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Three schools, one building, many reforms

(Page 2 of 2)

"She wanted to destabilize everybody," remembers Santo Nicotera, Manual's director of reform until he left in June to consult on other small-schools efforts. "And that's what she did."

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Mr. Nicotera, for one, believes that such "destabilization" – starting fresh – was necessary. He remembers in particular Sutton's first meeting with the faculty, when she announced that Manual would indeed become a neighborhood school, not a magnet school as many teachers were hoping. "She said, 'If you can't see yourself teaching Latino and black kids from this neighborhood, there's the door.' And then she walked out." Twenty-five of the school's 70 teachers left that summer.

Those who stayed had to adjust to a new four-period day, wholesale curriculum change, more communal planning and critiques of teachers, and a restructured ninth grade that was divided into four teams. And that was just the first year.

Teachers, used to reigning supreme in their classrooms, were often resistant. Students wondered what was happening. Some reforms, such as block scheduling and a peer-critique system, were tried and abandoned. The decision to make the big split happened with little warning, after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation agreed to help fund the process with a $500,000, five-year grant.

As students file out of his physical-science class, teacher Paul Oser says that some of the reforms have improved his teaching. Still, he misses the camaraderie among the different faculties. In small schools, he notes, teachers feel more empowered – but that can be a double-edged sword. "We're offered more decisionmaking capability, but we're not always listened to. We're offered more hats, but they don't always fit."

Indeed, in retrospect, the biggest failure in Manual's reforms may simply be a lack of communication. "[The reforms] all make sense to me," says Patrick McQuillan, an associate professor at Boston College's Lynch School of Education who has been studying the school. "But communicating it to 70-plus faculty members, 1,000-plus students, and parents and community members is difficult.... It's hard to get the big picture."

Students have been the most critical of the changes. "It's like going into a kid's bedroom and rearranging it," explains Nicotera.

Manual had a big presence in this community, and some students don't see why it had to go. Others criticize the segregation they see between the schools – the high concentration of teachers certified in English Language Acquisition means Arts and Cultural Studies is disproportionately Hispanic. In the turmoil of transition, juniors and seniors, particularly, felt neglected.

"The upperclassmen are really dissatisfied," says Mark Stuart, a Leadership student who graduated last year. "We had to patch the holes they left.... It'll become a good working system once time goes by, but it hurt our senior year."

Gerardo Reyes, a shy junior at Arts and Cultural Studies, says he chose Manual even though district lines put him in the neighborhood for North High School. He joined the student council last year, and says he learned a lot preparing for his first rite of passage. But he's also frustrated. He speaks good English, but was still placed in an English-acquisition course. He'd prefer to be at Leadership. "I want to have a voice in my school," he says. Gerardo is one of several students in Students 4 Justice, which got local media attention when they issued a report criticizing the reforms this summer.

Advocates of small schools say such resistance isn't unusual. "When you're starting from scratch, there's no institutional history to undo," says Rick Lear, director of the Small Schools Project in Seattle. "In a conversion school [like Manual], there is that institutional history." It's hard for some families to see the curriculum change – the loss of specialized courses such as German or ceramics.

In the next 15 months, Mr. Lear estimates, 200 to 300 schools in the US will be taking the first steps toward breaking up. Most will probably phase in change slower than Manual did. Still, Lear says, "most of the schools doing this, by their own definition, won't be as desperate as Manual was. Everyone looked at Manual as a throwaway school with throwaway kids. It's reasonable to think a dramatic change might make a difference."

The next three years are crucial for Manual. If test scores don't rise – and they're often the last indicator to move, after things such as attendance and parent involvement – the state could take over Manual and reconstitute it as a charter school.

Ms. Sutton, for one, hopes the hardest part is over. "You think once you go through the pain of breaking up, you've rounded the corner, but ... you've really only begun again. Teaching took a step backwards. Personalization took a step backwards. Everything had to start all over again – they were new schools."