Small Schools: Excellent When Done Correctly

Pros-Cons3Dear Evin,

I’d like to use this post to respond to your thoughts on small schools.

Let me be clear: You’re absolutely correct. Small schools come with costs. Small schools often aren’t able to offer the electives that large high schools can, and they are more work for instructional staff. But they come with some great possibilities.

Organizational studies suggest that many benefits can be reaped by decreasing the number of students a school serves.

I’ve already noted the relationships they can build, so I’ll briefly mention a few other things the small school structure offers and respond to some of your points.

Small schools (by which I mean schools of less than 400 students, and ideally less than 300) give students and staff a great deal of opportunities to practice democracy. This leads to school buy-in, and, as a result, many studies show markedly increased student achievement, better attendance, and lower drop-out rates.

While big schools may, as you note, offer students voice and personalization through advisory and ASB, it’s nowhere near as effective as in quality small schools. You argue that teachers will know students by name, strength, and need in a large school because, “Teachers care about kids.” This is a logical fallacy. “The police will solve all crimes because police are dedicated to the community.” Not necessarily true. When you have fewer students, you spend more time with them individually. It’s easier to learn more about them and tailor an education to them, which is extremely beneficial for students who aren’t as self-directed in their learning. This is a major pro of a small school.

You also suggest that large, comprehensive high schools prepare students more for college. Maybe some of them do. But for decades, research has continued to show that in small schools, where there are fewer students to take on leadership roles and join clubs, students are more exposed to those kinds of opportunities. There’s less crowding out at the top. Everyone gets a try. Everyone develops an identity. Everyone experiences democratic practice. Everyone’s more prepared for the real world.

I could go on, but this is a blog post, not a book. For more, you may want to check out this link for a video on small schools in New York. You may also want to look into the work by Ted Sizer and Debbie Meier (here and here) on how small schools can help staff collaborate more effectively in order to offer a stronger set of curricula.

I think it’s important we don’t assume that because one type of high school worked for us, that it works for everyone. I agree that there is merit to the large comprehensive high school. I also believe strongly that it simply doesn’t work for everyone.

But you’re right. For small schools to work, they need to be done correctly. That means schools should offer a clear mission and vision, be kept under 400 students, and have long-term support from their district to continue that mission and vision.

In Highline, we’re not doing small schools correctly. At ACE, we will have over 400 students next year. Due to high rates of administrative and staff turnover, our mission and vision have largely been lost. (However, the school leadership team did write a new vision statement this year that holds promise for next.)

Also due to high rates of turnover, many of the amazing teachers who worked so hard in the conversion from big Tyee are no longer with us. In their place is a new group of amazing teachers who are less familiar with small school principles.

Lastly, the demands of state testing have vastly altered the job description of our excellent counselor. For a good part of the year, she has become a testing coordinator. Since we’re a small school with only one counselor, that has major repercussions for us. Indeed, since small schools have fewer staff, any time one of them has a change in their responsibilities, there are greater repercussions than there would be at a large school.

So I also have to say “Yes and No.” If Highline can make up its mind to truly fund small schools (by keeping their student populations low, supporting staff stability and PD for new staff on how small schools work, and doing something about the ridiculous amount of time testing steals from our counselor), then I think it is in the best interest of our students to keep them.

If, on the other hand, district administration is uncommitted (and possibly unfamiliar with how small schools are supposed to function), then the large comprehensive high school with academies may be more effective. But only if it’s done correctly.

The $3,000,000 Goodbye: Where We Gonna Go From Here?


Dearest James,

Yes, it’s the summer, but I can’t help it. A bow must be tied around this conversation for the 2012-13 school year – so here it is.

Three years ago, my middle school received a grant for about 3 million dollars to change the way that we did education. And if we applied for this grant now, we would not receive such monies. Why? Because we would not qualify as a Persistently Low Achieving School.

Time’s up. The money is spent. And we now return to the typical middle school funding model, which is there is no funding. Make it work.

And werk it, we will.

If we look at what will happen next year, you will notice some differences – some good, some not so great. I’ll let you make the call.

