Thinking small

Oakland, Calif., school superintendent Dennis Chaconas worked with parents to create small schools - and put the city in the forefront of a national movement.

It all started with a band of frustrated parents. More than 1,000 of their children were crammed into schools built for 600. Teachers had to rove from room to room.

One mother's third-grade son had trouble spelling his own name. And consistently, their children scored lower on standardized tests than children from the wealthier parts of town - where schools were significantly smaller.

Eventually, 100 people showed up at a meeting to put the new superintendent in Oakland, Calif., on the spot. And just two months later, in the spring of 2000, the district approved a plan to build 10 schools - with no more than 500 students - in their low-income neighborhoods of Latino, Asian-American, and African-American families. Voters passed a $300 million bond to pay for the initiative.

Suddenly, Oakland found itself in the forefront of a reform movement.

Researchers have been saying for years that large, impersonal schools can impede the kinds of support and events that lead to academic success: teachers who know children well, smaller classes, even the chance to participate informally in extracurricular activities. Make schools smaller, they say, and much will improve, including student performance.

Suburban districts started questioning their megaschools after a spate of school shootings heightened concerns about

teenage alienation. But it's primarily urban districts, swimming upstream to address racial and economic achievement gaps, that have latched on to small schools' potential for making education more equitable.

"This is the civil rights movement of the 21st century," says Michael Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Small schools help poor and minority children most, he says, because "the neediest kids find support in smaller, personalized environments where they're known not just for their deficits ... but for their assets."

A few recent signs of the momentum:

• The Florida Legislature voted earlier this year to cap enrollment in new high schools at 900 students, middle schools at 700, and elementary at 500.

• The US Department of Education has given $170 million in local grants for small-school initiatives in the past two years.

• The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has poured more than $235 million into such efforts in public school districts nationwide, including Chicago, Boston, and Oakland (which gets the bulk of a regional $15.7 million 5-year grant).

• During the past 12 years, Philadelphia has broken up 22 large high schools into more than 100 learning communities.

Money can accelerate the pace of change in schools, but advocates of small schools know it is not a panacea. "If the relationships are not healthy, no amount of throwing money at the problem is going to help," says Steve Jubb, executive director of the Oakland-based Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES).

Many of Oakland's 55,000 students certainly have a long way to go in terms of test scores. In 1999-2000, for example, about 70 percent of children in Grades 2 to 5 scored below the national average on reading tests, compared with about 55 percent in California overall. There was a similar gap in math.

Six of Oakland's new schools have opened since last year, and BayCES is working with them to bring about the academic gains everyone hopes for. One encouraging sign, Mr. Jubb and others say, is that teams of parents, teachers, and students have designed the schools, and are involved in decisions about everything from hiring to scheduling.

Students and parents say they notice the difference. "Our school was bigger, and it didn't really teach us a lot," says Brenda Castro, a pioneering sixth-grader at the ASCEND school. "The math book for the seventh grade there is for the sixth grade here."

Surrounded by auto-parts shops, boxy homes, and the occasional abandoned building, ASCEND is one of the brightest places in its East Oakland neighborhood - and not just because of the tree-lined path leading to the school.

Posters outlining "How to Ascend" dot the walls of the school. The simple ideas, ranging from "Take charge of your own learning" to "Help each other," are practiced in classrooms and on the playground. Even a gentle tussle between two young boys earns an impromptu quiz from the principal about respect.

ASCEND - which stands for A School Cultivating Excellence, Nurturing Diversity - opened in September with nine teachers and 173 students in kindergarten and Grades 2, 4, and 6. It will phase in the other grades and cap enrollment at 360.

For fourth-grader Rosa Escalante, the differences are summed up simply: "This school is more safe than the other school." Perhaps equally important, "it has more balls," she says as she heads off to lob some of the big, colorful spheres to her friends in the courtyard. Angel Mena, a friend of Rosa's in the Spanish/English bilingual class, has his reasons for preferring ASCEND, too. "The teachers, they're like my friends ... and in my old school, I didn't get to read 'Harry Potter,' " he says, pointing to the books he's devouring. Here, he adds, he gets to stay after to draw or work.

About 80 percent of the students take advantage of the free after-school program, and some parents supervise for a stipend. At any given time, though, it's not unusual to see parents volunteering. "Every morning I come here for around half an hour, and sometimes I go to a classroom to see how [the teachers] work; it's way different than the way other schools do it, and I think it's going to make the difference," says Emma Paulino, who helped design ASCEND and is a "parent leader" with Oakland Community Organizations (OCO). The faith-based group led the small-schools charge and is now partnering with BayCES and the school district. "Kids here get the individual attention they need; it's like a private school," she adds.

The close-knit communities that are developing are allowing some longstanding frustrations to fade. Parents who used to find out about a child's difficulties when it seemed too late now can get regular updates from teachers who know their children well. At ASCEND, one of the biggest barriers was overcome by recruiting a front-office worker who speaks Mien, an Asian language with no written form that is spoken by many families.

Skepticism remains, however. At a recent OCO meeting, a parent who is worried about high school exit exams said, "Yes, we see a bunch of small schools, but are they effective?"

Each school hopes that the theme it is designed around will engage kids and boost learning. A middle school, for instance, focuses on leadership, and an elementary school emphasizes social justice and bilingual education. ASCEND integrates arts into a projects-based curriculum to help children who work at various levels find a personal connection to what they're learning.

Because of that, it's easy to mistake any classroom for the art teacher's. Fourth-graders paint faces on newspaper-covered balloons and talk about the concept of symmetry. In the sixth-grade room, the students paint volcanoes on the walls for their earth-sciences unit. Principal Hae-sin Kim calls it a "chaotic aesthetic," the kind of thing that happens "when kids own the classroom."

What drives it is a keen desire to boost basic skills. But other factors are at work, too. ASCEND students will stay with a teacher for two years at a time until eighth grade. Before graduation, the eighth-graders will present a portfolio to a panel that includes parents, peers, and community members trained to judge whether they have met school and district standards.

"A lot of our kids have limited self-esteem; they get really nervous about standing up and speaking, especially our kids where English is a second language," Principal Kim says, as the rapid-transit train rumbles directly above her corner office. "A huge objective is to get kids to be advocates for their community.... [So we tell them,] you need to be able to articulate your ideas."

But for all the attention to small-school initiatives by researchers and some districts, many parents and teachers throughout the country don't see small schools as a top priority. According to a recent survey by New-York based Public Agenda, majorities of parents and teachers agreed that smaller high schools could improve discipline and help meet students' individual needs. But 55 percent of parents said size was "not too important" or "not at all important."

The exception, they said, would be if a school were overcrowded. That was the seed of discontent in Oakland, and if the small schools do well, more could follow, eventually creating districtwide school choice.

Still, while the movement may grow slowly, the innovative approach holds considerable allure for quite a few experienced educators.

School superintendent Dennis Chaconas says he regularly gets calls from teachers interested in coming to Oakland because they've had enough of cookie-cutter schools. "Everyone wants to have powerful teaching, and to personalize the learning environment," he says.

Laura Flaxman, principal of the new Life Academy high school (see story, page 13), says she was sold on small schools as a teacher in New York. Her five-year goal at Life Academy is for 90 percent or more of her students to graduate, a rate she estimates would at least double that of their previous high school.

To her, there was no mystery to her decision to move across the country to take a new job. "Oakland was the one place," she says, "where I saw an urban district acknowledging something wrong, particularly on the high school level, and trying to do something radical to fix it."

E-mail teichers@csps.com.

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