It's late summer and time for lunch, and the teaching staff at the Media Arts and Communications Academy (MACA), in McMinnville, Oregon, shuffles into a makeshift classroom for a break. The beginning of the school year is just around the corner, and most teachers will be using these last few weeks to recharge their batteries. But for this group, much work still remains. The teaching curriculum is not fully set, and the building -- a brick-clad former elementary school built in the early twentieth century -- awaits new carpet and a fresh coat of paint.
Yet by no means are the men and women creating this new school a downtrodden bunch of world-weary public school educators: MACA provides an opportunity for the teachers and administrators to be as involved as their students will be. And for all, the opportunity is invigorating.
The school is part of the nonprofit Oregon Small Schools Initiative, (OSSI), a project that receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Portland-based Meyer Memorial Trust to transform Oregon's array of mega-sized public schools into clusters of smaller school environments. The goal? To provide a better-conditioned approach to learning and instruction through creativity, flexibility, improved technology, and stronger community involvement.
McMinnville, which used to be a small farming town, has tripled its population and transformed itself over the last generation. The town is now a bedroom community for the Portland area and the epicenter of Oregon's wine country, straddling both cultural and geographic boundaries among city, suburb, small-town, and agricultural regions. Along the way, public schools there have struggled to keep up with swelling class sizes and teachers feeling the strain amid perpetual educational funding challenges that even prompted ridicule in the comic strip Doonesbury.
MACA provides added funds to reduce class size and introduce the latest theories about educational strategies. It also seeks to do something more elusive: foster a sense of community.
"Teaching is traditionally an isolated act," says Paul Wolff, an English teacher at MACA. "We want to break down those walls, both physically and socially. How do we create a feeling of community both inside and outside the school?" As we talk, Wolff points to his classroom across the hall as an example. "That room would traditionally be the place where you'd teach English, but we really want to get away from that," he explains. "You may teach a class that combines English with history or even math. Or you might be out in the community, educating kids by getting them involved with experts in all kinds of fields."
Along with smaller school and class sizes, this kind of project-based, hands-on learning is a key component of educational reform espoused by nonprofits such as the Gates Foundation -- as well as by educators. "Direct instruction has a place -- it's the most effective way to share new information," says Karen Philips, president of the OSSI. "But it doesn't lend itself to the type of learning that goes into long-term memory. It has to be hands and mind together, as American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey said. You can't just simulate all the time -- you have to go out and do real work."
Involving community members, Wolff says, originates from the concept of a borderless learning environment, in which the de-emphasis on compartmentalized classrooms and topics help make education more fluid and collaborative. "If we remain transparent and retain the message of what we're trying to do, the community will support this," he adds. "We have to give ourselves permission to ask for help -- and allow people to offer help."
Part of MACA's growth process from a grant proposal to a brick-and-mortar learning institution has been the establishment of a healthy relationship between the OSSI (acting on behalf of its Gates and Meyer foundation partners) and the ground troops who administer and teach at the school. It's important not only for the schools to feel a sense of autonomy but to also feel cared for and guided by the resources on both sides of this public-private partnership.
"We have standards and guidelines, but we're not prescriptive," Philips explains. "We don't tell them how to implement things." Instead, the OSSI defines certain attributes a recipient school should have, such as a student body of 400 or less, and an atmosphere in which each student is known well by at least one adult.
At the same time, though, the Gates Foundation in particular has been active in providing and distilling research findings. The OSSI, for example, is guided largely by the foundation's "Attributes of High Achievement Schools."
- Staff and students are focused on a few important goals.
- Staff and students have high expectations.
- Every student has an adult advocate and a personal plan for progress.
- The staff teaches, models, and expects responsible behavior, and relationships are based on mutual respect.
- Time is made available for staff, students, parents, businesspeople, and university faculty to collaborate.
- Students are promoted to the next instructional level only when they have achieved competency.
- Technology is a tool for education and communication.
Underlying each of these principles, whether at MACA or any of Oregon's other OSSI-funded schools, is the idea that a small school can be more flexible and adaptable, not only in regard to new educational theories but also to methods that foster deep-seeded learning. "There's a lot of research supporting the idea that curriculum needs to be relevant to kids," says Debra Franciosi, a coordinator and teaching/learning facilitator at MACA. "If we integrate curriculum, we gain more flexibility to make it relevant. Schools have always done this, but Gates took the idea and ran with it."
Meanwhile, MACA isn't a private school funded by corporate trusts, but rather a public school that must still meet state guidelines and policies. Of course, that's the whole point: to improve education for all. But reform at the public school level inevitably has its headaches, and for MACA's new staff, testing methods top the list.
"Most of us see learning as a process, but that's not how the state sees it," says Andrea Payne, a MACA science and health teacher. "The State of Oregon and the No Child Left Behind Act basically use standardized tests with multiple-choice questions."
Teachers especially lament the lack of proper testing for English and writing skills. "If you want to see if a kid can write, let them write and then look at their writing," says MACA principal Laurie Cooper, who previously helped transform nearby Woodburn High School from a mega-campus into a series of small schools with OSSI funding. "That's the most authentic of all the tests, and the State of Oregon recently dropped it. This year will be the last year."
According to Paul Wolff, the difference a school such as MACA can make ultimately lies in its holistic approach. "Grades and test scores and graduation rates are important, but we also need to ask ourselves, 'Do the kids get along with each other? Are they safe?' You can’t measure that stuff on a standardized test," he explains. "Once they hit eighth and ninth grade, the attitudes really change. And that also makes it harder for parents to feel connected to their kids' education and future. We have to help them stay in tune and stay in touch. If we can do that, ultimately our kids and their families are going to be our best advertising."
Brian Libby is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for the New York Times, the Oregonian, and Salon.com.