  • STEM-focused Tech Ed and Yearbook will be during the school day (versus after school) next year because funding the after school bus was gone.
  • Spanish/Drama will move to a 0.8 FTE.
  • Language Arts will receive their own Computer Lab on Wheels (COW).
  • A dean of students, who will be working with discipline, will be replacing our now gone Assistant Principal.
  • In-School Suspension will continue to be a focus of the school-wide discipline policy.
  • A math teacher position was dissolved.

There are some real changes that will be happening next year – hopefully, many things that you will notice.

  • Students entering high school will be better readers. In my class alone, about 70%+ of the students are now reading at a fluency level ‘Z’ (approximately 8th grade level).
  • More students will be used to longer work times in reading and math. At Chinook, these are always two-hour blocks, if you did not pass the MSP.
  • Standards-Based Grading would not be a new assessment technique. Students will have seen it before. They also are used to redoing assessments and tests, if they did not do well the first time.

So what? What about next year?

  • Chinook has officially adopted the SpringBoard curriculum from College Board, as a Pre-AP course. This should help students to become prepared for the Common Core State Standards, particularly at a high school level.
  • Last year, I had the opportunity to visit a Language Arts classroom at Global and an Advisory at ACE. (In fact, it was yours!) It was amazing. We must make moves like that in order to push our students towards success as a service area. I will be talking to both Language Arts staffs this year and pushing for more alignment vertically – as your middle school seeks to support students in their freshman year and beyond.

I think that’s it. I’ve seen so much growth at Chinook in the six years I’ve been there. I can’t wait to see what’s next as this new breed of Thunderbird transforms into a Totem for the next four years.

Happy Summer.


Saying Yes and No at the Same Time


Dear James,

I apologize for the long wait of the post, however as a mutual friend of ours puts it, I wanted to give your response the attention that it deserves. (In other words, I was busy with oh, I don’t know – life?! Haha.)

The small school experience is something that every student deserves. Every student deserves to be known by her or his ‘name, strength, and need’ – something that our own superintendent believes. If that becomes our premise, then this also means that going to a 1500+ school may not be the best choice for our students. But there is always a catch.

During my junior and senior years of high school, I went to a Gates Grant school. My school was a 4A school and this meant that it was to be transformed with a small schools model. This meant that at some point the transition needed to go down seamlessly. Every couple of months, my principal met with our Class of 2004. He would break down the on-track to graduate numbers for us, chat with us about what we want for our school, and be the ‘dad.’ One day, he told us about the small schools move.

(Let me remind you that I’m not as old as my students think.)

“Wait, what?” I whispered to my other AP friends in the gigantic auditorium.

“He’s telling us that we won’t be able to take any class with any teacher we want? Like we used to?”

I was a good Christian kid back then, otherwise my next word would have been bull. I loved our principal. For being the administrative head of 1500 students, he knew my friends and me well. (Maybe it was because we actually tried on the WASL.)

Now, as a Honors/AP student, I was only thinking about my college transcript. This did not bode well. I wanted Mr. Slater for AP American Government and Politics. I wanted to take senior year Mock Trial. I wanted AP Biology. Yep, that was me. Nobody was going to jeopardize that for me. I worked too hard and too long for a school to flip the script on me. The school received my stellar WASL scores. It was time for me to get something in return.

I became a part of a senior class of a 4A school moving towards the small school format and none of us liked it. Suddenly, half of my friends from sophomore-junior year were in Mr. Dodge’s AP Politics class when we envisioned taking Slater together. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

My pastor said that in order for us to move into something new God wants us to do, we must leave from someplace we currently are. I tell my students something similar, “By saying yes to this, you must by definition say no to that.”

James, this is my small schools argument: by saying ‘yes’ to small schools and the perks of it, you are saying ‘no’ to a comprehensive high school and the perks of such an experience.

With only a little more than half of your students graduating on time, what steps are we to take to ensure success? Why is a comprehensive high school a bad idea?

Every year, students come up to the 8th grade teachers (like myself), asking for honest, unadulterated feedback. The only thing I can really say is, “Well, I went to a school more like Mount Rainier.”

Are we saying that there is no student voice in a comprehensive high school? No. They have ASB.

Are we saying that there is no personalization of curriculum in a comprehensive high school? No. They have Advisory.

Are we saying that teachers don’t ‘know’ students by name, strength, and need in a comprehensive high school? No. Teachers care about their kids.

