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Small-schools movement hits some bumps

Broad backlash brings a drop in financial support

LEBANON, Ore. -- Hopes were high in this blue-collar town when Lebanon High was broken up into four smaller schools-within-a-school to try to reduce the dropout rate.

At the time, in 2004, the small-schools movement was growing across the country, and it had a powerful backer in Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

But just two years later, criticism from parents and educators has put the future of small schools in jeopardy across the country.

``We made a mistake trying to push autonomy really hard, and the community blew back at us," said Mark Whitson, a journalism teacher at Lebanon High School. ``Parents want us to slow our pace of change until they know what we are doing."

The small-schools concept calls for dividing large high schools into groups of about 300 students with similar academic interests. (Lebanon was divided into ``academies" devoted to communications; farming, natural resources, and health; arts, business, community and family affairs; and engineering and other technical fields.)

The groups then take classes together for four years, with the same teachers. Proponents say students learn more because they and their teachers get to know one another better.

In Lebanon, though, scheduling problems abounded and test scores did not budge. Many feared that the student body was becoming too fragmented, a particularly touchy subject in a town where community is forged on the football field and at graduation ceremonies.

Some students were upset at being separated from friends who had been assigned to other ``learning academies." Others expressed concern that their choice of courses had been narrowed.

``It really ticked me off," said Dallas Oeder, 16. ``I couldn't take all the classes I wanted to."

Parents also fretted that their children were being asked to make decisions about their career paths at the tender age of 14. And in a lumber mill town, there was outrage that the new system was focused more on college-prep classes than on vocational education.

The criticism was so strong that a Gates-backed nonprofit group withdrew a grant worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, citing the lack of community support.

Other districts have faced bumpy transitions, too.

The Gates Foundation reduced its financial support of seven small San Francisco schools.

In Milwaukee, two high schools that adopted the small-school concept lost $300,000 in grant money after officials administering Gates funding said the district had not created a ``rigorous and relevant" curriculum.

Denver officials closed down a small-schools academy after disagreements over how much autonomy it deserved.

The small-schools movement has posted some high-profile successes. In New York City, the graduation rate at 15 schools that adopted the small-school model shot up to 73 percent this year after previously hovering from 31 percent to 51 percent.

Marie Groark, a senior policy adviser at the Gates Foundation, said going small is not ``a magic bullet." In districts where the proposal has failed or suffered setbacks, it is largely ``because somewhere along the way, there wasn't full support."

Clara Hemphill, director of Insideschools.org , a project of Advocates for Children of New York, said the trouble can begin with what she called ``small schools in drag" -- schools that are small in concept only.

``The school becomes these four `Groovy Academies for Esoteric Studies,' but the kids still call it `Roosevelt' or whatever. The teachers aren't really interested and the building stays the same, and they just rename the floors," she said.

Lebanon's superintendent, Jim Robinson, acknowledged that some changes will need to be made, such as restoring some vocational courses. But he said the district will forge ahead without the Gates grant. ``We are staying with it," he said. ``My personal opinion is that they skated too quickly. It never feels good to have people give up on you, especially when we are on the cusp of seeing people risk more of themselves."

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