Small schools aren't pleasing everyone

Survey results from two of Crater High School's "small schools" show more students feel engaged in their schoolwork as a result of downsizing the school of 1,500 pupils into four microschools based on a theme of interest.

But the small schools model, a growing national movement, isn't catching on with everyone.

Some parents and students from the Central Point school complain that the small schools have limited class options for students and created division in the student body. The promise of crossover classes between schools hasn't materialized the way parents and students had imagined. Because the schools are autonomous with their own schedules and budgets as prescribed by the small schools initiative, taking a class in a different school is difficult, if not impossible.

"What it really did was narrow my daughters' options," said parent Debbie Tyerman. "The School of Health and Public Service doesn't offer science to freshmen."

Tyerman said she paid $220 for her freshman daughter to take an online science course.

"I had to pay for a class that was offered three doors down in another school," Tyerman said.

Crater split last fall into Crater School of Business Innovation & Science, Crater Renaissance Academy, Crater Academy of Health and Public Service and Crater Academy of Natural Science with a four-year grant of $1.1 million from the Oregon Small School Initiative. Backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Meyer Memorial Trust, initiative is meant to rein in the dropout rate and better prepare students for college.

Instead of meeting 155 to 185 faces in a week, teachers now see about 100, creating a close-knit sense of community, said Mike Meunier, business school principal.

But some parents say the high school doesn't have the funding to provide the adequate faculty for each small school.

Gold Hill resident Sandy Mullaney's sophomore son in the business school wanted to take German but couldn't because it was only offered in the natural resources school.

The classes that are open to everyone are offered early in the morning, and students have to find their own transportation to attend.

Mullaney's son enrolled in an "early bird" band class at the beginning of the year but eventually had to drop the class because he couldn't find reliable transportation when his parents were at work.

"Students have always had to make choices between classes at Crater," said Kirk Gibson, small schools transition coordinator. "... Small schools are no different."

Crater can't afford to hire more personnel, so some of the salaries for electives teachers have been made into core subject teaching positions, Gibson said.

A student with a personality or learning style conflict with a teacher doesn't have the option of switching instructors, as there is sometimes only one teacher for each subject in each school, other parents complained.

"My daughter is failing her science class, and her teacher doesn't answer her questions," said Stacey Van Syoc, mother of a freshman. "I can't get her switched into another class, so she's going to have to do credit retrieval."

"If more than one teacher was provided for the required courses, and students could switch to another class, then I would be happier with the small schools," Van Syoc said.

School officials say despite the limited variety of electives, small schools offer more advantages than disadvantages.

"We believe — and research supports — that students learn more when work is focused," Gibson said. "Wide selections of course offerings do allow students to survey a variety of topics, but don't support in-depth learning or mastery of subjects. Consequently, we, like the state, are shifting away from the old 'mile wide and an inch deep' style of schooling, to a focused and targeted education based on student mastery."

"There are always parents who complain about the loss of options in small schools, but they are rarely parents of students who need the most help," added Charlie La Tourette, spokesperson for the state small schools initiative.

But limiting class variety, separate scheduling and budgeting for small schools haven't been palatable to everyone, even some high schools that applied for the grant.

North Medford High School reformers thought they would need 30 to 40 more faculty members to pull off small schools without severely limiting class options, said Ron Beick, North Medford assistant principal.

"Given the state funding available, something had to be cut," Beick said. "One concern was the variety of classes or number of advanced placement courses would be diminished. That was one reason we decided not to move forward."

Other schools such as Eagle Point and Lebanon have pulled out of the grant program for similar reasons.

"I think we are really focusing on the dropout kids," Mullaney said. "I think we need to do that but not at the expense of everyone else."

Some Crater students complained that small schools have resulted in an adversarial relationship between students and gang-like behavior based on school identity, with some fights breaking out based on their school allegiance. Students have assigned certain stereotypes to each school, further fragmenting the student body.

Health school freshman Kyle Haviland summed it up this way: The "preps" go to School 1 (health). The "geeks" and "jocks" attend School 2 (business). The "hicks" go to School 3 (natural resources), and the "emos" (punk rockers) are in School 4 (arts).

"Some kids will say, 'Get out of here; you're an emo,'" said arts school freshman Katie Jones.

The hostility between students in some of the schools prompted a group of seniors to launch a "Hate Kills" campaign, plastering the campus with messages to encourage acceptance of others.

Despite the division, both Kyle and Katie said the theme-based courses do make classes more interesting and easier to understand.

"Teaching all the classes with an arts connection — that's pretty cool," Katie said.

Kyle said he is earning A's and B's in all his courses this year: "I never did that before."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or

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