And so, I ask:

In a comprehensive high school, could academies be created to create community within hallways, teachers, and students? Yes.

In a comprehensive high school, is there a more diverse selection of classes and electives offered? Yes.

By offering more of a selection of classes, will our students be ready to compete transcript versus transcript at an Admissions Office when they apply for university? Yes.

In a comprehensive high school, are there more opportunities for students to take core Math and Reading classes that are more differentiated (i.e. SpEd Math, Reading Essentials, Algebra Lab, Honors 9th Grade Lit & Comp, etc.)? Yes.

By increasing staffing (thereby becoming Big Tyee), could there be more chances for students to have all of the opportunities above? Yes.

Respectfully submitted,


Why I Like the Small School

Dear Evin,Image

One of the most enjoyable parts of my day is standing in front of my door between classes (weird, I know). The door to my classroom is situated at the corner of our upstairs hallway, neighboring and adjacent to two other teachers’ doors. All three of us observe students as they walk to class.

“Hi, Jackson!”

“Morning, Mr. Boutin.”

“How’s your day, Jesús?”

I would wager that I know eighty percent of the students who pass my room on a daily basis. By June, it will be ninety-five. This sense of community is one of the reasons I love working in a small school. Like or not, students in a small school have no choice but to work with a small group of teachers who know their name, background, strengths, needs, and personalities intimately.

Had you walked into the first day of my sophomore world history class last semester, you might have mistook it for the middle of the year. Nearly all of my students knew me from having taken my language arts class their freshman year, advisory, or from having talked with me in the hallway. The only student I didn’t know was the one who had just moved to SeaTac. When I called their parents in the following weeks, it wasn’t to introduce myself, but rather to ask how their summer had gone and if they had any updates for me on what was going on with their student at home.

Small schools can benefit all kinds of students, but they’re particularly effective with reluctant learners – or maybe I should say reluctant trusters. If you’ve ever tried learning from someone you didn’t trust, then you’ve probably had the experience of many of our students. Sitting in a classroom with someone you may not believe has anything of value to offer you is a lot like trying to drink coffee that’s too hot. You may try a sip or two, but soon you simply give up until it cools down.

Last year, a phenomenal colleague went out on maternity leave at ACE. A long-term sub was brought in to fill her place in November, and by January, many of her students were reshuffled into my class for second semester. A handful of these students I only knew by name and through brief interactions in the hallway. Confronted with learning to trust a new teacher and a new way of doing things understandably frustrated them, and my principal can attest that it literally took me the remainder of the semester to convince many of them that I was worth listening to, learning from, and working for.

As sophomores, those same students often engage in my classes eagerly. Their metaphorical coffee has cooled.

In my “Defining an Education” post, I noted that supportive adults and peers are essential part of any students education. There is no easier structure to ensure those supportive relationships than the small school.



For Best Results, Add Color.


Dear James,

You and I are very different. While I appreciate what you said about what happens when you take education into a vacuum and get rid of politics and money, I’m afraid politics and money is where this conversation must go.

As much I hate it, the conversation about education is largely about money.

And No Child Left Behind.

And money.

And student achievement.

And money.

So what do our students need?

1. Boundaries

I start with boundaries because it is something that translates both inside and outside school walls. Part of being a member of school community, it means that 500+ different families are being ‘forced’ to work together, eat together, and essentially, dwell together under one roof for eight hours a day. And that means that there are 500+ different sets of rules that must be pared down to a few that every family would agree with.

And yet, my most difficult students struggle with these boundaries.


Because boundaries are hard. Yet, the world demands them. If we want to raise students who believe in democracy, then we need to raise students who value other voices and opinions.

2. A Supportive Adult Who Knows Them Deeply

James, you covered component number 2 well, so I won’t spend extra time on this.

3. Someone to Look Up To That Looks Like Them

As I walk in our respective hallways, I notice something very distinct: a lack of color.

And if you ask students, about the color of their teachers, they know it and they notice it.  James, our students are no longer at the age where they don’t see the color of their skin. You and I both know that if we ask our students about who is teaching them, it is quite possible that a given student doesn’t have a teacher that looks like them.

