Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Nobody's Proposing to Create a Small High School in St. Cloud

There's been quite a bit of confusion in our community about the so-called "small schools," issue.    About 10 years ago, the folks at the Gates Foundation came to believe that we could improve public schools by breaking up large schools and reconstituting those schools into several small schools.  Gates foundation reasoned that many of the best performing public schools were small schools, and they concluded that if larger schools could be closed and the students moved into small schools, that the resulting small schools would do better.  Nobody is proposing to do that in St. Cloud.    The hoopla and debate around the Gates Foundation small schools initiative is completely irrelevant to the issue we face in addressing our need to replace Technical High School.

The two-high school initiative to replace Tech High School would simply build a brand new high school further to the south and move its students into that new school.   The resulting high school would not be a small school. It would be one of the larger high schools in Central Minnesota.  The one high school solution proposed by some is to consolidate two large schools into one giant mega high school.  When consolidated, the new mega high school would serve all of the public school students in a 250 square mile area from Clearwater, to St. Augusta, to Waite Park, to St. Joseph and of course all of St. Cloud.   The new high school would restructure what has been 2 high schools for about half a century, and turn them into one.    The area served by the new high school would be five times that of most of the very large high schools in Minnesota.  Over five times the area of Wayzata, or Edina, or the individual large Anoka Hennipen High schools.   The new extra large high school would be like no other extra large high school in the state.  Students would travel father to school; they would be drawn from more communities, and there would be vastly more room for future population growth within its borders.

Some of the proponents of the mega high schools claim that we focus on the fact that the Gates Foundations efforts to break up existing large high schools into small high schools did not result in promised improved student achievement.   But that argument totally misses the point.   The Gates Initiative took existing high schools and broke them into brand new reconstituted small high schools with student populations of 400 or 500.  If we were going to do that, we would take Technical High School and build three or four really small high schools, completely reorganize the high school itself, hire a principal for each of the new schools, break up the math departments, social studies departments, divide up the school library and science labs and so on.   In fact, the research and review of the Gates initiatives suggest that one of the problems with the break up strategy was that Gates schools were busted up schools, that had to start all over again reorganizing the administrative structure and faculty. 

We face a completely different question in St. Cloud.   We can spend from 70 to 90 million to construct a replacement for Tech High School, with a student population of about 1500 students,   Or, we can spend 40 million dollars more than that and reconstitute our two high schools into one.  If we are going to spend 40 million dollars more to build a mega high school, somebody should come forward with research that demonstrates that putting together two 1500 student high schools into one returns a huge academic achievement dividend.  There is simply no evidence that consolidating two already large high schools into one mega high school results in a better high school experience, higher graduation rates, or better test scores.  We'd be spending an extra 40 million dollars to achieve nothing.    And, the overwhelming weight of research says that the result will be a decline in graduation rates and an inferior high school experience. 

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