February 11, 2013
LIMA— As Lima schools officials get closer to abandoning the small schools concept at Lima Senior High School, they remain adamant the district made the right decision 10 years ago to try it.
“It was absolutely the right thing to do at that time,” Superintendent Jill Ackerman said.
Officials site relationships, staff collaborations and different and better teaching techniques as positives generated from small schools. They expect those benefits to carry over when Lima Senior fuses back into one school next fall.
“Just because we are leaving small schools, it does not mean we are going to throw everything out. We will take what we believe works and move forward,” said Doug Kent, Performance-Based School principal. Kent is the only original small-school principal still in the position.
Enrollment, which has steadily dropped, is the main reason officials began looking at a change. About 900 students are at the high school this year. There were 1,100 two years ago. Staff reductions will be announced in the coming months.
“We have to be fiscally responsible at the end of every day,” Ackerman said.
Lima Senior began the small-school concept when it moved into the new high school building at the beginning of the 2004-05 school year. The work had begun a few years earlier, with the district deciding to move forward regardless of funding.
In late 2003, officials learned Lima Senior would receive $991,440 over a three-year period from Knowledge Works of Cincinnati to implement small schools. The money largely went toward professional development. The training opportunities would not have been possible without small schools, Ackerman said.
“It forced us into a lot of great professional development that allowed teachers even to change their teaching styles,” she said. “They learned so much about themselves as teachers, and it got them out of their comfort zones. And then they realized they had a lot to contribute to each other”
Ackerman said small schools brought teachers out of the confines of their classrooms and academic departments to collaborate, talk and work in teams. Kent said small schools taught teachers to differentiate instruction. Before small schools, lectures dominated instruction. Today, it is more hands-on instruction with students having more responsibilities in class.
“The teacher becomes more of a facilitator,” Kent said. “It is a different style of teaching, learning and understanding.”
Virgil Mann was director of curriculum when the high school moved to small schools, and he led much of the work. Mann said the small-school concept didn’t quite achieve its goal academically and in terms of state mandated tests, but he sees many other positives.
He quickly points to relationships with students and the community.
“Before we went into classrooms, closed doors and talked,” Mann said. “We are much more open to the community and parents now. We have a lot of people in here all the time working with kids.”
Smalls schools brought chances for students to learn outside school walls, Mann said. He believes senior projects, which will continue but could be modified, have been positive. He’s also seen a change in student behavior under small schools.
Many turn to relationships with students as the biggest positive to small schools, one that must survive the transition. Mann and Kent said staff now understand the importance of those relationships. It was easier to forge them with smaller populations in each small school. It will take more effort going back to one school. A committee is working to address how to best do it.
“With fewer kids, you get to know every kid. But in reality, you should be able to have relationships with kids no matter what your situation is,” Ackerman said.
Just as they want to keep what worked, officials are equally committed to bringing back what was lost under small schools. School spirit and a Spartan pride are at the forefront. Students and staff agree students connected with their individual small schools but lost being one Spartan.
“Students always talked about we’re in MI or Performance or Progressive instead of we are a Spartan,” Kent said. “It just sort of happened. We were so involved in getting smalls schools running and up to speed and trying new things that we didn’t take the time to look at that. it just kind of drifted away.”
A school spirit committee is among teams meeting now to plan the move. The school is already moving in that direction: holding pep rallies and school assemblies that haven’t happened in years. Ackerman said a surge in school spirit and pride will translate to a better school.
Small schools by design promoted competition between schools; Ackerman believes it went too far. The friction sometimes resulted in labels and stigmas for the schools. And it was more detrimental, Ackerman said, because the three schools were housed in the same building.
“You should not be competing with yourself, and that is what it felt like,” she said. “We should be competing with other districts, not internally amongst ourselves.”