- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 13, 2004

LEBANON, Ore. - Thinking small may be the next big thing at American high schools. From Oregon to New York, school districts are scaling down to combat problems that are very big, indeed: high dropout rates, sinking test scores and low attendance.

Over the years, plenty of ballyhooed ideas for curing such ills have come and gone. But the “small schools” movement has a powerful godfather in Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and is getting some backing from Washington, too.

Schools strategically designed to have no more than 400 students are in place or starting up in at least 41 states. Some urban districts, like Sacramento, Calif., have converted to all small high schools. In some places, the schools are new; others were created by subdividing large high schools.

Now, as the movement expands, educators are closely watching the outcome.

Oregon’s Lebanon High School, with about 1,400 students, opened in September with the building divided into four “learning academies,” each one specializing in a different academic area, and each with roughly 300 teenagers.

“We’ll get to know more and more about them so we don’t lose them down the road,” said Aaron Cooke, a history teacher.

Lebanon High School, along with a few other Oregon schools, got a grant partially backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to go small.

“We were not serving the needs of 100 percent of our students,” said Leanne Raze, assistant principal of Lebanon High. “We had a high dropout rate, underperformance on state tests and low attendance rates. We were looking for an upheaval.”

Research had shown that going small can produce higher graduation rates, lower dropout levels and more students attending college.

In the past decade, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has poured $745 million in grant money into promoting small schools, including $35 million for the creation of 75 schools in Texas, and $20 million in Ohio. Also, the federal government is operating a $142 million grant program for subdividing larger high schools.

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