I say it quite often with my friends (and I consider you one) and I’ll say it again: By being a black male, I automatically have a particularly distinct voice that other non-minority teachers don’t have. If we want students to ‘make it’, then they must have real-life examples in front of them of people who have ‘made it’ speaking into their life.

4. Help to Plan Their Future

James, you also wrote eloquently on the importance of students needing help with their future. As teachers and caring adults, our job is to help them apply their skills to the ‘real world.’

5. To Be ‘Smart’

The final thing that our students want is to be ‘smart.’ But what does that mean? For me, it seems that students want to be seen by the world as knowledgeable about particular things. This is the reason that I consistently hold to being an essentialist in my teaching philosophy. Students need to know…

the powers of the President, Congress, and the Courts (civics),

who wrote Romeo & Juliet (English),

how companies persuade us to buy their goods and services (marketing),

how to change a recipe if you need more or less of it (math),

why is it that Superstorm Sandy was so devastating (science).

So what is the purpose of education? It is to create an environment of diverse learners and teachers that establish boundaries that imitate society so as to yield the best results in making students ‘smart.



Defining an Education

GeneralEducationResourceslogoDear Evin,

Thanks for the insight on Chinook. It’s just next-door, and I feel like our staffs know so little about each other. I look forward to learning more as this process goes on.

I wonder if our next step might be to address the question, What kind of education should our schools contribute to? Ignoring for a moment the constraints of budgets and politics, what do we think an ideal 7-12 education would consist of?

In thinking about these questions, I consider my own experiences. I remember a longing to belong and a need for adult support. I can still remember the clothes I wore the first day of ninth grade: a blue Nike shirt, khaki shorts, and green Nike shoes. I obsessed over whether I should wear my backpack with one or two straps.

Later in ninth grade, I really wanted to try out of the soccer team. I’d talked to the coach, and he’d told me to show up at 2:30 in the team room. When I arrived, I didn’t recognize anyone. The coach glanced at me and said nothing before giving instructions to the whole team, but he talked to them like they weren’t new. I felt out of place. I wasn’t sure if this was where I supposed to be. I walked back out the door and went home. The next day, a student told me that if you didn’t go the first day, you were off the team.

That experience – one of not belonging, of feeling out of place – stopped me from playing high school soccer my ninth-grade year (although I did tenth, eleventh, and twelfth). If I had known the coach, if he had simply smiled at me and asked me to come in, or if any of the other players had assured me that I was in the right place that day, my ninth-grade year might have been totally different.

And so with my experiences in mind, I’d like to present my ideal secondary education two ways: through the eyes of a student and briefly from the perspective of the community.

Before I start, though, I want to say that I think we need to first disavow ourselves of the notion that schooling and education are synonymous. An individual’s education consists of far more than the hours she spends in school. The six-and-a-half hours per day students currently spend in school make up less than 20% of total time in a school week and less than 14% of total time in a calendar year (considering the holidays and breaks). We all learn all the time. It’s a function of being human. Schools are merely one of many things that help students learn. So when I use the term “education,” I mean more than schooling.

Through the Eyes of a Student

So here I am, twelve-year-old James, about to embark on the second half of my public education experience. What do I want? What do I need?

1) Supportive adults and peers

The stresses of moving from elementary to middle school, and then again to high school, mean I’m going to be happy to find smiling, supportive faces at school and at home. I’m developing, and I’m going to make a lot of mistakes. I’m going to build habits that maximize comfort and minimize discomfort, even when those habits are not in my own long-term best interest. This process is not going to be easy, and I’m going to try to avoid pain wherever possible. Sometimes that might mean not working hard in school. Sometimes it might mean sitting by myself at lunch. Sometimes it might mean Facebooking until four in the morning on a Tuesday night. And sometimes it might mean locking myself in my room with my headphones on full blast.

I might often feel like nobody understands me, or that I’m alone in dealing with things. Nothing will help me cope with these challenges like having a community of understanding and caring adults who communicate with one another. Even better, accepting peers. Odds are I’m not going to open up to adults fully as an adolescent, but I will certainly share more with adults I know and trust than those I don’t. A team of adults who know and trust each other will come closest to correctly identifying my strengths and needs when they work collaboratively. For these reasons, it’s important that my parents work side-by-side with school personnel and other adults in the community who I see regularly, like my basketball coach or after-school tutor.

