School Jam 

Is Utah courting disaster with ever larger schools?

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Fenn Ketchoyian doesn’t run the average classroom. That’s because the students she usually teaches aren’t exactly what you might call average.

A large yellow-and-red flag emblazoned with a portrait of Bob Marley hangs above the blackboard. Ketchoyian’s name is spelled in masking tape across her desk, atop of which sits a large bottle of hand lotion and a half-full bottle of spring water. A sign on the wall next to the door proclaims: “Salt Lake City School District, a Community of Caring Where Responsibility is Lived and Taught.”

A special education instructor, Ketchoyian calls her students, “My gifted under-achievers.” At Salt Lake City’s East High School, Ketchoyian’s first class of the morning isn’t “special ed,” but sociology. So naturally, when prodded, the students have a lot to say about life in an urban high school of 1,950 students. There’s a lot that goes on in a school this size. In the last school year counted, 197 of those students dropped out. Younger students get their heads shaved—a hazing tradition at East that goes back to 1913—by older peers. Cliques, whether drawn by racial or class lines, gather around opposite sides of the school. There’s even talk of a female student allegedly having been raped in one of the school’s parking lots. (Salt Lake City School District spokesman Jason Olsen said police are still investigating the matter, and question whether the rape actually took place.)

There’s a lot to watch out for and look after during these turbulent years. There’s a lot of hot air between students, and some not-so-subtle intimidation that goes around.

Matt Jolley is to the point in his assessments, lacing his words with the kind of brute charm you might expect from a 17-year-old. “It’s like little groups in the corners of the hall, and you know they’re talking about you,” he said. “There is no solution, because society is fucked up. Society is going to be jacked up for a long time. What it all comes down to is that people are unhappy, and they want to be happy by pulling each other down.”

Kim Reynolds, also 17, feels the school-life static just as well. A cynic might say she’s asking for it, with her hair dyed a vivid blue. But like Jolley, she’s smart enough to see through the game of teenage social customs. “Kids are just mean,” she added. “It’s out of pure ignorance. Sometimes they don’t even know it.”

But get the whole class talking and you soon learn that the alienation and frustration of modern adolescence comes from all sides. There’s also pressure from unrelenting, unforgiving parents. One student mentions a friend who was yelled at after a B appeared on her report card. There’s a sense that not even school counselors are paying attention.

“My counselor hardly even knows me,” Jolley said. “It’s a joke to talk to them.”

Some days, even Ketchoyian feels a sense of resignation about working in the public school system. After 19 years of teaching at East, she openly admits that the safety of students has deteriorated over time. Conditions reached a fever pitch of sorts during the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance controversy in 1996, when some students came out of the closet amid an atmosphere of threats and epithets. Aside from that, however, there were even times when Ketchoyian would drive students home because they feared getting beaten near the bus stop. And, says Ketchoyian, few people know the real story behind the alleged rape of weeks past.

“Students come to me asking where they should park because they’re scared, or you’ll hear stories about someone bringing a gun,” Ketchoyian said. “It’s hard to address this stuff if we don’t know what’s going on. Communication would be a good thing.

“In a school this large, there are people who are definitely lost. When kids aren’t having their needs met, if they’re not feeling safe, then you can’t really go into anything of importance anyway. We have instruction we’re supposed to be giving these kids, and a lot of that’s being wasted away.”

Casting an overall picture of Utah’s educational system from one classroom alone would be reckless, of course. Not all of Ketchoyian’s students have complaints. But there is one issue on which everyone seems to be in agreement: Utah’s schools are unusually large, and are about to grow even larger. While some administrators and researchers say that’s not necessarily bad, no one will call it good. A growing number of people, in fact, say it’s downright dangerous.

Violence in American schools is hardly news. What is news is the way we continually change our diagnosis of the problem.

Soon after the blood cooled over Columbine, easy access to firearms once more took the stage as public enemy number one. But with Charlton Heston and the National Rifle Association waiting just around the corner, everyone knows meaningful gun control legislation won’t happen in our lifetime. So we lament the passing of traditional values, and blame parents who fail to teach right from wrong. Soon after the most recent school shooting that claimed two lives and injured 13 in March at Santana High near San Diego, some even argued that posting the Ten Commandments outside schools might help.

