Saturday, March 05, 2011

Why Lake Oswego Junior Highs Won't Close

With better educational and social outcomes, cost savings, and better community/school relationships, why won't the Lake Oswego junior highs close? (See my previous blog post where I make the case for closing them.) In short, the reason junior highs won't close (and exist at all), is that they are great for teachers and administrators.

Prestige and salaries tend to be higher for junior high principals than K-8 principals. The Vice Principal position is a great stepping stone position not readily available in a K-8 setting. Junior High teachers also have a bit more prestige than 7th and 8th grade teachers in elementary schools. Teachers can teach the classes they are interested in and avoid classes they aren't interested in. In a large junior high school, bad teachers can hide out for years as the active, "in the know" parents avoid them and the less "in the know" parents don't have the power to do any damage to their standing.

In a junior high setting, accountability for student outcomes is muted for teachers who only teach a student in one of 6+ classes. For teachers, the burden of communicating with parents on routine matters and dealing with behavioral and other problems are offloaded to junior high counselors. While this is a convenience for teachers, it blurs accountability even more. In an environment with 2 classes of 7th graders and 2 classes of 8th graders accountability and responsibility is concentrated and clear.

With students from multiple schools mingled into two junior high schools after 5th or 6th grade, it is harder to see differences in schools and hold the schools accountable. With 4 or 5 schools sending 8th graders to each high school, it will be very easy for the high school teachers, administrators, and involved parents to see which K-8 schools are doing a great job and which schools are doing less well. Lack of accountability and visibility into failures doesn't serve students and parents, but it does make teachers and administrators lives easier.

I hope that the pain of closing three elementary schools that are very important to their communities will cause parents and the community to think again about the choice in front of Lake Oswego schools. I hope the idea of expanding the problematic Junior Highs to younger and more vulnerable students scares the community into positive action.

I respect the work administrators and advisory groups have done to come up with alternatives to save money for the Lake Oswego school district. I think the entrenched interests of administrators and teachers have influenced the recommendations away from closing junior highs and toward closing elementary schools. I am not optimistic the best choice will be made.

Why Waluga and Lake Oswego Junior Highs Should Close

Lake Oswego school district proposes closing 3 of our elementary schools and expanding Junior High to include 6th grade. Having experienced Lake Oswego elementary and junior high schools I can attest this is the wrong direction. The elementary schools in Lake Oswego fulfill the promise of public education by educating students, creating close communities of students and parents, and adding value to the community. The Junior Highs are much less successful in the their assigned role of educating adolescents at a high level and helping them transition to High School. There is no reason to expand them and good reasons to close them.

The school district should keep all 9 elementary schools open and close the two junior high Schools. The elementary schools should be expanded to K-8. Excess capacity can be reduced by making 6 of the elementary schools single track (one class per grade). That would make room for the 7th and 8th grades at the physically smaller schools. Activities such as band, football, and cheer leading that require an assembly of greater numbers of students can be scheduled either in the early morning or late afternoon when students can be bussed to central locations. Foreign languages can be accommodated by busing students to concentrated locations, distance learning, and focusing particular schools on particular languages. Bryant/Waluga could easily accommodate a double track (two classes per grade) k-8 school and centralized activities. Uplands/Lake Oswego Junior High School could also be configured as a double track k-8 school with ample room for facilities for central activities. Lake Grove and several other schools are physically large enough to accommodate a double track K-8 program and extra activities.

Junior high is a bad concept and as executed in the Lake Oswego district has bad outcomes. Ages 12, 13, 14 are very difficult years for adolescents. It is the worst time to rip them out of a small community where they have real personal relationships and put them in a high stakes social environment where cliques and superficial popularity reign supreme. Junior high creates an ideal environment for predators who sell drugs and sexually exploit children. It also creates an ideal environment for marketers who prey on children's insecurities to sell clothes, gadgets, and other items promoted to increase social standing.

My experience as a parent and working with Lake Oswego district junior high students at a church group gives me a negative opinion of the social environment at the Junior High Schools. I would say that at Waluga junior high, students who try to join the popular crowd are personally offered drugs, are aware of drug use by fellow students, and feel peer pressure to express tolerance and interest in drugs. Students who join the popular crowd are also aware of sexual activity by fellow students, feel peer pressure to have sex, and may have been offered drugs as part of situations designed to induce them to relax their sexual boundaries. I believe that in a K through 8 schools the social pressures could be reduced in this time of insecurity and social growth. Students could feel somewhat safer making healthy choices and standing up for their individual interests because they would be among people they have known longer. At the very least, the drug trade would have 9 schools to visit and establish contacts in instead of 2. Those 9 schools would be smaller and students would have long term relationships with teachers and other students. Dealers would have much less freedom of action than they currently enjoy and more risk.

At Waluga today teachers brag that they create teams of 3 teachers who discuss student progress and coordinate lessons. In a K-8 environment, the norm for 7 and 8th grade education would be a small team of teachers coordinating lessons and intimately involved in individual students progress. Specific teachers would be accountable for student success and their success could be measured year after against peers in 8 other schools.

Riverdale school district demonstrates that academic outcomes in K-8 can be as good or better than in a Junior High. In fifth grade testing fewer Riverdale students than Lake Oswego students are proficient in Reading, Math, and Science. In 8th Grade testing the percentage of Riverdale students proficient in Reading is equal. In Math and Science the percentage in Rierdale is higher than in Lake Oswego. In the Riverdale K-8 school the percentage proficient in Reading, Math, Science rose between 5th and 8th Grade. In the Lake Oswego district, percentage proficient fell in all three areas fell between 5th and 8th grade.

I am not an expert on school finance, but I believe that closing 2 Junior highs with their counselors, vice principals, and other admininstrative staff would save more money than closing 3 elementary schools. Even after accounting for busing students for activities and specialized classes there would be savings since there would be less transport need for getting kids to Junior High.

The neighborhood schools would be an even more intimate part of the neighborhood and family's would be even more engaged and inclined to support schools that students attend for 9 years. Athletics for 7th and 8th graders could be simplified with 9 schools that can play each other in Basketball and Volleyball.

I respect the work the administrators and advisory groups have done to come up with alternatives to save money for the Lake Oswego school district. However, I believe the current recommendation is a bad choice.

Next post I'll talk about why the Junior Highs will probably expand to the detriment of adolescents and 3 neighborhoods will lose their community schools to the detriment of the neighborhoods and their property values.