore who switched last fall to Mountlake Terrace from Roosevelt High School in Seattle. Though most students choose the school they enter, Asaad, because she was a transfer student, was assigned to The Innovation School, which focuses on technology and science. Her version of the school's identity is "a lot of guys building stuff."

Asaad recognizes both the strengths and weaknesses of small schools. Students are closer to their teachers, and the teachers know them better, she said. But they don't have as many courses, particularly electives, from which to choose. They have little choice about whom they spend their days with.

"If all your friends are in your school, you have classes with them. But if not, you don't," Asaad said.

Building participation

On a recent Friday night at the high school, a dozen girls and a half-dozen teachers from The Innovation School arrived with sleeping bags and pajamas, a game of Twister and lots of takeout food. They watched a Mountlake Terrace girls basketball game in the gym upstairs, then settled into a downstairs classroom, pulled the sagging institutional couches to the sides, played games and sang karaoke at the top of their lungs.

The big old high school had plenty of opportunities for activities and athletic teams, but there were always kids who were left on the fringes, looking in at popular crowds who seemed to have always known each other.

Part of the small-school concept is to increase students' sense of participation and involvement. Some of that is accomplished by the smaller numbers. Each teacher sees his or her advisory students through all four years of high school.

It's also accomplished through more project-driven assignments that bring small groups of students together for hands-on learning activities. It also happens through made-up occasions like a sleepover at the school.

Kimberly Nelson teaches family and consumer science, but when it came time to sing with the karaoke machine, she wrestled her students for the microphone.

Last year, she said, was one of the most difficult in her career; this year, "one of the most delightful."

"It goes beyond bonding," she said. "It's chemistry. Students and teacher foster so much respect."

Jonathan Tong, the lead teacher for The Innovation School, agrees that last year was intense and demanding. He went from teaching only biology to teaching biology, Earth sciences and chemistry. He and his staff are still integrating the school's technology and problem-solving theme into its core academic subjects. He's had to find time to work with teachers on new literacy strategies and to give feedback about classroom effectiveness.

"We're working 10 times harder and putting in 10 times as many hours," Tong said. "We're not just moving furniture."

The lights come on

The results of their work may not be known for many years, but for all the doubts and uncertain outcomes, what stands out in many teachers' minds are the bright lights of individual students who may not have shone in a larger, more impersonal high school.

Tedashi Myers is a senior in The Innovation School. He's had difficulty over the years with taking tests, concentrating for long periods and overcoming small learning disabilities that he said added up to poor schoolwork.

But over the past year and a half, as his teachers have taken the time to understand his needs, his experience began to change. Math teacher Jenny Nunn, for example, saw that Myers had extreme test anxiety despite his aptitude for math. Nunn suggested that he verbally explain new concepts to her. When he realized he could get them down on paper, his test anxiety went away.

In biology, Tong last year asked Myers to be a project leader for a four-day field mapping assignment at a nature sanctuary. Myers organized seven people, assigned tasks based on the other students' strengths and coordinated data for a final report. Through it all, Myers said, Tong conveyed to him that he could be relied on and trusted.

"Before the small schools, nobody talked to me about college. Nobody said, 'You can do it,' " Myers said.

His grade-point average has risen from 1.8 to 3.5.

Now, he is looking at colleges with strong engineering programs. He said he expects to succeed.

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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