The media, America’s perennial demon of all social ills, took it on the nose for the umpteenth time as well. Violent movies, violent video games and violent rap music—surely they had to share some or all of the blame.

A deeper look, though, revealed a common trait behind students most likely to pack heat in the nation’s public schools. A study by the University of Cincinnati’s Ohio Safe Schools Center showed that, of 41 students who brought guns to the classroom, two-thirds had been bullied or felt alienated in school. Students at Columbine High School remembered Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as “the ones you’d make fun of.”

Lest you think Utah is somehow immune to violent eruptions in its schools, consider some of these recent incidents:

• Early in April, a Riverton High School senior shut down afternoon classes for three hours with a bomb threat.

• On the anniversary of the Columbine shootings, talk of guns in a student’s locker at Provo’s Timpview High School led some parents to keep their kids at home.

• Also on the anniversary of Columbine, Bennion Junior High School went into lockdown mode for one hour after rumors of someone walking the halls with a gun.

• For six days last October, soon after the announcement of a nationwide bullying hotline, Utah ranked fourth in the number of complaints by phone and e-mail. Only California, Pennsylvania and Texas logged more responses.

• At West High School, 14-year-old disabled student Alvaro Estrada was beaten so badly in his wheelchair that, as a result, he suffered an infection that put him into a three-day coma.

On a national scale, the mood has gotten so pessimistic that some parents talk about pulling their children from public schools altogether. After the shooting deaths at Santana High, one parent even talked about ending the days of “brick and mortar” schools. If kids can’t be safe in public schools, home schooling and Internet classes are the wave of the future.

But if America’s old guard sees today’s generation of school kids as an undisciplined, violent, disrespectful mob, they should keep this fact in mind: Over 50 years—between 1940 and 1990—the nation’s average school enrollment grew almost fivefold. If older generations seem better educated, disciplined, and more respectful of authority, perhaps it’s because they reaped the benefit of smaller class sizes, more personal attention from their teachers and a greater sense of belonging and all-around well-being in their schools.

This isn’t a nebulous claim. It’s the stuff of documented research, fresh grist in the academic mill.

“There is a natural predilection in American education toward enormity, and it does not serve schools well,” according to William J. Fowler Jr, an education statistician at the U.S. Department of Education who specializes in school finance and educational productivity research. His words, first uttered in 1992, have become ever more quoted in study after study concluding that many, if not all, of America’s educational problems can be traced back to class size.

Aside from his profession as a fifth-grade teacher, state Rep. David N. Cox (R-Lehi) collects these studies in hopes that he might somehow persuade people before it’s too late. If we don’t reduce the size of our schools now, Utah may well have hell to pay later.

One of Cox’s favorite quotes is from adolescent crime expert James Garbarino of Cornell University, who said that if he could do one thing to stop violence among youth, “It would be to ensure that teen-agers are not in high schools bigger than 400 to 500 students.”

Then there’s this two-sentence punch from educational researcher Kathleen Cotton, sure to quiet the voice of just about anyone who’d argue that bigger schools are best: “The research linking school size to social behavior has invested everything from truancy and classroom disruption to vandalism, aggressive behavior, theft, substance abuse and gang participation,” Cotton writes. “This research shows that small schools have lower incidences of negative social behavior, however measured, than do large schools.”

The federal government also sees a link. According to the latest report by the National Center for Education Statistics in 1997, 38 percent of principals in large schools reported serious discipline problems, compared with 15 percent of principals in medium-sized schools and 10 percent of principals in small schools.

Just how big are Utah schools? Most educators put manageable school size along this scale: no more than 600 students for an elementary school; no more than 900 students for an intermediate school; and no more than 1,200 students for a high school. Our state has already grown accustomed to numbers beyond that, with elementary schools in excess of 800 students and high schools beyond the 2,000 mark. In fact, for our relatively small population nationally, Utah already boasts four out of 100 of the nation’s largest school districts. The Granite, Jordan, Alpine and Davis districts now enroll more than half of all Utah students. Those districts will certainly house even more students. The Beehive State, already known as “The Mother Market” and “The Baby Belt” to demographers, will pump an estimated 96,000 to 114,000 more kids into public schools by the year 2010.