The adults who surround me, along with my peers, should serve as role models. I should be able to see some of myself in many of these role models. They should be of varying age and gender, and give me daily opportunities to consider the value of their behaviors and life choices as a model for how I might make my own. To this end, my peers and I should be taught how to support one another as both learners and humans, so that we might serve as role models to one another.

2) Preparation for the Future

As a adolescent, a major cause of anxiety I have is whether I’ll be able to make it on my own when my schooling is over. When my day is no longer directed and supported by adults, what will I do and how will I manage?

In order to help me decide what I’d like my future to hold, I’ll need opportunities to explore and develop my talents and passions – to find interests I didn’t know I had. The older I get, the more I will want opportunities to direct my own education – to choose experiences that interest me. At school, that might mean electives, differentiated classes, or a variety of after-school activities to choose from. Away from school, it might mean participating in theater, dance, sports, a job or internship. When I feel sad or depressed, I’ll need adults to encourage (sometimes strongly) me to stay active and engaged.

But preparing for the future is requires more than finding my passions. It also means being exposed to skills and knowledge I’ll need beyond high school. Among a great many other things, I’ll need to be financially and media literate, and have skills and knowledge in mathematics, sciences, and the liberal arts.  I’ll need to have knowledge of the world outside my community and an appreciation for how it works. I’ll need to know how to stay healthy. I’ll need to know how to work with people, especially people I don’t get along with. I’ll need to be disciplined and possess habits of mind and action that predispose me to success. As an adolescent, there’s a good chance I will neither be aware of many of these things nor see the value in them. Therefore, I will need impassioned adults who know how to develop these skills and this knowledge in students.

3) To Be Part of Something

As a student, I am more than just a human in training. I have feelings and desires. I wonder about things, and I act. And as a human, I have a need to participate. I want to be a part of something, and I may not go about that initially in the healthiest of ways. I may find myself hanging out with the wrong crowd or doing something purely to gain social acceptance, even when it disagrees with my values. I need guidance and structured opportunities for thinking and wondering about these things, both to help me define my moral compass and to determine what actions it requires.

There are myriad ways we can be a part of something that is ultimately harmful to ourselves and others. An effective education should help me think about how that happens and ways to avoid it. This sort of education gets at the core of who we are as humans, why we act the way we do, and how other people affect us. It should show me that an instinct for revenge or intolerance often works against me. Importantly, this education should provide me with opportunities for positive civic engagement and reflection in all the communities I inhabit: home, school, virtual, city, country, and world. It should make me wonder when I should sacrifice my own wants and needs for a group and why.

The Community Perspective

1) Education must better the community

Communities with well-educated members are more likely to be healthy, physically and economically. They’re more likely to look like places you’d want to live.

But what exactly counts as being well-educated? From the perspective of the community, it is particularly important that students learn to take ownership of their surroundings, and as a result, act to improve them. Communities need schools that work in tandem with local organizations and businesses to provide the best possible living environment for their inhabitants. For thousands of years, humans effectively learned to do and be in a community through an apprenticeship model. There is no reason that can’t still be part of our young people’s education.

Communities need citizens who are disciplined, who are occasionally willing to give up selfish interests in the short-term for group interests in the long-term, and who align their personal pursuits with the interests of the community. Students should be taught the merits of this through lots of community involvement. And importantly, the community needs students who are taught skills that help them do effective work, whether that work is for a company, a non-profit, or themselves.

The community needs its citizens to understand public schooling as a public good intended to benefit the community as much as it benefits the individual student or family.

Lastly, the community needs schools and students who recognize and participate in the creation and maintenance of community norms. In order to do this, students must know the history of the community, its members, and its values. They must learn to test that history and those values against their own, and how to seek reconciliation of those values when they differ. In other words, the community needs students who know how to do democracy.

Wrapping Up

Okay. I realize this was probably a little long. I hope you managed to read most of it.

What do you think? Did I leave anything out? Did I include anything you disagree with? What other perspectives are important to consider?

I look forward to comments, and to your response, Evin.



“Persistently Low Achieving School”: A Blessing in Disguise?


