Friday, July 11, 2008 | Four years ago, San Diego Unified decided to test whether size matters when it comes to high schools. With outside help, it split three big high schools into 14 small ones, each with 500 students or fewer. Billed as the antidote to huge, anonymous high schools, the new schools have been credited with reducing dropouts and building closer relationships between students and staff.

But going small has a price. San Diego Unified has estimated that running the smaller high schools costs 16 percent more per student than their larger counterparts. For four years, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation bankrolled some of the expense, pouring $11.5 million into converting Kearny, Crawford and San Diego High into complexes of multiple small schools, each with their own principal, theme, and section of campus.

As that extra funding disappears, San Diego Unified is left to decide whether going small is worth that price. The bulk of the Gates funding marked for the converted schools has expired. The staffer charged with overseeing the small schools project, H.J. Green, has left the school district. Another small school complex in San Diego Unified, unfunded by Gates, was abandoned earlier this year. And a major question overshadows the small high schools that remain.

“Did it work?” asked Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union. “Is it economically viable? Do teachers like it?”

That answer is unclear. Test scores have risen at many small high schools — but so have scores at many large schools. Attendance rates vary widely among the individual schools, with some reporting stellar numbers and others at the bottom of the heap. Small high schools are among the school district’s most exemplary schools, and among its most challenged.

“The goal is to try and sustain the program,” said Nellie Meyer, assistant superintendent of high schools. “The beauty of the small school is that we can attack issues quickly, because of the small size.”

Principals say the smaller schools are more intimate and personalized, and keep kids from falling through the cracks. Student surveys show that students are more engaged and connected to adults on campus, principals said. And a 2006 study showed that dropouts decreased at two of the small school complexes.

“It’s been like night and day,” said Diego Gutiérrez , principal of the Multimedia and Visual Arts school in the Crawford complex, who knows every face and every transcript, and notices every absence. “Academically, we still have a ways to go. But the ground is better prepared for academics.”

Yet as San Diego Unified tries to measure the success of small schools, a crucial set of reports that track their success aren’t yet available to the public. Annual reports conducted by the American Institutes for Research for the Gates Foundation haven’t been made public.

When the schools divided, “immediately we could observe major changes in [school] culture,” said AIR senior fellow Libia Gil. “What we didn’t see was any dramatic achievement outcomes for students. We’re starting to see that trajectory growing.”

But the school district must gauge whether those gains are worth the cost. Small schools are typically more expensive than large ones because a smaller group of students is afforded its own principal. Financial staff estimated that small high schools cost $768 more per student than large high schools last year. And a task force charged with weighing costs and salaries in San Diego Unified eyed the small high schools, saying they needed to be analyzed and made more efficient.

Dividing up schools is expensive and misses the point, said Rich Gibson, professor emeritus of education at San Diego State University.

“It doesn’t address the social and economic crises in communities,” he said. “It adds relatively large numbers of duplicated administrators and secretaries and required technology and machinery that may or may not meet the needs of children.”

Cost isn’t the only concern. Divvying up schools often makes it more difficult to offer a wide range of electives, because it’s tough to muster enough students to take an unusual class. Each of the Crawford small schools offers between 40 and 70 electives; bigger schools such as Hoover High and Henry High offer between 120 and 160. And splitting up schools may inadvertently segregate students of different backgrounds who gravitate toward different programs.

The starkest example is the San Diego High School complex, which includes two radically different schools: the School of International Studies, which draws high-achieving students from across the school district, and Communication Investigations in a Multicultural Atmosphere, where roughly two-thirds of students are learning English. International Studies was ranked in the top 100 public schools nationwide by Newsweek magazine; CIMA’s test scores and attendance rate are among the lowest in San Diego high schools.

Originally created as an academy for English-learning students, CIMA was criticized by the school board for segregating those students, former principal César Alcantár said. To attract a wider range of students, Alcantár redesigned CIMA as a communications school that teaches video production and graphic design. But the school remained largely Latino and English-learning.

“The problem is, we did an awfully good job making our students feel loved,” Alcantár said. “They all came back.”

Dividing schools may also avoid the federal push to boost test scores among all groups of students, by splitting minority groups into numbers too small to be counted separately.

Under the No Child Left Behind law, schools must show that all categories of students are improving their scores. If even one category of students falters, such as English learners, a school can be tagged as failing.

But if there are too few students in a particular group, their scores don’t need to be tracked separately for improvement. When San Diego High split up in 2004, its populations of African-American and white students were divided among multiple schools, almost all of them too small to count separately for testing. As a result, smaller schools may have an easier time meeting No Child Left Behind requirements, Meyer said.

San Diego Unified has also tried the small school approach at Lincoln High School, which was demolished in 2003 and reopened four years later as four small schools on one vast new campus.

Over a three-year period, the Gates Foundation is providing roughly $2.7 million to Lincoln, roughly $1.2 million to keep supporting the small schools at Kearny, Crawford and San Diego High, and about $720,000 for the central office that oversees all small schools in San Diego Unified. Another small school division was tried and later scrapped at Mann Middle School, which did not receive Gates funding.

Gutiérrez is loath to see the same happen to Crawford High. Before the schools split, teens would avoid teachers’ gaze in the hallways, he said. Now they greet their teachers and Gutiérrez , and Gutiérrez can respond to each by name.

“If people think going back to [a large school] will do any better, they’re absolutely wrong,” Gutiérrez said. “If there’s a chance to educate kids, this is the way.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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