"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, June 01, 2009

What Will Happen When Gates Leaves Town?

What will happen to North Carolina's East Wake High School when grant funds disappear?  Test scores, the gold standard of the oligarchs and psychometricians, failed to skyrocket after the foundation gave North Carolina $11 million to carve up large high schools into smaller learning communities.  Gates, of course, has deemed the "small schools" model a failure while jumping on the charter school bandwagon.  The fate of the school - which relies on philanthropic funding for its continuation unless the district or state pony up additional funding - remains in question despite popularity among students, teachers, and parents (although they admit some kinks, like access to higher level courses, need to be worked out).  From the News & Observer (North Carolina):

Wake to weigh 'small schools'

WENDELL - Four years ago, then-Gov. Mike Easley was billing East Wake High School as a leader of high school reform that would "provide high-level skills necessary to compete for health-related jobs in our rapidly changing economy,"

Now, Wake County school board members are looking at East Wake's low test scores and asking whether the decision to divide the campus into four small schools was the right call. It's a discussion that could result in a decision, as early as Tuesday, to discontinue the small schools program after a grant runs out in June 2010.

"It has not shown the advancement that I thought it would have over a four-year period of time," school board member Patti Head said. "But you've seen the pleas of parents, students and teachers."

School board members know that eliminating the small schools would draw an angry response from passionate supporters who have rallied in recent weeks to save a program designed to promote a tighter bond between teachers and students and help improve academic performance and graduation rates.

"Do you wish to bring mockery to your community because you've lacked the effort to continue this positive work?" East Wake parent Theodore Smith asked the board.

East Wake is the only school in the Triangle to operate entirely as separate small schools. Two Durham high schools, Southern and Hillside, have each split off part of their campuses into a small school.

Every East Wake student is a member of the School of Health Science, the School of Information Technology, the School of Engineering Systems, or the School of Arts, Education and Global Studies.

Until 2005, East Wake High was a traditional high school. School board members said they felt pressured to do something to help East Wake, which has suffered over the years from low scores and an image problem in the community.

This made the school system receptive to a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to redesign East Wake from a traditional high school with 1,600 students into four schools with 400 students each. The state chipped in with funding at East Wake and other high schools around the state that have split into smaller schools.

The idea of smaller schools is to build closer relationships between staff and students in hopes that these bonds will help improve academic achievement over time. More than 50 supporters attended a recent school board meeting to say how much better things are now.

"There is no hiding in a small school," teacher Kelley Yonce told the board. "There is no anonymity. There is no option with getting away with dropping out and not being at school."

But test scores haven't improved at East Wake, and some parents have complained that operating as four small schools has made it harder for their children to take advanced courses and electives.

Tony Habit, president of the New Schools Project, which is administering the state's small schools effort, attributed the lack of test gains to the delays in implementing the concept at East Wake. Its first small school started in 2005, but the last two didn't begin until 2007.

Habit said the school district should wait three more years so that all the small schools will have had at least five years in operation. He said things will get better, especially after the New Schools Project increased the amount of coaching assistance for teachers.

"We're beginning to see teachers who are more confident in their work," Habit said. "This will be reflected in increased gains in the next few years."

Grant running out

But the grant will dry up at the end of June 2010. Board members say they want to make a decision soon about whether to continue the program once the grant money runs out.

A similar discussion took place in Granville County, where funding will also run out in 2010 for two small schools created through a Gates Foundation grant. Gus Gillespie, a Granville schools spokesman, said the district agreed to keep the schools running but asked them to work with individual students to help with scheduling the courses they want, similar to the concerns that have been raised at East Wake.

"There are some kinks that we need to work out," Gillespie said. "The school board feels there's enough to keep it going."

Supporters of East Wake's small schools may be greatly aided by the change of heart by school board member Lori Millberg, previously the most vocal critic of the school's low test scores and lack of academic offerings.

But Millberg said she was impressed by the vocal support for the program, especially from teachers. She said she favors giving more time to see how the latest small schools are doing.

"I was blown away by all the support," Millberg said.

If things work out, Giovanni Leon's wish will come true for future East Wake students to benefit from small schools. He credits the small school concept with helping him get access to research opportunities and internships that helped pay his way to Wake Forest University.

"I've done extremely well at the School of Health Science," said Leon, 18, an East Wake senior. "Why shouldn't other students have those opportunities as well?"

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