One day after school, instead of the typical staff meeting, we were greeted warmly by two district officials and our principal at the time. None of us really knew what was going on – but all of us were wondering what was going to happen next.

Actually, James, that’s a terrible beginning. Maybe I should start a bit earlier – let’s try, say, two years prior – three, if you want to include my student teaching year.

The teachers at Chinook have always been very dedicated to the students of our neighborhood. It’s actually what drew me to stay at Chinook after getting my teaching certificate. You see it in the after school study sessions, the tutoring before school, or the mentoring during lunchtime. With a relatively high teacher retention rate (only about 3-4 teachers leaving per year, due to life circumstances much of the time), the staff worked hard. Yet even with a dedicated staff, the test scores weren’t showing the proper growth. Year after year Chinook wasn’t meeting dreaded AYP (adequate yearly progress), and year after year the government said through district officials that something would be done if we couldn’t raise student achievement ourselves.

See below for test scores through 2010 (before the school improvement grant):

Chart_002541 Chart_002542

Behind the scenes, something was being done. Prior to the aforementioned ‘staff meeting,’ if any school did not meet the standards set by No Child Left Behind, the district had to pay for transportation for students who did not want to attend the ‘failing’ school. So every morning, a bus would pull up to the Chinook bus zone and families who did not want to attend their neighborhood school opted to go to a different middle school.

And then, the other two middle schools in the district fell into the AYP-muck. Opting to go to another school was no longer an option. Suddenly, all students were required to attend their neighborhood school.

As all the staff sat in the Chinook library, we were all waiting with anticipation. After we said our cordial hellos and how-do-you-dos, we were informed of the work ahead of us. An algorithm was made. A list was formulated. A spreadsheet was created – and our names were on that list. The title?

Persistently Low Achieving Schools

We knew that the title was bad. We knew that the kids were working hard. We knew that the staff was working hard. So what did it mean?

It meant one of four things must happen at Chinook: (1) Turnaround: Replace the principal and rehire no more than 50% of the current staff, (2) Restart: Chinook is shut down and is reopened as a charter school, (3) Transformation: Replace the principal, reward staff for gains, increase learning time, and change the evaluation system, and (4) Closure: Chinook closes it doors for good.

We were heartbroken. We knew that the government said that they were going to do something. We didn’t know that they meant it this time.

“So, wait. Does that mean that [our principal] has to go?” a staff member seemed to whimper. All eyes were fixed on her.

“Yes. It seems that way. We will find her another home in Highline,” the district official spoke with care.

“But Chinook has been having these problems for longer than her tenure. She shouldn’t have to go.” The staff was growing upset.

“In order for us to get the money to apply for this grant, we must replace the principal.” There you had it. But who would be taking her place?

There was work to be done. In the coming months, Chinook would embark on an adventure. Changes would have to be made. It was a competition. Every school applying for the School Improvement Grant (SIG) wouldn’t receive the money. Chinook needed to change. The community knew it. We knew it. The District knew it. Therefore, a design team was built. All stakeholders with representatives of all of the above groups came together talking about what a ‘Transformation’ would look like for Chinook. The New Look of Chinook became the catch phrase around the staff room.

After pain-staking work, changes were made. We got the money: about $3,000,000-ish dollars over three years.

Below are some of the changes that came with The New Look:

  • Social Studies is now semester-long course for both 7th graders and 8th graders.
  • A math coach and a literacy coach were hired to be full-time.
  • School uniforms are in their first year of implementation.
  • An additional assistant principal was added for both instructional leadership and discipline.
  • PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Support) is being implemented and has yielded many days for student learning in the classroom, including the implementation of an In School Suspension program.
  • Students who do not pass the reading or math portions of the state test must take a second remedial class to catch up.
  • Electives Technology Education (formerly known as Shop Class) and Visual Arts are now periods 2 through 7, so that students who have no electives during the day can take it after school.
  • Staff members, before the first SIG year, had an informal ‘recommitment conversation’ with the new principal. Staff that wanted to leave were guaranteed placement elsewhere in the District.
  • Lockers were removed and students carry their backpacks with them throughout the day.

Of course, I’m oversimplifying such a dramatic change — but the test scores speak for themselves. See below for most recent scores at Chinook:

Chart_022428 Chart_022429

There are still things to be learned, but there you have it.

