Small schools spell success

NATHAN HALE academies are serving as a model in a national movement to spur academic achievement.

When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation set out to transform America's high schools, they found a shining example in their own back yard: Nathan Hale, a low-key North Seattle school that is in its second year of dramatic reform.

Hale used to worry educators because so many students were not performing well academically, says the school's assistant principal, Rick Harwood. But two years ago the school joined a national movement toward smaller schools to spur academic achievement.

This month, the Gates Foundation announced a $350 million gift to U.S. public and private schools, part of which will go to schools that reduce their size. Foundation officials cited Hale as an example of the success of small schools.

And the U.S. Department of Education has earmarked $45 million to help restructure large high schools into smaller learning communities of 400 to 600 students.

"What small schools do is give you the conditions to be successful," says Patricia McNeil, an assistant secretary at the Department of Education.

Those conditions include a focus on building relationships between teachers and students, and tailoring lesson plans to students' individual learning styles.

Achieving small schools doesn't necessarily mean a small building. It could mean schools within a school, career academies, a "house" approach sometimes used in middle schools, or reinstatement of a homeroom or advisory period.

However it is accomplished, there is substantial research showing a boost in academic achievement when students form a close connection with at least one adult.

Hale aimed to accomplish that by dividing its 250 ninth-graders into two groups, each staffed by six teachers. The student-teacher ratio dropped to about 20-to-1.

Hale chose the ninth grade as the first target for reform because it is a transitional year, in which students are traditionally at great risk for poor grades, low attendance and dropping out of school.

Hale also revamped its 10th grade into an interdisciplinary academy, where class subjects are integrated so students can better understand a lesson's relevance to other aspects of life. For example, when students studied Buddhism in history, they also read the book "Siddhartha" in language arts.

In the ninth- and 10th-grade academies, students remain with their classmates and teachers for two years, allowing relationships and learning to take place on a deeper level.

Critical element of reform

For the Gates Foundation, small schools emerged as a critical element of school reform during the past eight months as Tom Vander Ark, who heads the foundation's education projects, crisscrossed the country, talking to more than 600 experts.

"Of all the things we looked at, there was the most conclusive, longitudinal evidence for small schools," Vander Ark says.

Among the things he and others at the foundation learned was that in addition to size, school climate is important, as are the relationships among the school and its students, families and the community.

Again, they found a vivid example at Hale.

In an empty classroom recently, six teachers met for a late-morning caucus and working lunch. The topic was their students: One was dating an adult, and the relationship was affecting the student's productivity; another student ran away from home over the weekend; and another was absent again.

Some of the teachers jotted down notes. By the end of the meeting, a plan of action had been developed for each student.

Such sessions are de rigueur at Hale, where the emphasis in teaching is on the up-close and personal.

"Student problems in their personal lives that may affect their performance, poor attendance - these are things that are much more visible and evident when you have two or three teachers who can observe the student and talk about it later," says Doug Edelstein, a 10th-grade history teacher at Hale.

For Logan Littlefield, a freshman, the academy presents teachers who are laid back and more friendly than he had been used to. Teachers inquire not simply about your homework but how you're feeling about your school, your peers and your life, Littlefield says. What develops over time is a relationship of mutual respect.

Of course there can be a downside.

"You can't really play pranks," Littlefield says with a smidgen of disappointment in his voice. "You're sitting there thinking, `I would glue that tack to the chair, but nah, I like (the teacher) too much.' "

The 10th grade's integration of subjects can present more of a challenge, especially when teachers try too hard to mix subjects such as biology with language arts and history, says student Kwasi Addae. But he also said the personal attention from teachers keeps him on track.

But suppose you don't like your teacher and you're stuck with her for two long years? Can't it be a little disconcerting to be in a place where everybody knows your name? For sophomore Kate Futhey, the answer is yes.

Futhey loved her teachers but "hated" the academy because she thought it was too structured.

She got so frustrated that her grades slipped and she pondered transferring to one of Seattle's alternative schools.

Unlike a bigger school that might not have noticed Futhey's distress, Hale paid attention, with teachers modifying the academy's structure to allow her more breathing room.

"`I feel really strongly that the faculty here care about the students, and that's what saved me," she says.

David Marshak, an associate professor at Seattle University's School of Education, says Hale's small-town feel was especially designed to "create situations where no one gets lost in the cracks."

Boost to minority students

John Morefield, a former high-school principal and now an education consultant who has worked with Hale, sees smaller schools as being especially helpful for minority children. He cites studies that have shown that in small schools, at-risk students are much more likely to become involved, to make an effort and to achieve. As a result, these schools can reduce the negative effects of race and poverty on school success.

Since the academy was instituted, grade-point averages for Asian, black and Hispanic students have gone up, while GPAs for Hale's small number of Native American students have dropped.

"(Teacher-student) relationships are especially important to kids of color," Morefield says. "It is a double whammy when teachers are indifferent to them. Does the teacher not like kids, or not like Hispanic kids?"

Small schools can be costly

The growing support for small schools reverses a decades-long trend favoring large, consolidated schools that were thought to be more cost-efficient and that also brought in more money because education funding is allocated on a per-pupil basis.

And, in fact, small schools can cost big dollars.

The academies at Hale cost more than $250,000 a year to run, much of it paying for giving teachers an extra planning period.

This year Seattle Public Schools gave Hale a $120,000 grant, and the school obtained $80,000 more from the state.

Gates Foundation officials say they recognize that such reform raises important funding and space issues for schools, particularly in districts that are already bursting at the seams with high enrollment.

Still, "this is very important to us," says Vander Ark, of the Gates Foundation.

And while Nathan Hale is one of the most public examples of small- school reform, having attracted attention from politicians and philanthropists, schools elsewhere are carving themselves into smaller versions.

A Brooklyn, N.Y., school with 5,000 students has been divided into 13 smaller schools. A Boston school building houses three separate schools.

"What you see now is that you don't have to throw out all of your big buildings," says the Education Department's McNeil.

"You can organize differently to create a smaller feel. You can get the economies of scale while getting the personalization."

Lynne K. Varner's phone message number is 206-464-3217. Her e-mail address is