Friday, April 17, 1998

Education alternative

on Big Isle to end

By Debra Barayuga

They're smaller and friendlier. They have students, teachers and parents interested and involved.

They're called schools-within-schools -- large campuses divided into smaller, more personal schools. Enrollment is smaller, making the school more manageable. Classes are smaller so teachers can better tailor their programs to their students' needs and identify problems faster. Students stay with the same group of classmates each year until they graduate, developing bonds that would not be possible in a larger school.

They're happening at rural Mountain View School on the Big Island; at a large school in Kapaa, Kauai; and in schools across the nation.

The Big Island school-within-a-school, which has struggled to stay afloat for the past three years, is slated to end in June unless supporters can persuade the principal to reverse his decision. The decision has raised outcry from those currently involved with schools-within-schools and those who would like to be a part of it.

Parents and teachers who support the program, called Connections, have been fighting to maintain it. But they say the program has been hurt by a lack of consistent leadership. The school has had seven principals in the past 10 years, three in the past four years.

The decision to end the program is on hold while discussions between the principal and parents continue, said Deputy School Superintendent Stan Seki.

The Board of Education last March endorsed schools-within-schools as one option for schools that exceed the optimum enrollment limits of 550 for elementary schools, 600 for intermediate or middle schools and 1,000 for high schools.

The Department of Education endorses schools-within-schools, but only if the entire school supports that decision, Seki said. "It's got to be done carefully."

The department points to a 1992 study that states that schools-within-schools are "divisive."

While that observation may be true, it's only under the conditions investigated for the report, said Mary Anne Raywid, an expert on small schools who has done policy research and evaluations on schools-within-schools for 25 years.

Research has shown that small schools are good for all kids, particularly those at risk of failing, she said.

Teachers in small schools can reach students more, can influence student attitudes toward smoking and drinking, and have long-term effect on students. "They influence aspirations of kids the way large high schools never can," Raywid said.

A rift has grown between parents and teachers involved with Connections and those who are not because the program has not been allowed to expand.

"We're being challenged on many fronts," said John Thatcher, a sixth-grade math and science teacher in Connections.

When Principal Clifton Bailey arrived at Kapaa in 1989, the school resembled a large, impersonal "factory" -- a bureaucratic operation that had turned its back on the things educators know are good for children in education, he said.

The school was well run but impersonal.

Now the 1,118 students K-5 are divided into seven smaller schools or neighborhoods, each designed around a theme or focus.

Parents choose the school that they believe is best for their children.

1998 Honolulu Star-Bulletin