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Small-school discussion draws mixed reactions

CENTRAL POINT — A parent-requested forum on the Oregon Small Schools Initiative drew about 140 audience members. Nearly a third of them spoke to School District 6 board members about concerns they have concerning Crater High School's first year with a small-school setup.

In its second year at Crater, the small-schools initiative was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other organizations and focuses on offering theme-based schools to engage students in learning and improve academic results and student retention rates, educators say.

Tuesday night's meeting filled the district boardroom on Ash Street as well as the lobby and a long hallway outside with a standing-room-only crowd.

School District 6 superintendent Randy Gravon started the meeting with diplomacy, noting that it was important to recognize that everyone's opinion is valid. Gravon called the meeting a beginning of a process and the opportunity for dialogue.

A common thread concerned limited access to elective classes and worries that small schools would not produce well-rounded, college-ready students.

Teachers and students praised the small schools conversion and pointed to lower dropout rates and drastically improved test scores — some of the highest in the school's history.

Sherry Corcoran, a district parent since 1985, said the district had "done my kids well" but said her older children had enjoyed a variety of electives, from photography and economics to psychology and cooking, while a younger son who attended a small school at Crater was an agriculture-focused kid who would have enjoyed access to art classes.

Corcoran said students had been segregated by interest, noting, "Electives are so important to the kids. Right now the hicks are with the hicks and the singers are with the singers."

Marcy Miller said one of her students "found himself" at Crater's "school within a school," the district's predecessor to small schools, but would not have had as many opportunities with the new setup.

Rob Smith, standing at the back of the room, said he felt his two daughters had been forced into "a situation of being segregated and labeled" and that "the district needs to listen to the ones who pay for the schools."

Teacher Jeff Zundel told audience members he was "inspired" by what he had witnessed with just one year of small schools.

Crater junior Cassity Mega, a Renaissance Academy student at Crater, said the meeting was informative and that she felt parents who came to report concerns "have some misinformed passion."

"I don't get the best grades all the time, but I've learned so much about science and the humanities and I love my teachers. I wouldn't trade the education I'm getting for anything," she said.

Matthew Bostram, a junior in Crater's Renaissance Academy said he preferred small schools to an overall school body and said, "I can honestly tell everyone here that small schools and school four have changed me for the better."

Meghan Mills, also a junior, told audience members that she understood concerns about putting students into "certain groups" but said such groups would exist without small schools and had existed for her "mom and grandma."

"I think maybe there are things that need to change "¦ maybe we need more integration, but I personally like small schools," she said, cautioning the audience not to use small schools "as a scapegoat" for nonrelated issues.

First-year teacher Sarah Swanson said she felt strongly about the benefits of small schools for students and teachers.

"I think it's a real testament that our scores, our students and our teachers support the work we're doing," Swenson said.