District considers trying schools of different sizes

Marysville considers $107 million bond issue

By KATHY KORENGEL

Herald Writer

MARYSVILLE — Do children learn as well when they’re one of 1,600 students as they do when they’re one of 500 students?

That’s one of many questions the Marysville School District is looking at as it discusses placing a $107 million bond issue before the voters next year.

The bond issue was suggested by a facilities advisory committee in August and would pay for six schools in the overcrowded district.

The district serves about 11,800 students in 17 schools, each of which has portables. In all, the district has students studying in about 100 portable classrooms.

Wayne Sweeney, an expert on educational reform in secondary schools, is helping the district figure out a solution.

Sweeney, now assistant superintendent of Northwest Educational Service Center No. 189 in Mount Vernon, previously was assistant superintendent of the Monroe School District.

He also has worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which recently completed a study of what makes successful secondary schools.

"The research is very, very clear," Sweeney said. "Smaller is better."

Sweeney said research shows smaller schools allow students more personalized instruction and give teachers more opportunities to meet with students’ parents. He also said research has shown that students who develop personal relationships with adults are more likely to meet their own goals, as well as goals set by the significant adult.

According to the Gates Foundation research, the ideal school size is between 400 to 600 students. The Marysville bond proposal is for a new 1,600- to 2,000-student high school and a new 900-student middle school.

Helen Mount, president of the school board, said "just changing the size of the school won’t (necessarily) improve education."

"We know that, given the right program and administrators, it (smaller schools) can work and can work well," Mount said.

"We’ve also seen evidence of when it doesn’t work," she added.

One way the school board is considering addressing the desire for smaller schools is by building a big school that houses many smaller schools.

The district has a model of such a school in its backyard: the new Monroe High School, which opened in 1999. Classrooms at the school are divided into three wings, each potentially able to function as separate schools, although, at present, they don’t.

The Monroe school also incorporates another element of the Gates Foundation’s findings: teachers benefit from working collaboratively, with each other, with parents, and with business and industry.

At Monroe High School, teachers have offices at the end of each wing, which they share, rather than having offices in their own classrooms.

"We are looking at this as we build the building," Mount said. "If we want to create a collaborative atmosphere, maybe we have to change how we utilize space."

Mount also said the school board is trying to tackle the question of how to handle the school district’s booming student body from a slightly different angle than did the facilities advisory committee.

That committee, made up of business people, parents and educators, looked at solving the dilemma largely from a dollars-and-cents perspective.

Mount said the school board is taking the approach, "Let’s take the dollars out and look at research as far as education goes and see if it leads us to the same endpoint (as the committee’s recommendations)."

Mount also said she estimated the board will continue gathering information on the bond proposal for about another month.

Although the board had originally hoped to take the measure to the public in the spring of 2001, Superintendent Dick Eisenhauer said it more likely will be next fall before it makes it to the ballot.

He said the district needs to make a decision on which way to go, then develop a detailed proposal and take time to explain it to the public.

He also said that, although there is a sense of urgency about the needs of the district, board members realize they are making a decision that will affect the community for about 50 years.

"Let’s think it through and make sure we’re thinking smart," Eisenhauer said.

The Herald/MICHAEL O’LEARY

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