NKSD eyes popularity of the ‘small schools’ idea

POULSBO — They’re written into the North Kitsap School District’s “Guiding Principles,” document. They’ll involve all of the students at Kingston High School when it is due to open in 2007. And there’s already one called “Polaris” at North Kitsap High School.

Small Learning Communities (SLCs) are being stitched into the fabric of North Kitsap’s public education system — but that doesn’t mean North Kitsap’s residents, including school board members, don’t have reservations about them.

“I think this SLC business better get a better reputation out in the community,” said school board member Dick Endresen. “... Unless the public supports it, they’re not going to pay for it.”

Thus, the purpose of a study session conducted by the board Monday was to find out how North Kitsap’s Polaris program is doing as well as find out how planning for future SLCs is going. Kingston High School planning principal Bruce Saari gave a presentation on “Downsizing for Student Achievement,” to demonstrate where present planning progress.

Saari, who was previously a principal at several SLCs, including Lake Washington and Bellevue International Schools, said that “looping” — using one teacher or group of teachers with the same students over a period longer than a year —

is one of the crucial ideas in creating the educational communities in North Kitsap. That way, a student’s individual learning experiences build on each other.

“We want one learning experience to lead to another,” he said. “So students see there’s a connection, there’s a design.”

Board member Bethany McDonald said she was curious how multiple small learning communities in North Kitsap would look, given that they convey a “wide range of ideas” where they’re implemented across the country.

NKSD Student Support Services Executive Director Gregg Epperson answered McDonald by stating that it is the backbone of teacher and student collaboration of the SLC that defines it in North Kitsap.

“Really, it’s about creating ways for kids to have better learning structures,” he said. “You put the teachers in teams, they start teaching common things — and good things happen.”

Board member Ed Strickland affirmed that the further advent of SLCs in the community could not come without effective teachers.

“You have to have good teachers,” he said. “You cannot do this without teachers, otherwise they just continue to teach the way they have for 30 years.”

Board president Catherine Ahl said she wanted Saari to give her some ideas of what the drawbacks to small learning communities are. Saari replied that the primary drawback is the difficulty of creating a genuine SLC — not just a program with a new acronym.

“It’s a teaching and learning transformation to deliver things that we’ve wanted to all along,” he said.

Ahl said her main concerns dealt with training teachers to make the transition and ensuring there was public involvement in the form of students and parents in the implementation of SLCs.

“This doesn’t all change overnight,” Ahl said. “When does the training take place?”

Saari informed her that training was already happening during instructional improvement days and that next May there will be a large-scale presentation to the school board about how the SLCs will be implemented. From there, training will continue until the new communities are ready to open.

Even so, Ahl voiced her worries about parent and student involvement.

“The nightmare I wake up with is we that we create these SLCs, and we aren’t prepared for (them), she said. “I don’t see parents or students on the GPAC (Guiding Principle Action Committee). You haven’t sold the parents and you haven’t even sold us. I’ve been saying it for three years, we need students and parents and if you get them with you they’ll sell it (to the community) for you.”

The issue of affordability was also brought to the table, but Saari said that SLCs would cost no more than the current system of education.

Ahl then asked why a $400,000 grant — given by the federal government for developing SLCs to Polaris — was necessary. Saari informed her it was for planning and teaching training.

Board member Dan Delaney voiced his concerns that the perception of SLC’s is that they are “experimental.”

“I kind of rebel against the idea that SLCs are an experiment,” he said. “The teacher’s environment is going to be so much better, and if their environment is better, the students’ environment is better.

“We’re going to meet resistance to change in the community but this is not on a whim ... this is not experimental,” Delaney added “In the smaller learning community, we can help all of (the) kids. But we have to explain to people why is this better than what we have now.”

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