Denfeld News

April 29, 2007
Duluth News Tribune

The pros and cons of a mega high school
By Sarah Horner

A proposal to consolidate the Duluth school district’s three high schools into one “megaschool” would create one of the four biggest high schools in the state.

Brimming with about 3,000 students, the school, already referred to by some as Duluth High School, would be bigger than some community colleges. In Minnesota, only Wayzata, Eden Prairie and Champlin Park high schools would have larger student bodies.

As proposed, the megaschool would be constructed on Central’s existing site, and Denfeld and East would become middle schools. The plan is one of three directions the community could choose to ease financial strain caused by declining enrollment. The other options would close Central and establish two schools on the east and west ends of the district.

Supporters of the one-school plan say it would make it easier for the district to provide better academic opportunities while unifying the community. Opponents say students would get lost in a crowd.

Kathy Christie, the vice president for the Education Commission of the State Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization conducting nationwide research for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said smaller school environments often are more conducive to reaching at-risk students.

Educators across the country are pushing for high-school reform as one way to help close the achievement gap. In Duluth, 48 percent of low-income 10th graders in the district were considered proficient on last year’s Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment II reading test, compared to 76 percent of middle- to high-income students.

Christie said research indicates the ideal size for a high school is between 600 and a little more than 1,000 students.

“There are risks with bigger schools,” Christie said. “Students can kind of get lost and don’t feel as valued in those larger institutions. If nobody knows them or cares about them, why stay in school?”

Bigger schools also could create safety concerns, she said.

“I remember one of my favorite quotes from the ’90s when all the violence was going on,” Christie said. “Someone said, ‘I can walk down the hallway and know exactly who is supposed to be here and who is not; in a 3,000-student high school that is not going to be the case.’ ”

Tim Ott, chief academic officer for the International Center for Leadership for Education, said school size on its own does not determine success. His organization profiles 25 model schools across the country annually. Last year the organization showcased a 4,000-student high school in Brockton, Mass.

Ott said success is based more on what goes on inside the walls of a school, including teacher quality, academic programs and relationships between staff and students.

“Bigger schools just need to make sure there is a structure in place to ensure kids are getting the individual attention they need,” he said. “It’s about creating the characteristics of a small school in that larger environment.”

A similar size

With more than 3,000 students, and test scores on the MCA II and ACT above state averages, Wayzata High School in Plymouth, Minn., is one example of a large school that appears to be getting the job done.

Built in 1997, Wayzata High sits on 250 acres and stretches a quarter-mile across.

Inside, the school is divided into smaller learning communities. Each grade level is assigned a floor and its own administrative team. The floors are then divided into separate classroom wings. The school also has a D wing for drama and creative arts, and an E wing that houses athletics.

When the bell rings between classes, principal Craig Paul said, visitors are surprised to not see a mad rush of students into the hallways.

Classrooms are clustered in semicircles around open learning spaces. Many students simply move around their cluster to get from class to class instead of clogging up the main artery systems of the school.

One of the biggest assets of a big school, Paul said, is its ability to offer a wide variety of classes. The school’s course catalog is more than 100 pages long. The school offers 25 advanced placement courses, and specialized classes such as fashion marketing, advanced Web site development and ancient civilizations.

“A school the size of Wayzata is able to go into more depth with their courses,” Duluth curriculum director Rex Hein said. “Where we might be able to spend a week looking at world religions in a world history class, they have a whole class devoted to it.”

The school also is able to offer specialized extracurricular options, such as an art club, Science Olympiad and Future Problem Solving.

“There are so many opportunities. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true,” said Kristen Cleveland, a senior and student body president at Wayzata. “Everybody has something they are good at and can be involved in.”

Cleveland said she never has felt like a number at the large school. Class sizes are about 28 students, compared with about 30 at Duluth East High School. Students at Wayzata meet with guidance counselors regularly to make sure they are on track to graduate.

“It’s a resource issue,” guidance counselor Brian Gildemeister said. “If you have the resources, I don’t think a big school is going to hurt a kid academically. In fact, it can be a great place to get an education. It’s when you don’t have enough resources in place that you can run into problems.”

Some students see the large numbers of students as an opportunity to connect with more kids.

“I kind of get bored hanging out with the same people all the time, but at Wayzata there is always more people to meet and connect with,” junior Emily Kulich said.

Students did say that the chances for individuals to shine are limited. With 3,000 students competing for the starting positions on basketball teams and the lead in school plays, positions of prominence are few and far between.

“You really have to be the best of the best,” junior Krysta Vandershaaf said.

But having the best of the best compete sets the stage for a lot of school victories.

“We have a lot of really good sports teams; we like rooting for them even if we’re not on them,” Vandershaaf said.

Another view

Rhoda Mhiripiri, the principal at Champlin Park High School in Champlin, Minn., another large school, said bigger schools bring their own challenges.

Champlin Park was built to house 2,400 students, but now serves more than 3,000. There are 21 portable classrooms that help accommodate the growth.

Mhiripiri said it’s easier for students to fall through the cracks in that kind of environment.

“When you have a smaller group of students to look after, it’s easier to make sure they are meeting graduation requirements and getting to class on time,” she said. “The more students you have in the building, the harder that becomes.”

She said she thinks it’s more difficult for staff members to stay consistent on enforcing school policy and work together as a team when they are spread across such a large facility.

“You have to work harder to create that sense of community,” she said. “You have to go out of your way to see people on a regular basis. You have to plan social get-togethers once a month. In a smaller school you don’t have to work as hard to make those connections.”

Despite the challenges, she said big schools can rise to the occasion by creating smaller environments within the walls of the school, something she believes Champlin Park has been successful at doing.

But if given the choice, she said she would steer other communities away from the large-school model.

“When there is a choice to be made, from my experience, I would recommend creating an opportunity for smaller schools for students,” she said.

A community decision

While Paul, the Wayzata principal, supports the one-high-school model in his district, he said he never would recommend it for every district.

“I don’t know the local situation,” he said. “Every community needs to evaluate what its priorities are and weigh the pros and cons of the different options.”

Duluth has unique characteristics that set it apart from districts such as Wayzata. For example, the 336 square miles that comprise the Duluth district make transportation a major factor in any decision.

James Braack, a senior at Denfeld, said he opposes the one-school plan largely for that reason. He lives near Fond du Lac with his two younger brothers.

“It already takes me about 20 minutes to drive to school depending on traffic, which would mean my brothers would be on the bus for nearly an hour to and from school,” he said. “Two hours on the bus is just not cool.”

If Duluth went to one high school, it would be bumped up into the top sections for athletics, said Chris Franson, assistant director with the Minnesota State High School League.

“In every activity you would probably have to come down to the Cities and play the northern suburb schools,” he said.

Some favor the consolidation into one high school, however, saying it would mitigate the demographic divides that might worsen in a two-school model.

“We could start moving away from that with one high school,” said Deb Wendling, a health teacher at Central. “It could really bring this whole town together.”

What’s next?

The district is considering the three proposals and plans to move forward with one in May.

No specific design or programming plans have been developed for the one-high-school model yet, but Chris Gibbs, educational planning consultant with Johnson Controls, said the district probably would build something flexible enough to allow smaller learning communities to thrive within it.

“The idea is not to shove 3,000 kids in one building,” he said. “It’s about breaking that scale down and working out a schedule that allows kids to spend more time together in clusters.”

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