How can we prevent districts and school systems from reverting to the status quo? How can we encourage schools and school systems to truly innovate and to withstand the pressure of being sucked back to a laissez-faire time? How can we be unionized and have the protection of salary and benefits but not have “bumping”?

These were some of the questions that faced me this past week as I participated in the Oregon Small Schools Leadership Institute. I was the keynote speaker at the opening of the Institute and I titled my remarks, “Keeping the Vision in Tough Times.”

What an amazing group of educators!

For the past seven years Boston Arts Academy has had the privilege of working with schools and school districts in Oregon that have believed breaking up large high schools into smaller schools and creating new “start up” schools could dramatically increase academic achievement, especially among poor students and students of color. The data seven years later is very strong, but the pressure to return to the “good old days” of large high schools, with many electives, and the rule of advanced placement courses has continually threatened to turn back the clock for these forward-looking educators.

The small schools initiative, like so many others around the country, was spurred on by an influx, even an outpouring, of support from the Gates Foundation. Soon, however, that money dried up. The miracle of Oregon is that others stepped in to sustain the work. Most notably, those others are Duncan Wyse of the Oregon Business Council and Barbara Gibbs of the Meyer Memorial Trust. For the last three years, together with the recent leadership of Kathy Campobasso, they have forged a network of educators (principals, teachers, school board members and superintendents) determined to create a different paradigm about what education can be.

There are currently 34 small schools created through the Oregon Small Schools Initiative. I visited two of these high schools in Southern Oregon – South Medford HS in Medford and the Crater Campus in Central Point. South Medford – which just built a state-of-the-art high school that gave me terrible edifice envy – is comprised of four small schools: Freshman Academy, Discovery, Champs (Community Health and Medical Professional School) and BACH (Bridging Arts, Community and Humanities).

I had the chance to sit in on the BACH teachers’ weekly planning meeting, during which they discuss their students (there are 400 in each school), projects that students are engaging in, and ways to create more opportunities for interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Like schools in so many states, the teachers are up against the constraints of high stakes testing. “How can we really create interdisciplinary curriculum when students will be tested on just history or just English?” a history teacher asked me. “It feels like the country is conspiring against us. We want to create more engaging curriculum but today’s classrooms seem all about just passing tests,” a math teacher told me. “I know my kids need the basics, but I so wish I could teach in a way that my kids need—and not just about bubble tests. Math is also about discovery—about process—not just right answers. I didn’t go into teaching to be an automoton!” And yet, classes have nearly stopped in South Medford as students prepare for the Oregon State tests.

Teachers and administrators agree that testing has shone a light on how all students are doing, especially the most vulnerable ones, and this has been a positive. There is no way to hide the scores of special education kids, English Language Learners, or poor kids. That is a good thing, but the pendulum needs to swing back a little so that not everything about school is geared towards tests. Learning is larger than testing. Teachers are looking for multiple indicators to demonstrate how students are learning. The Oregon Business Council has been working to develop and advocate for these other learning indicators – such as attendance, senior projects, number of community college, arts, and other co-curricular classes taken, and college admissions and retention rates – to supplement the information obtained from standardized state tests.

Along with the issue of testing, educators at the small schools are also concerned that just as they begin to get the kids and teachers on board with the idea of small schools, it seems like educational policies and regulations conspire to pull them back to the status quo. As I sat in on the administrative team meeting that brings together all the small schools administrators on campus, staff lamented that, “We have data to show how kids are achieving better in small schools and how relationships between faculty and students are growing, but there is such pressure to just do what has always been done—Carnegie units [counting credits and hours], tracked classes, academics around sports schedules, etc…”

Sadly, throughout the country, the pressure to return to large schools continues—just look at what is going on in Boston with the closing of small schools! Yet, one hopes that Oregon will buck the trend and recognize that small schools really do enable higher high school graduation rates and higher college admission and retention rates. In fact, a recent study by EcoNorthwest concluded, “We have no evidence to suggest that operating an OSSI (Oregon Small School Initiative) model school, once implemented, necessarily costs significantly more per student than a traditional comprehensive high school.” The report when on to say, “If a model OSSI school can, for example, boost graduation rates by three or four percentage points, as have the Wave 1 and Wave 3 schools, the model becomes less costly to operate on a per graduate basis than a traditional high school costs.”

At the Crater Campus, the Coalition of Essential Schools principles hung in the hallways of the three small schools I visited: Renaissance Academy (the most CES-identified), CAHPS (Crater Academy of Health and Public Service) and BIS (Business, Innovation, and Science). I didn’t get to visit CANS (Crater Academy for Natural Science), as it’s closing due to budget constraints. The CAHPS administrator, Julie Howland, told me that while she hadn’t finished my book, she greatly believed in the importance of a framework, or grounding philosophy, for her school. She proudly showed me a document that they had just finished which identified the Habits of Mind for her school, the traits or values that she wanted her students to possess – such as being respectful, civic-minded, and critical leaders – and the strategies that they hoped to use to “get there.” The list included Socratic seminars, advisory, etc… Julie explained that she wanted me to do a brief walk-through of classrooms with a few of her teachers and some representatives from the district office to see if we saw evidence of these habits, traits, or strategies. She also wanted help in bringing her faculty together to encourage them to engage in hard questions about teaching and learning. 

In a 20 minute walkthrough it’s nearly impossible to ascertain much more than whether there is chaos or a sense of purpose in classrooms and whether or not students are engaged and teachers focused. When we sat down after the whirlwind visit to AP Psychology, Digital Media, Health and a few other classes, I refrained from making any judgments about what I’d seen; rather, I asked the team what they had seen. Some were quick to critique and wondered about whether the classes were rigorous enough; others mentioned the difficulty of getting all the faculty on the same page regarding beliefs about their students. Later, it came out that many of the CAHPS faculty had been most resistant to the break up of the large high school, and that many faculty still feel that students are losing out. Julie is the 2rd principal in 3 years and she believes in the model but feels like she is fighting an uphill battle with how to get buy-in from all her teachers.

The mood and the classrooms were quite different in the other two schools where there hasn’t been a fight for buy-in. The conversations at both BIS and Renaissance were more about doing a better job recruiting from the two middle schools and getting the community at large to buy into the idea that small, themed schools do not limit opportunities for kids, but rather, that they give students a chance to identify with a certain style of learning and approach to teaching. For example, at Renaissance, students all take a core English/History course in a double period. (One of the fascinating things that Renaissance principal Bob King did was to encourage arts teachers to become dual certified in English and History in order to teach this core class.) At the 10th and 11th grade level, students loop for two years with the same teacher and each section has a particular arts focus such as Photography, Digital Media, Drawing, Painting, 3D, Music, etc… and the students use this art form to express their academic learning. This core teacher is also their advisor so that students (and teacher) are together for almost three hours daily. While some might say this is too much time with one group of kids and one adult, the teachers and the students appreciate the close intellectual relationship, risk-taking and career and college guidance that ensues. And for teachers, it means that they are only teaching 50 students a day. This class is also where faculty can focus on their instructional strategies together.

By creating this innovative structure for English/History/Advisory, faculty and students feel that they have prevented kids from checking out. “This is a school and a class that requires you to be engaged,” said one staff member. Students agreed. “We have a lot of say over how we want to learn. I’ve really liked learning photography at the same time as I’m exploring ancient mythology and reading Ramayama in my English/History class.” I asked what happened if students didn’t get their first choice of “lens”—i.e. music and not drawing/painting – but the administrator explained that this rarely happens, and if it does, students are usually willing to try out the class.

Another impressive feature of Renaissance is the way second languages are taught—both ESL for non-native speakers and Spanish as a World Language. There is a conscious attempt to push students to use the language orally and to become comfortable, versatile speakers. In the Spanish class, all furniture is pushed against the walls and students learn by standing and moving about the room. The teacher, Darcy Rogers, has coined this approach, “Organic Language Acquisition.” I didn’t want to leave her classroom and promised to introduce her to every language teacher I know since her approach was so innovative and appealing to me. “I don’t want students hiding behind their desks. Speaking a foreign language is all about taking risks and putting yourself out there and too often students just want to receive the lesson and not give themselves to the lesson.” She explained that after the initial shock of standing for 80 minutes, students truly enjoy the kinesthetic approach to learning. (And Darcy admitted sometimes they do pull chairs together to work in small groups.)

At the BIS school, which emphasizes learning through entrepreneurship, the first thing that greets a visitor is a huge jigsaw puzzle map of the United States showing where all the BIS alumni have gone to college. There are pegs pushed into the map with the college logo emblazoned. As Principal Todd Bennett explained, most students and parents in his community don’t really see college as an option, or even as necessary, so it continues to be an uphill battle.

Todd also talked with me about buy-in issues; he wants more of his classes to be project-based, but talked about the pull of the status quo and how hard it is to get teachers, students, and families to buy in to the fact that by doing and making you can definitely learn, and learn more. Todd took me into airplane-hanger-like classrooms where student work from engineering, English and math classes hung on the walls. He showed me the shops that all students can use for their projects and when I told him that his spaces reminded me of High Tech HS he grinned happily and said, “I’ve taken almost every teacher to visit there. That school is our inspiration!” One of the coolest examples of a project that students are working on is the creation of small wooden toys in a Spanish class. They are learning the Spanish vocabulary for the toys and then the engineering concepts of prototyping, designing, researching, building, etc. The BIS framework is expressed by the process of Problem Solving, Communication, and Teamwork.

While I saw wonderful classrooms, dedicated teachers and administrators, and hardworking kids at all the schools I visited in Oregon, I worried along with the administrators and teachers there about the pull back to the status quo—to the image that so many of us have in our minds about what the American HS is supposed to be like. Each of these small schools has worked on the development of a positive school culture; each is working on ensuring that all students, regardless of socio-economic level, race, language of origin, even sexual preference (which is a hard issue to discuss in deeply conservative Southern Oregon), will have the opportunity to succeed in high school and beyond. But the pulls to keep things the way they’ve always been; to just shut the classroom door and teach as an isolated, not collaborative, journey; and the pressure to perform on standardized tests all conspire to destroy the work of this 7-year initiative.

Perhaps the most plaintive call came from teachers, who said, “We’d give up seniority to be able to have some stability in our small school.” “Just as we begin to develop a culture among the staff, the budget crashes and we have to start again with all new colleagues. It’s just not fair. We need a different kind of unionism.” Again and again we asked one another, “How can we rethink our systems and have the chance and the time to make those differences take root and take effect?” I remain hopeful about what I saw in Southern Oregon. There is a recognition that the system is outmoded and must be changed.

However, when I traveled briefly to Portland, I was horrified by what had transpired there. How is it possible in a city with 45% kids of color that there is a high school (Lincoln HS – which is not part of the Oregon Small Schools Initiative) that is 98% white kids? How is it possible that the district has allowed this to occur? Where is the lawsuit? Evidently, Stand For Children is strong in Portland, and parents and teachers told me quietly that they hope Stand will take on both the District and the Union to save their schools.

As I left Oregon, I wondered about what a new Sizer et. al. five year study would show. Would the results be any different than when Sizer wrote his seminal book in the early 80s (Horace’s Compromise), based on the five-year study of high schools he and his colleagues had conducted? Have we been able to redesign the way we do education? Certainly, that has been the hope of Charter schools, but as many Oregonians told me, they don’t want to have to give up hard-fought wages and benefits to convert to Charter schools. (Charters, as a rule, pay much lower salaries and give much poorer benefits).

I want to believe in the durability of the changes that I saw in Oregon. I want to believe that systems can innovate. I want to believe that we can professionalize teaching by protecting salaries and benefits and creating a new kind of unionism. I want to believe, as the students and teachers I met believe, that these small schools are not just a blip on the screen, but a new way of approaching education and doing what’s right for kids.