Months after saying farewell to the first graduates to spend four years in a small-school environment, local administrators stand by a decision to divide large campuses in pursuit of student success.

Months after saying farewell to the first graduates to spend four years in a small-school environment, local administrators stand by a decision to divide large campuses in pursuit of student success.

Two of Jackson County's three largest high schools embraced the Oregon Small Schools Initiative, which hypothesized that by splitting large traditional high school campuses into smaller micro-schools, students would be more engaged and ultimately more successful.

Both South Medford High School and Central Point's Crater High School accepted a small chunk of Oregon's $25 million in incentive funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Meyer Memorial Trust nearly seven years ago to implement the small-school idea.

Though the Gates Foundation abandoned the concept by 2008, local schools forged on — dividing South Medford and Crater's campuses of 1,700 and 1,400 students apart and forming eight new schools, each with its own interest-driven theme such as business, art or science.

The OSSI championed the idea that smaller high schools — those with fewer than 400 students — had the ability to close achievement gaps of lower-performing student groups by offering a tighter-knit learning environment that encouraged bonding between teachers and students.

"Schools of 2,000 kids — that's where students get lost in the cracks," said South Medford Principal Kevin Campbell.

South Medford and Crater created eight of the 42 small schools implemented statewide during OSSI.

North Medford High School accepted some initial funding to form small schools, but was dropped from the initiative in 2007 after an administration plan to use the money for school improvement swayed too far from OSSI goals.

South Medford and Crater received four-year grants from 2003-07 and both debuted their new divided campuses by fall of 2007, eliminating some administrative positions to afford the hiring of principals for each school.

While local administrators are quick to point out successes since the small-school approach was implemented, Campbell readily admits that proving the initiative and improved statistics are directly related isn't possible.

"I don't think you can do that," said Campbell, who believes the only cut-and-dried product of the initiative is the commitment of teachers and staff to smaller groups of students, eliminating concerns that some students become invisible in a large school.

While attendance rates at South Medford have remained flat since 2003, Campbell said the graduation rate has steadily grown among sub-populations of students, specifically Hispanics.

The school also met Annual Yearly Progress reports for math for the first time during the 2010-11 year.

Campbell said the initiative was embraced differently at other schools than it was at South Medford, which chose to allow students freedom to choose electives and AP classes at any new micro-school, offering maximum interaction between the schools.

The administration at Crater faced some initial opposition when introducing the small schools to students, who complained that class options were limited and the schools too segregated.

"You wouldn't see the kids from other schools, you wouldn't run into them in the halls, we were completely separate," said Brittany Overlock, who graduated from Crater in 2011 as part of the first class to attend a small school for four years.

One of Overlock's classmates was eager to attend school with hopes of one day going to a California university, and was upset freshman year when her options were so limited.

"I couldn't take Spanish or science classes as a freshman for some reason," said Bianne Tyerman, who enrolled in an online science course during her first year to bridge the gap.

Tyerman acknowledged that the small schools improved as years went on by offering elective grace periods, but in the end it was too little, too late for Tyerman.

"I'd only known small schools. But I think it would be better as just one big school," said Tyerman, who is now a freshman at Oregon State University.

As Overlock and Tyerman prepared to graduate last year, the Central Point School District made the difficult decision to close one of the four small schools — the Academy of Natural Sciences — citing a $3.4 million budget deficit for the year.

Just four years after the four schools were opened, Crater had to absorb 350 Academy of Natural Sciences students into the three remaining schools — Crater Renaissance Academy, the School of Business, Innovation and Science and the Academy of Health and Public Services.

Administrators said they chose to close the school not because it was under-performing, but because the agriculture programs it offered could easily be transferred to another school.

Despite setbacks, Crater administrators still believe that small schools have played a major role in increasing student achievement.

"I think teachers are working harder in the small-schools structure," said Samantha Steele, district director of education.

Since the initiative was implemented at Crater, students have made across-the-board gains in state testing, improving scores in reading, math and science.

In addition, administrators say the small-schools environment is preparing more students for college, with 64 more scholarships awarded to students last year than were awarded in 2005.

"The outcome is what happens with the students," said Todd Bennett, principal of the Business, Innovation and Science school. "Test scores are just an indicator."

Principals of all three of Crater's schools assert that under the small-school model, they are less likely to let any students fall through the cracks.

"They can't fly under the radar," said Bennett.

As part of a 2010 final report, OSSI said that statewide, schools that split into smaller units saw reduced dropout rates and more students heading for college.

Between the Gates Foundation and the Meyer Memorial Trust, the $25 million doled out through OSSI was the largest private investment for education in Oregon to date.

Even after the Gates Foundation said the initiative didn't reap the benefits for public education it had expected, dozens of schools across the state have kept their micro-schools.

Academy of Public Health and Services Principal Julie Howland came to Crater in 2008, after working in the Portland area on another small-school campus.

Howland said the reason Crater has succeeded when other schools haven't is because of districtwide support for the idea.

"When I got here, parent complaints were rampant," said Howland. "But the idea was supported from the top down.

"If you can't get through those first four years, it's hard."

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.