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Small Schools, Part 2: Teacher Apprehension High

Tuesday, December 23, 2003 at 11:59 AM

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There's a move afoot that many say could be the most meaningful education reform idea to come along in decades. The typical American high school, the thinking goes, is too big, too impersonal, and allows too many students to fall anonymously through the cracks. And so, with money donated primarily by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ohio-based Knowledgeworks Foundation, several Ohio school districts are creating smaller, self contained high schools within single existing buildings. But as ideastream's Bill Rice explains, despite enthusiasm from top administrators for smaller schools, apprehension among some teachers is running high.

As Dave Saywell tells it, not all of the teachers at Euclid High School are fired up about dividing students and building space into 6 smaller units, each operating more or less autonomously. Saywell is the district’s top teachers union official. He says when the union put the idea to a vote the majority of Euclid High’s teachers rejected it.

Dave Saywell: The vote was approximately 65 to 45 that they did not want to go forward with the grant. The administration did, though, determine that it was in our best interest that the grant go forward.

...Perhaps an affirmation of the old saying “You can’t stop progress.” And progress is what small schools advocates are promising. One of the staunchest is Harold Brown, Program Director of the Knowledgeworks Foundation based in Cincinnati, which is presiding over more than $40 million in grants for small high schools statewide. Brown says inner city school kids benefit especially.

Harold Brown: They stay in school; the dropout rates are significantly lower. There are fewer incidents of violence and referrals for discipline problems. Teachers tend to demonstrate greater satisfaction and commitment to that school.

And, he says, in Ohio there’s evidence, if only anecdotal, that the concept works. He points to Cincinnati, which over the past three years has begun a gradual conversion of its five comprehensive high schools. While Knowledgeworks isn’t in Cincinnati’s funding pipeline, Brown says the district offers a glimpse of how things might progress elsewhere.

Harold Brown: The short-term indicators of this work tend to be higher attendance rates, greater teacher satisfaction, those kinds of things. What you may not see in the short term are increases in the state proficiency tests, because those are longer-term problems and issues and graduation rates obviously it takes time for those students to matriculate. But I think the conventional wisdom there in Cincinnati is that it’s a good thing.

Sue Taylor, President of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, agrees. She says the smaller school makes for better teamwork between teachers, and that’s better for students.

Sue Taylor: When you put together the brains and the knowledge and the expertise of a group of teachers all teaching a common group of students there are better support mechanisms, the teachers learn from one another, they learn what works with groups of students and individual students, there’s a greater sharing of knowledge, which I believe provides a much greater safety net for our students.

While Taylor is a strong supporter of smaller schools initiative, she does acknowledge the challenges it poses for teachers.

Sue Taylor: It does involve deeper levels of thought, taking on new and different roles - there’s no doubt about that.

Does it actually involve taking more time?

Sue Taylor: I believe it does.

And that’s a potential problem for some teachers in districts that are just now planning their own conversions to smaller high schools. Dave Saywell of the Euclid teachers Association, says many Euclid High teachers feel they’re already stretched for time. Another worry, he says, is the tight deadline under which they’re required to bring the new school configuration up and running.

Dave Saywell: It’s a whole new philosophy of teaching…

...A philosophy, he says, that brings with it a multitude of changes that teachers must incorporate - different class schedules, more non-classroom planning and collaboration between teachers, more non-instructional time with students. Some teachers, he says, are skeptical about being able to adjust to all that by September, and even whether it’s really worth the effort.

Dave Saywell: You have a lot of staff who say we’ve delivered a quality program for fifty years, why do we need to change?

Saywell says those opposed to bringing the small high schools concept to Euclid aren’t inclined to say so publicly. One teacher we spoke with confirmed that, saying he doesn’t want to be perceived as not being a team player - especially since teamwork is so central to the plan.

Knowledgeworks’ Harold Brown responds that change is almost always difficult.

Harold Brown: Anything this transformative that requires this much change and changes peoples roles, they’re always going to be resistance. But in our view teachers really have to own this and make this happen.

Brown says the more teachers buy into the transformation initiative, the more likely it is to succeed. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3.

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