Compact learning

MARYSVILLE — Its compact quarters are a stark contrast to the 83-acre Marysville-Pilchuck High School campus, one of the largest in Washington.

The Marysville Arts and Technology High School, tucked away in a tree-lined business park on the Tulalip Indian Reservation, has a single hallway for eight classrooms and a computer lab.

The school, which opened in October, is small by design.

"We don’t have tennis courts. We don’t have a gym. We don’t have a lot of things," Principal Bruce Saari said. "We do have a small school culture."

Arts and Technology is part of a growing trend: a school trying to give students stronger connections to their classes.

Both Marysville-Pilchuck and Marysville Junior High School have received grants to break their campuses into smaller learning communities that nurture more personal relationships between teachers and students — and students and their peers.

"Smallness is big," Saari said.

Math teacher Karen Berard has worked at both high schools and finds similarities in the students, but she says the small-school environment is allowing her to reach more of them.

Berard, one of the school’s six teachers, is energized at the tiny campus with 130 freshmen and sophomores in a school that eventually will expand to 230 over four grades — about a tenth the size of Marysville-Pilchuck, which had an enrollment of 2,467 in the fall.

On any given day, up to 20 students find their way to an after-school math tutorial. At three larger schools where Berard has taught in the past, she might see two or three in a week.

Part of the reason for the big turnout is that it is hard for students to hide at Arts and Technology where teachers know everyone and ties are required wardrobe when boys give oral presentations.

Parents are also kept in the loop. The tutoring program is promoted on report cards and in letters to parents whose students are earning anything less than a C.

Where Berard once would hand out failing grades for close to a third of her students, she now expects about 20 percent not to make the grade. And even that number is deceiving, because there are no Ds or Fs at the school. In their place is a "U," for unsatisfactory, a mark for students who score below a 70 percent or C minus. Students earning a U must repeat the class until they can show they have become proficient.

"We could get down to 15 percent," Berard said, referring to first-semester grades. "I expect failure rates to be way down. I don’t like failing students. There is no joy in that."

Berard attributes much of the difference to the small size of the school, which she believes provides a tighter safety net for students who might slip through the cracks for either academic or social reasons.

She sees it as a teacher and as a parent.

Her daughter, Jeanne, sailed through each of the rigorous Washington Assessment of Student Learning statewide exams as a seventh-grader, but she struggled with grades on a large campus.

When the school opened in the fall, 13 percent of the students had faced court orders to attend school after chronic absences.

"A lot of kids came here because they didn’t fit in where they were before," Berard said. "You are going to find some kids who felt lost on the big campus. My daughter really felt lost."

The Marysville School Board recently visited the Arts and Technology school for a meeting, tour and discussion with students, teachers and staff.

"What I came away with is that sometimes the perception is it is a school that only kids that excel academically go to," said Vicki Gates, school board president. "I think that might be the perception, but in reality it is a school that accepts all students."

"It was better than I thought it was going to be," said Maddie Voie, a ninth-grader. "I thought it was going to be a nerd school. It is a lot cooler."

Saari, the principal, is an old-hand at creating new small schools. After 19 years in large high schools, he and five other teachers started the Bellevue International School in 1991. Six years later, he started the Lake Washington International School in Redmond. Both posted impressive test scores, but he said he was more pleased with the collegial learning atmosphere they nurtured.

Saari and the other teachers in Bellevue met on their own time for more than a year to plan the school. They knew the attributes they wanted: a commitment to academic standards, shared instructional approaches and information about each student, an emphasis on fundamental skills and a chance to later build on those skills in a meaningful way.

Saari was hired by the Marysville district last spring to start the new school.

Art and technology may be in the school’s name and a part of the curriculum, but they are not the main emphasis, Saari said. For instance, students won’t learn to program computers at the school but they may be asked to design a Web site on Macbeth.

Some students already have discovered that the small school experience isn’t for them and have transferred, Saari said.

"You have some kids who miss the big American high school experience," he said. "Attrition comes with the territory until people know more about you."

That was also the case in the first three years at the international schools as students, parents and the communities got a feel for what the small school offers, he said.

Some Marysville teachers have questioned opening the new school — which has a $34,900-a-month cost for lease, utilities and capital improvements — at a time the district is facing financial problems, said Elaine Hanson, president of the 650-member Marysville Education Association teachers’ union.

Even so, Hanson said she has seen that the school has a lot of promise for students of many ability levels. "I’m all for smaller learning communities," Hanson said. "I just want to make sure there is equity."

Kaitlin O’Brien returned to public school this year after two years of being home-schooled. It was solely her decision to try Arts and Technology, said her mother, Rachel.

"She has blossomed," Rachel O’Brien said. "I think for her it is important that her teachers know who she is. I think that makes a difference. She really isn’t just a face in the crowd."

Other students freely acknowledge they enrolled at the new school at their parents’ insistence.

Brian Cian, another ninth-grader, said the teachers have high expectations and a good grasp of what individual students are capable of.

"Because they know you," he said, "they can take you to a different level."

Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446 or

Talk to us

More in Local News

Chap Grubb, founder and CEO of second-hand outdoor gear store Rerouted, stands inside his new storefront on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, in Gold Bar, Washington. Rerouted began as an entirely online shop that connected buyers and sellers of used gear.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Used outdoor gear shop Rerouted finds a niche in Gold Bar

Seeking to keep good outdoor gear out of landfills, an online reselling business has put down roots in Gold Bar.

Naval Station Everett. (Chuck Taylor / Herald file)
Everett man sentenced to 6 years for cyberstalking ex-wife

Christopher Crawford, 42, was found guilty of sending intimate photos of his ex-wife to adult websites and to colleagues in the Navy.

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers speaks to the crowd during an opening ceremony at the new PAE2 Amazon Fulfillment Center on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Snohomish County executive pitches $1.66B budget

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers announced his proposed budget Tuesday afternoon. Public comment is slated to begin Oct. 10.

Mt. Baker visible from the summit of Mt. Dickerman on a late summer day in 2017. (Caleb Hutton / The Herald)
Hornets pester hikers on popular Mountain Loop trails

“You cannot out run the stings,” one hiker wrote in a trip report. The Forest Service has posted alerts at two trailheads.

A view of a 6 parcel, 4.4 acre piece of land in Edmonds, south of Edmonds-Woodway High School on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023 in Edmonds, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Housing authority seeks more property in Edmonds

The Housing Authority of Snohomish County doesn’t have specific plans for land near 80th Avenue West, if its offer is accepted.

Nursing Administration Supervisor Susan Williams points at a list of current COVID patients at Providence Regional Medical Center on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Dozens of Providence patients in medical limbo for months, even years

About 100 people are stuck in Everett hospital beds without an urgent medical reason. New laws aim for a solution.

Emergency responders surround an ultralight airplane that crashed Friday, Sept. 22, 2023, at the Arlington Municipal Airport in Arlington, Washington, resulting in the pilot's death. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Pilot dead in ultralight plane crash at Arlington Municipal Airport

There were no other injuries or fatalities reported, a city spokesperson said.

One of Snohomish County PUD’s new smart readers is installed at a single family home Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, in Mill Creek, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
PUD program seeks to make energy grid smarter for 380K customers

The public utility’s ConnectUp program will update 380,000 electric meters and 23,000 water meters in the next few years.

Water main break cuts off faucets in Tulalip neighborhood

Once service is restored, Tulalip residents should boil their water for a minute before use or use bottled water.

Most Read