Monday, May 5, 2008

Small Schools

I am part of a small school that operates within my large comprehensive high school. I work with a team of teachers and students within the BACH school, which stands for "Bridging the Arts Communications and Humanities." The simple definition is that I teach in a performing arts school, but it's much more interesting and complicated.

Our efforts are funded by the Oregon Small Schools Initiative, a program of E3: Employers for Education Excellence. We're in the fourth year of a $1.25 million dollar investment from this organization, and it's yielded some excellent results both in student performance and in teaching practices. The basic idea is to split large comprehensive high schools into smaller learning communities to recapture educational rigor, build better relationships with students, and make the whole experience more relevant to real life.

Educational institutions are a hard ship to steer. Schools are essentially operating under the same basic constructs since the early part of the twentieth century. It goes like this:
  • Students attend mandatory school where they participate in several important classes for roughly eight hours a day, five days a week.
  • The teacher delivers subject area knowledge based on their personal views and experiences, usually beneath the guidance of what the state government believes are the appropriate curriculum standards.
  • If the student completes homework and tests, follows the teacher's directions, and "learns" what the teacher deems important... ta-da, they pass the class.

Doesn't this seem like a dangerously delicate strategy for learning? There are so many things that have to go right in this scenario for real learning and not just playback to occur. As a teacher, I feel this pressure in the classroom. How do I keep all students interested, imbue the exact, cutting-edge knowledge they need, try to relate everything to real life, all while ensuring that I'm not using my own personal and cultural bias in my selection and delivery of curriculum?

In a world that is scheduled in 15 minute increments, with vast amounts of knowledge available 24/7 on the Internet, and the ability to communicate globally within seconds - we're still forcing young people to sit in a desk and take notes for 60-90 minutes per class. We have the technology to enable students to choose the world's greatest teachers, but we don't let them use it. We have the ability to let students teach each other, but we're too afraid of losing control. I know, I'm ranting, but I feel strongly about these issues. In my seven years of teaching, I've seen far too many students sleeping at their desks while teachers are up front having a great time listening to themselves talk.

So... what to do? Reform the system, reform teaching practices, allow students to choose their own learning paths, let the community come into the classroom and vice versa. There is much to do, it is a monumental task, but I'm really proud that we're starting to turn the ship around.


bluelikethesky said...

I am so happy for you and so proud that Anna was born in Oregon. Our district is closing her perfect small school, 220 students, and putting all the kids in a megalomentary. So now, children with working poor parents who are able to get themselves ready and walk to school will have to get themselves up and catch a 7 am bus. Way to make learning happen. I asked the superintendent about his, and he replied, "Children are resilient. They'll adjust."


abhaille said...

I teach at the largest HS in Texas. We are about to "redesign" ourselves into the smaller learning communities.

We are doing this on crack.

By that I mean we are doing this in a precipitous manner without sufficient support or planning. Every study that I read says that we are doing this wrong.

I understand the concept. I can see how it will drive student achievement. We NEED to have smaller learning communities. With over five thousand students, it is too easy to get lost in the shuffle.

By the way, if they fall asleep you should poke them if they drool.

I dream about Ashland, Oregon. I once wanted to move there. I wrote to the chamber of commerce and looked at real estate guides. I didn't know anything about Oregon then, I just had a dream. Since then, I had a daughter graduate from Reed College in Portland. I'm still very impressed with Oregon.

Ah, what a concept!

Scott Raedeke said...

Hey, thanks for the visits. The small schools effort is definitely a scary leap. Abhaille, one of the things you'll find most frustrating is that you never feel adequately prepared to make the change. We argued for 3 years about structure (how many schools, how many students, what grades) when really instructional practice is the issue. The other word you'll learn to loathe is autonomy. This is the real sticking point for implementing small schools - do we have the autonomy to have our own schedule, our own budget, our own adminstration? I've seen mixed results with autonomy in the Oregon Small Schools Initiative. Some schools are flourishing while others have struggled, perhaps moving to quickly to fully autonomous small schools. Like anything, it depends on the team of teachers and whether they can collaborate and make it work.

In retrospect, my school wisely chose a roll-in model where we have a Freshman Academy and our Sophomores choose a small school in which to participate. Next year we'll have Sophs and Juniors and the following year we'll have 10-12.

I think the biggest change is that we are better at catching kids who are failing, and we are looking at student data and acting quickly.

I'm curious how your school will proceed. Keep me posted.