Mountlake Terrace High School announces plans to return to traditional educational model, abandoning experimental "small schools" program, on March 29, 2008.

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 4/09/2008
  • Essay 8580

On March 29, 2008, Mountlake Terrace High School Principal Greg Schwab announces the end of a five-year experiment -- largely funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- that had turned the school into a sort of education multiplex, with five independent academies under a single roof. In a letter to parents and students, Schwab said the school would return to a traditional "comprehensive" educational model. He attributed the decision to finances. With the grant money spent and enrollments declining, Mountlake Terrace could no longer afford to operate five independent schools within a school. Others pointed out that the "small schools" approach, launched with great fanfare in September 2003, had failed to produce the academic benefits its supporters had hoped for.

Reputation for Innovation

Mountlake Terrace High School -- one of five high schools in the Edmonds School District, in suburban Snohomish County -- had long had a reputation for innovation. The school was one of 12 in the state to receive a "Schools for the 21st Century" grant, designed to encourage new approaches in teaching, in 1990. The grant supported extensive revisions to the curriculum, introduced the next year, when the school moved into a new $28 million complex that replaced its original 1961 building. Elaine Klein, then assistant principal, said schools needed to be radically transformed in order to help students succeed in a rapidly changing world. "People who fix airplanes don't just keep adding parts to the old one, because it wouldn't fly anymore,'' she said. "You have to design a new one" (The Seattle Times, August 29, 1990).

Over the years, the school continued to modify the way its 1,800 or so students were taught and assessed. It implemented a trimester system that allowed students to take a greater variety of classes. Teachers rewrote graduation requirements and adjusted the curriculum to emphasize hands-on learning. In 1994, the school began requiring that students compile portfolios of their work as a way of supplementing standardized tests. The American College Testing Program later consulted with Mountlake Terrace in devising national standards for high-school portfolios. By 1996, all Mountlake Terrace seniors were required to complete a major project and present it before they could graduate -- a novel concept at the time, now common.

The school gained national attention in 1996 when Redbook magazine named it the best high school in the state. Klein, who had become principal by then, noted that students were clamoring to get in, a turnaround from earlier years, when many wanted to transfer out. "We have made our kids work hard, but they've risen to that challenge," she said. "This is a really nice confirmation of the kind of work that we do" (The Seattle Times, March 13, 1996).

The next year, Klein was named Washington State High School Principal of the Year, chosen from about 14 applicants by the Association of Washington School Principals. She was praised for her willingness to take risks to improve the school’s learning environment. But she retired soon after that, and the school lost some of its momentum.

Thinking Small

In 2000, Mountlake Terrace’s teachers and administrators began considering their most innovative move yet: dividing their large school into several smaller units, all sharing the same building. The discussion was fueled by an increasing number of grants available to schools willing to make such radical changes, particularly from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The foundation had committed $733 million to a campaign to shrink the American public high school, based on research suggesting that students in small schools attend class more regularly, drop out less, are better behaved, and, particularly in the case of low-income students, often score higher on standardized tests than their counterparts in bigger schools. "There are kids who are well-served in large, comprehensive high schools," said Rick Lear, director of the Gates-funded Small Schools Project at the University of Washington. "They tend to be middle-class, and they tend to be white. But that comes at the expense of other kids, and that's not equitable" (The Seattle Times, March 12, 2001).

Carving a big school into smaller pieces, however, was an unproven approach. Advocates supported it as a way of allowing school districts to retain their investments in buildings that would be costly to abandon or replace. The doubters pointed out that big schools have some advantages, including a wider variety of classes and extra-curricular activities. Some worried about the impact of a breakup on Mountlake Terrace’s much-honored music and student journalism programs. But the school’s administrators were strongly committed to the change, and most of the 98 teachers went along.

In September 2003, after nearly three years of intensive planning, Mountlake Terrace became the first large suburban school in the United States to adopt the schools-within-a-school model. The school’s new logo featured five colorful jig-saw pieces, fitted together under the logo "One Great High School: Five Great Small Schools." The 12-year-old building, designed for one school, now housed five, each with its own staff and curriculum: Discovery School, where students were encouraged to "design your own projects instead of taking tests;" Innovation School, "aimed at creative thinkers;" Renaissance School, emphasizing the performing arts and also offering most of Mountlake’s advanced placement classes; the Terrace Arts and Academics School, focused on visual and literary arts, and the Achievement, Opportunity and Service School, for students who wanted a "traditional high school experience in a small school setting." Each school also offered college-preparatory courses in English, social studies, science, and math.

