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Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

A small-schools experiment suggests the key to success is teacher power.

By Alain Jehlen

“I was on the union executive board when the proposal was made, and I was fighting hard to throw up roadblocks. So my being a very strong supporter [now] is total heresy. I didn’t expect it.”

That’s how English teacher Jeanine Jordan-Squire describes the 3-year-old experiment in Lima, Ohio, a low-income city of 40,000, in which the 1,200-student high school was chopped into three smaller schools.

The three schools have followed radically different courses. Jordan-Squire works at the most successful. English teacher Jill Stubbs is at the least. “The small school concept has a lot of promise,” she says, “but not the way we are implementing it.”

The varying results show just how much the success of a small school depends on teacher involvement.

Linda Fox-Miller says the three schools' conflicting schedules hurt the joint music program.
Photo: Kelli Cardinal

Lima’s venture is the result of a $1.1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has funded hundreds of small schools across the country. But this grant had an unusual clause: It couldn’t go forward without an OK from the educators union, a condition imposed by KnowledgeWorks, the Gates Foundation intermediary for 20 such grants in Ohio. Knowl-edgeWorks even hired retired Ohio Education Association Executive Director Robert Barkley as a consultant.

The money also came with 15 other “non-negotiable” conditions, one of which was “distributed leadership” (as opposed to top-down).

Despite many teachers’ skepticism, they bought in. “The Gates Foundation dangled the carrot, and off we went,” says art teacher Lisa Carver. “There’s no way our community could have come up with that kind of funding. We have to try the latest and greatest, and it has to be done with money.”

The three schools share one building. Each set out to revamp its teaching approach to engage students and give them real-world skills. One school, with a focus on Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory, has done extremely well, turning skeptic Jordan-Squire into a fan. A second, “Performance-Based School,” is doing so-so. By most accounts, the third, “Progressive Academy,” where Stubbs works, is not doing well at all.

Why the difference? Teachers agree that a critical factor is the promised “distributed leadership.” Multiple Intelligences (MI) has the full measure, for which teachers credit MI principal Jeff McClellan. “I’m incredibly impressed by him—and I do not have a history of liking administration,” says Jordan-Squire. (The downside: “If I propose something, the next thing I know, I’m in charge of it,” she says.) Performance-Based has teacher participation, but less of it. And at Progressive Academy, teachers report they have very little voice in decisions. Ironically, they say, Progressive is the least progressive.

Deborah Howard, who directs KnowledgeWorks’ high school programs, says originally they thought the “non-negotiables” must be in place at the start, but now they see it can take time.

Lima Education Association Co-president Lori Ruschau describes the project’s first year as a “hurricane” during which the union had to file grievance after grievance to protect teachers’ lunchtime and hold the number of students per teacher to the contract limits. But today, the atmosphere is much calmer.

At MI, things are not just calm, they’re great. “I have never seen a group of people working together as closely,” says Jordan-Squire. When a student falters, they all see it. “We meet and say, ‘Can we do anything?’” Often at least one teacher has a relationship with the student and can step in.

On the minus side, some electives have been dropped.

And a potentially serious problem is emerging: Even though the schools are balanced demographically, many of the better, more motivated students are going to Multiple Intelligences, while some less motivated attend Progressive.

Will the small schools  produce better scores or graduation rates? It’s too soon to tell. But some teachers say the academic level is higher. Jordan-Squire says she meets some resistance to that. “One girl said, ‘Why aren’t you just giving us worksheets? That’s what you’re supposed to do.’

“No,” Jordan-Squire responded, “I’m supposed to get you ready for the next phase of your life.”

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