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Medford studies small-school success stories

At a Chicago high school in a poor Latino neighborhood, the requirement that all students work at white-collar jobs downtown caught the eye of visitors from Medford.

At the Boston Arts Academy, visitors noticed that a literacy program was embedded in every course and students were passionate about learning because it was linked to their love of arts.

In a suburban Cincinnati high school, teachers told visitors they work harder since their school reorganized into five, focused learning centers, but they wouldn't go back to the old way.

For the past five months, teams of teachers, administrators and other school employees from North and South Medford high schools have visited innovative small schools around the nation to gather ideas about remaking Medford's secondary schools.

Medford's high schools got grants ' &

36;1.4 million for North and &

36;1.28 million for South ' from the Oregon Small Schools Initiative last spring to remake their campuses into a cluster of small, learning communities. All the travel is funded by the grants.

— We always see things we like and problems we can learn from, said Ruth Ann Schwada, initiative coordinator at North Medford. We're not looking for absolute models.

Still, teams have seen plenty of things they would like to duplicate here.

Among the dozens of schools visited, all have had high or rapidly improving graduation rates and many students who continue on to college. They all have put learning first and kids are excited about school. They've encouraged teachers to work closely and build partnerships with the community.

We're very interested in learning in the community and using real-life skills, said Peggy Strain, an art teacher who is helping coordinate the initiative at South Medford.

That's what teams saw when they visited Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a private Catholic school in Chicago that serves as a model for programs funded with grants from a foundation established by Bill and Melinda Gates, the source of the grants in Medford. Cristo Rey is in a poor, Latino neighborhood and has classes four days a week. On the fifth day, students work at large corporations to earn wages to pay for their tuition.

They teach them that they belong downtown, said Mary Wieczorek, another initiative coordinator at South Medford.

The Boston Arts Academy, a pilot public school, pushes ethnically diverse students ' many of whom live in poverty ' to excel, Strain said.

Students were extremely passionate about learning, she said. School didn't end when the bell rang. They spent evenings there preparing for performances.

Students' and teachers' passion for learning also took center stage at Glen Este High School in a suburban Cincinnati community that remade its two high schools into groups of small schools three years ago.

They all talked about how hard they work now, but they wouldn't go back, said Tim Rupp, another teacher helping coordinate the initiative at South Medford.

The visits will continue through the spring with students and parents joining some of the trips. Teachers and administrators also are attending conferences and training to prepare for the transformation.

The trips give insight that can't be gained by just reading about other programs and give people a chance to work together in ways they might not in the course of a typical school day, South Medford Principal Kevin Campbell said.

This year is about research and getting ideas for design, he said.

In addition to the trips, the schools are developing groups of students, staff, parents and community members to offer ideas about how the small schools here should look.

North Medford Principal Doug McKenzie encouraged parents to watch school newsletters for information nights so they can get involved in the process.

The coordinators stressed the importance of involving lots of people ' including those who are skeptical about the small-schools transition ' in the process.

As in any major change, a handful of leaders are excited about the pending transformation, many people are warily waiting to see what develops and a few naysayers grumble, Strain said.

We want all those concerns expressed so we can find logical answers, Wieczorek said.

She said most skeptics have legitimate concerns about how the new schools will affect teachers and students and the ways they work.

Most people understand the reasons behind this and see the benefit of working in small groups, Rupp said.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail