Saari leads safari to district’s small schools

KINGSTON — Kingston High School planning principal Bruce Saari will be the first to admit that “small” does not necessarily equal success.

Saari, who has founded three small learning communities in the Seattle and Marysville areas, has made the small schools philosophy — a new approach to public school teaching — his passion as an educator.

“But small is not necessarily better,” he is quick to point out.

“Our first option is not to experiment with kids,” he added, “but to create effective small learning communities.”

Saari dismisses the notion that small learning communities are a pie in the sky concept. Hired by the North Kitsap School District earlier this year, his very real task is to create a curriculum for a new 800-student high school in Kingston.

The school is planned to be broken down into four 200-student “SLCs” — the chosen acronym for small learning communities.

“This is very exciting, very important work,” Saari said. “We all need a mission in life. This is my mission.”

He is well aware of the work that goes into creating small schools and said his own philosophies mesh well with NKSD’s Guiding Principles, the district’s educational road-map.

“(North Kitsap’s) Guiding Principles can all be achieved via the process of small learning communities,” he said.

Saari’s job description before the Kingston-area school opens is prolific. He has taken over as principal at the Parent Assisted Learning (PAL) program and will likely oversee a task force aimed at integrating and blending curriculum in grades nine through 12 in the district. He’ll also oversee curriculum integration for grades six through 12 — similar to the grade-level range he helped establish as founder of Bellevue and Lake Washington International Schools. He said he’ll also provide guidance at North Kitsap High School’s recently-born Polaris International School of 160 students and continue planning for the new Kingston High School as well.

And, he’ll spend much time at Kingston Junior High School — where many of his future students currently attend.

Enthusiasm for ‘small’

comes from ‘big’ flaws

Saari was born on Whidbey Island and graduated from Oak Harbor High School in 1965. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Washington, he taught in Samammish High School from 1971 to 1989.

Following 19 years at the school, Saari felt that educators could do better than the large-scale, assembly-line high school that he was accustomed to at Samammish.

“I saw a lack of enthusiasm and meaning there,” Saari said, adding that he witnessed what he called teachers and students “going through the motions.”

He became impassioned in his search to find a different, more effective way to educate students.

“I just saw that we could do better,” he said.

In 1989, he went to Denmark for a year on a Fulbright exchange and also achieved his PhD from the Union Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio in anthropology in 1991.

From there, Saari and five other teachers went to Bellevue’s School Board to ask for a grant to create a new small learning community within the district. After the six teachers received $300,000 from Washington’s Schools for the 21st Century grant, the board gave the go-ahead. Utilizing an abandoned elementary school, the teachers created a 150-student six through 12 school, beginning with only sixth and seventh graders.

The six teachers designed a curriculum based around essential questions that each student took with them and built upon at each grade. Teachers worked together to monitor each students’ progress and ensure their class curriculum was built upon the curriculum that preceded it.

“In the school, summer time and winter break were viewed as merely interruptions,” Saari said. “New learning was always based upon prior learning.”

Saari’s cofounded Bellevue International School also brought forth a concept unheard of in a public school system in the early 1990s — what he calls “mastery learning versus social promotion.”

In 1993, Saari’s school held back 13 eighth graders in a class of 100 for attaining below a C- grade, according to a 1994 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article. Saari, with the founders of the school, believed that mastery of material was more important than the aforementioned social promotion — even after eighth grade. Saari said he believes that if students are unable to master subject matter necessary for the next grade, they need to work until they are prepared — even if it means holding them back a grade.

Saari followed his initial Bellevue students through graduation and was then recruited by the Lake Washington School District in 1997 to establish an international school there as a clone of the Bellevue School.

Both schools have enjoyed success in state-wide testing. In only one example, Lake Washington International’s Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) scores for seventh graders far exceeded state averages. The school scored a 91.5, 87.2 and 85 in writing, math and reading, respectively. The state average at the time was 48.5, 27.4 and 39.8, respectively.

He gained his Principal Certification in 2002 from City University in Seattle and left Lake Washington to serve as Director of Silicon Valley Essential High School — a charter school in Palo Alto, Calif. The school was in shambles when he got there, Saari said, and efforts with his colleagues to keep the school up and running failed.

“We tried to save the school,” Saari commented. “We were idealists. But we couldn’t mount a recovery.”

Saari then moved back to Washington to establish a small school with an emphasis in design in Marysville. The Marysville Arts and Technology School only existed for a year, however, as budget cuts and general district woes stemming from the Marysville District strike closed the school in 2003.

That’s when Saari discovered that North Kitsap School District was seeking a planning principal for a new high school — one that would be made up of four 200-student small learning communities similar in mission to the ones he founded.

For about two years, Saari will plan and help implement small learning communities in the district. But another task he said he’s proud to take on is the community dialogue concerning them. He said he is eager to discuss the district’s plans for both its future Kingston school and existing North Kitsap High School.

“I stand ready to meet with anyone who calls, whether it’s one person or 10,” he said.

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