The video shows a lot of great things happening at Chinook. Some changes have been made since the clip was created, but it’s still an overview.

Laying Some Groundwork: What’s Going on at ACE

Dear Evin, we can save the debate over the merits of Core Knowledge or Balanced Literacy for a little later on. What I’m more interested in kicking our blog off with is some discussion about where we’re at – what’s going on at ACE and Chinook.

Maybe we could start by telling each other a little about our schools. But bear with me, I can only tell you what I’ve learned over the past year and a half.

Beginning in 2006, Tyee High School was broken into three autonomous small schools under the assumption that small schools would better support students’ academic achievement. Tyee had a history of underperformance, and people felt change was needed. (Click on “Big Tyee’s” last year of OSPI data below to enlarge it.)

Staff were empowered to shape the design of the new schools. They did their homework and choose the school model they wanted.

The Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment (ACE) was founded as a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools. Social justice was its theme. You can read an interesting article by a student from the first graduating class here. It provides some insight into what the original school’s vision must have been. Student voice was valued; staff attempted to find agreement on most decisions before moving forward; and advisory was intended to be at the school’s heart.

A few years of OSPI data suggested ACE was driving student achievement in the right direction. Educators from schools across the country visited ACE as a national example of positive school reform.

Since the ’06-’07 school year, a lot has changed at ACE. There have been numerous leadership changes, and only a very small number of the staff who began with the school remain. Recent OSPI data have not been as positive as the early years. The current staff is engaged in re-framing their work under new district and building administration.

We are unique in that we offer American Sign Language, services for the deaf and hard of hearing, and AP Studio Art. We have 105-minute classes Monday through Thursday, and 43-minute classes on Friday. Advisory occurs Monday through Thursday between 1:30-2:05. Nearly all of our freshmen students are double-blocked in literacy and math, meaning they get double doses of both classes. A number of our upperclassmen take advantage of PSSC or Running Start as a means of earning early college credit.

That’s what’s going on at ACE. Is there anyone who would like to add anything?

Do you have any questions? And can you tell me a little about Chinook?



“I Always Thought Massachusetts Was a City?!”

massachusetts_90Every time, I left from a conversation with James, I thought that he was going to punch me in the face the next time he saw me.

James is someone who is — well, confident — in his opinions and I am also someone who is pretty dead set on what I believe about education. As I’ve learned from our conversations, he and I do in a strange way represent the two viewpoints on where education is and where education must go.

As you found out from my ‘About the Author’ section, I was an Honors student for my entire life and therefore, I know the bar that I want to set for all of my students. Growing up in a single-parent lower-middle income household was my life. And thus, it informs my decisions about where education is and where it must go.

“I thought Massachusetts was a city!” one of my students (now at Tyee) explained when I wore my Boston sweatshirt. That’s right. They thought that Massachusetts was a city. We all laughed it off, but it concerned me. These are 8th graders who after taking a semester of U.S. History couldn’t deduce that Boston was a city in the state of Massachusetts. It’s scary. For me, the bar starts with a basic knowledge of cultural literacy. When asked, students should be able to tell me that the Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, not 1942. (To read more about cultural literacy, read The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.) Even according to Bloom, in order to get to higher-levels of thinking, one must have a foundational knowledge of a given subject matter.

And so the conversation between James, myself, and you hopefully continues.

It’s Time to Talk

Anonymous_Chat_iconDear Evin,

I only began working in the Highline School District last year. At first, I didn’t quite realize the amount of controversy that existed around my small school, ACE. But over time, it became clear that lots and lots of people had lots and lots to say about what we were doing. I imagine conversations about the Tyee campus happening in small pockets in a great many places, although often lacking diverse perspectives – it is, after all, easier to speak your opinion freely when you know you’re in the company of like-minded people.

When I met you, I had no idea how far apart our educational philosophies were. I assumed, as I too often do, that we probably shared a number of beliefs that I’ve since discovered we don’t. In conversation after conversation, we began to find more and more differences to discuss.

I think it’s time to make a public place where differences like those between you and I can be discussed honestly and publicly, so that some of those little conversations can be brought to light for us as we consider the best way to serve the students in our community.

What do you say? Are you ready?