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North Eugene teachers pitch small-school ideas.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

North Eugene High School teachers tested their salesmanship Thursday night, unveiling and explaining six proposals for new small high schools to an engaged but often skeptical crowd of 150 parents, students and community members.

With colorful poster-board displays and newly printed brochures at the ready, teachers fielded dozens of questions - about their particular proposals as well as the school's ambitious and controversial plan to reconstitute as three or more small, autonomous academies by the fall of 2007.

Answering the queries was an easy job for science teacher Steve Robinson, one of a group of teachers who hope to open North Alliance Tech, a school that would emphasize project-based learning, team teaching and technology.

"I just tell them I think it's a great idea," said Robinson, who was sold on the small-schools concept - and the model school he's working on - after visiting a similar school in California. "I walked into that school and my jaw dropped."

But for many parents and students, the slick presentations and obvious passion did little to pacify concerns or answer questions about North Eugene's direction.

"I don't want to do it at all," said freshman Pao Morgenstern, who says he likes the school as is. "I don't think this will give us a chance to have as many diverse classes."

Several parents questioned whether ninth-graders are old enough to choose a school with a particular theme, worrying that they might be denied a rich variety of courses that might serve to unleash new interests.

Others voiced worries that the planning and implementation would breed disorder, cheating students caught in the transition years out of a quality education.

Brian Niemeyer, who has a sixth-grade daughter in Kelly Middle School's Japanese immersion program, wondered how successful any model can be given current budget constraints.

"The bottom line is small schools is a great concept, but we're asking the wrong question," he said. "The question is: How do we get small classes?"

North Eugene was one of eight large high schools in Oregon to receive a grant last spring from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Meyer Memorial Trust to break up into small, autonomous schools. Drawing on research linking student success with small schools, the grants aim to raise achievement by creating smaller, innovative, more personalized schools where all students are known and held to high standards.

North Eugene's $900,000 grant is being used primarily for travel to visit other schools, training and staff time for planning.

Principal Peter Tromba told the crowd that, while there's a lot of excitement about the plan, there's also anxiety and uncertainty. In fact, the entire staff will take an anonymous vote April 8 on whether to go forward with the conversion. In a similar vote last spring, more than 80 percent of staff favored the change.

Several parents said that, while they still have questions, they're intrigued by the possibilities.

"I think we've seen some good ideas here," said Kristin Mahan, who has a 10th-grader at North Eugene and an eighth-grader at Madison Middle School. "We like the concept of the small schools, although I am curious about what they'll do (to serve) both the kids at the lower level and those at a higher level."

Laurie Knackstedt, whose eighth-grade son, Max, has a form of high-functioning autism called Asperger Syndrome, said she has some concern about how well special education services would be spread out among the various schools. But she's convinced the small-schools model would be a good fit for her son. Music is one of his strengths, she said, so he probably would thrive in the proposed arts school.

"He wants to have the college-prep experience as well," she said.

Besides North Alliance Tech, the proposed schools are Trans Omnis Vorage (which means "change across all divides") that would focus on individualized learning, teacher collaboration, subject proficiency and community service; the Renaissance Academy of Arts & Sciences, which would integrate arts and sciences into a rigorous, progressive, pro- ficiency-based education; International High School, a comprehensive, full-day version of the half-day IHS global studies program; the School of Critical Thought and Action, which would train students to look at the world critically and engage in action related to or suggested by the curriculum; and the "Met" model, which would emphasize project-based learning, community internships and close relationships with students. Two other proposals came in this week, Tromba said. One focused on world languages and the other on Advanced Placement courses and college preparation.

WHAT'S NEXT

April 8: Staff will vote on whether to proceed with plans to break up into small schools.

April 25: Deadline for formal small-schools proposals

April 27: Site Council review of proposals

May 4: Initial staff review of proposals; subsequent review meetings will be scheduled

Fall 2006: At least one small school would open, and possibly all would

Fall 2007: Remaining small schools would open
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Title Annotation:Schools; A skeptical audience questions educators about their options for focused units to replace the traditional high school
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 18, 2005
Words:815
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