A Look at Small Schools

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Small Schools in the Heights
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Joanne DeMarco is president of the Cleveland Teachers Union and a longtime high school teacher. She says high school teachers are generally more reluctant than their elementary and middle school counterparts to embrace change. So, when the concept of small high schools came to Cleveland, DeMarco says some teachers were openly skeptical.

Joanne DeMarco: You know they have lived through so many reforms, and even we, when we first approached them, their first response was, This too shall pass. And we had to convince them that No, that this one really would be it in terms of re-forming and restructuring the American high school.

DeMarco says she thinks high schools have long needed an overhaul, a viewpoint that has gained significant support in recent years. The KnowledgeWorks Foundation, based in Cincinnati, is a major player in the development of small schools across Ohio. It's handed out grants of hundreds of thousands of dollars - in some cases well over a million dollars - to those high schools it has chosen to go through a changeover to small schools. The vast majority of its money comes from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Cleveland's Glenville High School is one recipient. Glenville opened its four small schools this year. Each has a particular focus - fine arts, science, health, and business. Senior Lawrence White chose science - by full name the Biomedicine, Engineering, Science and Technology Institute. He says the change is a good one.

Lawrence White: You can now center in on what you want to do in college. Like, I'm in the school of science because my major when I get to college is mechanical engineering. (You already know this?) Yes. (How long have you known this?) Three years.

Social Studies teacher Janet Leckleitner smiles at the certainty in White's voice. She notes that most students aren't quite so sure of their future at his age. Still, she says, as long as they know what their general interests are, students can make thoughtful choices about which Glenville school is right for them. Leckleitner was among a handful of teachers who played a key role in the design of these schools.

Janet Leckleitner: Usually somewhere between two and four people from each school got pulled out of school and went to certain conferences. And we actually got to go on trips to other cities to see how they were setting up their small schools.

Converting traditional high schools to small schools was complicated, says Kathleen Freilino, Deputy Chief for Secondary Education in the Cleveland schools. On one hand was the bureaucratic red tape - which included wide-ranging negotiations with the teachers union. On the other was the task of educating community members, many of whom were concerned about the extent of divisions between the schools, Freilino says.

Kathleen Freilino: Will we still have one football team? One basketball team? One band? And we do indeed have that common element on the campuses. That was a big concern.

Indeed, the move to small schools does not nullify a basic structural fact: the schools all operate under one roof. Certain aspects of daily life still connect kids across their chosen schools - things like lunch and gym.

Gail Stevens: You see the red, white and blue stripes? (On the wall there?) Uh-huh, and that represents Science, that's Science's office. And you see this sign lets everybody know who we are.

Gail Stevens is principal of the Renaissance School of the Fine Arts at Glenville. As she leads a tour of the high school building, she explains that to avoid confusion, each small school adopted different colors. Stripes of red, black, and gold along the corridor indicate that this is the arts school. While the School of Leadership, Health, and Wellness is a green, red, and black-striped world. But some walls are stripe-free.

Gail Stevens: Now we're on the side of the building where there are shared classrooms.

Shared classrooms are not typical of small schools; each is intended to operate independently. But large-scale teacher layoffs implemented over the summer in the wake of Cleveland's hundred-million-dollar school budget deficit mean Glenville's small schools are sharing some teachers. Such cuts have added another level of complexity to the move to small schools, according Stevens.

Gail Stevens: I had personally a challenge with the school of arts because I didn't have a certified teacher to teach dance, or to teach drama. And so I knew that those were some activities that I would have to do after school and/or find other resources.

The move to small schools is still in its early stages throughout Cleveland. Glenville, James Ford Rhodes, and East Tech High are making the switch this year. East High did it last year. Advocates say these changes will boost student achievement and help more kids graduate. And there's plenty of room for improvement. East High and East Tech are in Academic Emergency. Glenville and James Ford Rhodes are in Academic Watch. All graduate less than half of their students.

In Cleveland, Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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