The conversion was financed by a four-year, $833,000 grant from the Gates Foundation and $462,000 from the federal government. The Gates money paid for new computer labs in each of the five schools, software to help teach math and reading, and a coach for each school to help teachers adjust to the new system. Federal funds were used for planning and training. Many wondered whether the program could be sustained after the grants expired, in June 2005.

The process was arduous, often chaotic, and exhausting for both faculty and staff. It didn’t help that, at the end of the inaugural year, both the principal, Mark Baier, and vice principal, Stephen Gering, announced they were leaving to take other jobs --  Baier in Gresham, Oregon, and Gering in Spokane. Andi Nofziger, a Mountlake math teacher, told the Seattle Weekly that Gering’s departure was particularly galling, because he had been the main instigator behind the Gates grant and the entire conversion effort. Over the summer of 2004, 23 teachers -- nearly 25 percent of the total -- decided not to return to the school, well above the typical turnover of 5 to 10 percent a year. Among them was Heather Helman, who left for a job at Lake Stevens High School. "A number of us bailed," she said. "I don’t think that anyone understood how much work it would take" (Seattle Weekly).

‘Stoners, Jocks, and Geeks’

The difficulties of running five schools in one building were myriad. There were two different start times, two different class schedules, and two separate bell schedules. Some of the schools had a six-period day; others had a four-period day. Greg Schwab, who replaced Baier as principal, said that it took about a month to schedule classes for the upcoming year, compared to about a week in an old-fashioned high school. "There are days when it's just hard," he said. "Hard to keep it all straight" (The Seattle Times, February 16, 2005).

Since certain courses had to be offered in each school, some teachers ended up teaching subjects outside their areas of expertise. Resources were either overbooked or unnecessarily duplicated. "All the math teachers used to share rooms, calculators, math tiles," Nofziger said. "Now that we're broken up, we're spread throughout the building and we have to buy five sets of things" (Seattle Weekly). The schools ended up competing with each other for students, space, and staff -- a divisive issue that became more problematic as time went on.

Students themselves quickly branded the schools, typecasting them according to their alleged concentrations of "stoners, jocks, and geeks." The Achievement, Opportunity and Service School became known as "the preppy, white school." Discovery was "the Asian gangsta druggie school." The stereotypes created tension among the teachers and contributed to greater social stratification among the students. "They're trying to bring us together, but this has really divided us," said Stephanie Bunyan, a senior in 2005-2006 (Seattle Weekly).

Both Zofziger (who stayed) and Helman (who didn’t) said the smaller schools led to improved discipline and better tracking of individual students. But attendance and graduation rates remained flat. Mountlake Terrace did see a jump in its Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) scores, but so did neighboring Lynnwood High, which retained a traditional high school structure and didn’t have the extra grant money.

Even before the school decided to abandon the experiment and become a "comprehensive high school" once again, the Gates Foundation had moved away from its emphasis on downsizing. Tom Vander Ark, who headed the foundation's "small schools" program for seven years, said the foundation would instead work on improving classroom instruction. A former businessman, Vander Ark served as superintendent of the Federal Way School District before being hired by the foundation in 1998. "In our early grant making, small became the goal," he said. "That's my mistake. I should have formed programs with the initial focus on teaching and learning, and ended with structure" (Seattle Weekly).

Sources: "Letter from Principal Schwab," March 26, 2008, Mountlake Terrace High School website accessed April 2008 (; Marc Ramirez, "Terrace Rebuilds the Way It Teaches," The Seattle Times, August 29, 1990, F-1; Marc Ramirez, "Innovative Teaching Wins Prize for School," Ibid., April 7, 1994, p. B-3; Linda Shaw, "School’s Portfolio Program May Become a National Model," Ibid., August 29, 1994, p. B-1; Ferdinand M. De Leon, "Mountlake Terrace High Called State’s Best," Ibid., March 13, 1996, p. B-1; "Principal Wins State Award," Ibid., October 7, 1997, p. B-2; Linda Shaw, "With Schools, Small Seems a Better Fit," Ibid., March 12, 2001, p. A-1; Linda Shaw, "Schools’ New Motto: Think Small," Ibid., September 3, 2003, p. A-1; Bob Geballe, "Bill Gates’ Guinea Pigs," Seattle Weekly, July 20, 2005; Lynn Thompson, "Complicated Conversion Gets Big School to Think Small," The Seattle Times, February 16, 2005, p. H-14; Lynn Thompson, "School Size: Is Small Really Better?" Ibid., October 26, 2005, p. H-14.

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