Poring over the data and studies he’s gathered, Rep. Cox estimates that 85 percent of our high school students are already warehoused in schools that researchers would say are too large. In one respect, though, Cox parts ways with these studies. It’s not that he believes small schools and school districts are a cure-all. They simply create an environment in which students, parents and teachers all feel a greater sense of control and destiny—a chance to solve problems without the burden of size and its accompanying bureaucracy.

“In many ways the situation is quite pessimistic if you realize what’s happening politically,” Cox said. “Because once you’ve made a school larger you cannot, even in the next bond, build a small school. Once you’ve built a big school, then all the schools you build after that will at least be that size or bigger. Then we’ll see more gang and behavioral problems. Then we’ll wonder why our kids aren’t learning the way they should be. Then we’ll throw more money into testing and accountability, which won’t work. Finally, we’re going to see the public at large grow more alienated toward schools and the situation, I fear, will become ever more politicized.”

Cox and other educators aren’t wholly convinced that smaller schools necessarily mean more expensive schools. After all, once a school grows to a certain size and problems begin to mount, large schools must hire additional counselors, administrators and security systems—such as hidden cameras and metal detectors. More student time is spent in “lock-down” drills, anger management classes and other “life skills” curriculum. In many schools the “Three Rs” have already morphed from reading, writing and arithmetic to “respect, rights and responsibilities.” Slowly, the traditional goal of providing children with a solid education turns into an overall goal of simply managing them like a rancher manages his herd.

What’s more, as behavioral problems increase, so does an overall atmosphere of fear. Teachers and students become informants once the possibility of violent behavior in other students is suspected. In the worst cases, the constitutional rights of students are openly violated for the sake of maintaining a safe school environment. Jennifer Rosato, a professor at Brooklyn Law School specializing in child and family law, has documented cases where students have been expelled or suspended for carrying “weapons” such as nail clippers and Tweety-bird key chains.

“In terms of respect, if children grow up in fear and intimidation, then they grow into adults who are in fear and intimidated. Is that something we want to perpetuate?” asks Rosato

Cox’s prediction for Utah is especially dire. “What’s going to happen is that we’re going to see some kind of Columbine situation,” he said.

Alarmist rhetoric? Perhaps. In Utah, though, getting past the eye-glazing statistics to a concrete example is easy. Oquirrh Elementary School Principal Christine Webb manages an elementary school of 800 kids. During educational conventions and trips to school districts outside of Utah, Webb said she meets other administrators who handle elementary schools of only 450 students. Her peers ask her how she does it.

“Then I tell them that there are some schools in our district as large as 1,000 students or even larger,” Webb said. “I’d just like some help. It’d be nice if I had an assistant helping me. When you put this many bodies together, obviously you’re going to have problems.”

To keep schoolyard bullies at bay, Webb asked every student in each classroom to sign a bully-free pledge sheet. Although every student signed, and although pledge sheets adorn the school wall, there are still fights between students that end at her office door. Then it’s on to parent concerns, teacher evaluations and leadership issues. “The Legislature wants us to raise test scores, but obviously when you’ve got all this other stuff there isn’t much time,” Webb said.

Misbehaving aside, a growing number of studies show that students get the better end of the educational stick in smaller schools. That’s especially true for kids from less-affluent families. California’s educational system was so taken by these findings that administrators there are studying a six-year program that would reduce the average class size of kindergarten through third grade from 30 to 20 students per class. Ultimately, the Golden State might decide it’s worth the $1.5 billion price tag.

Here at home, of course, the refrain is so well known that we tire of reciting it over and over again. Ours is the lethal, triple-combination of too many kids, too little money, and a population of taxpayers fatigued at the thought of prying at their wallets one more time.

Rep. Cox is no armchair legislator. Last session he sponsored a bill that would have let Utahns create new, smaller school districts with a majority vote so that schools might shrink to a more effective size. It didn’t take long for his bill to end up in detention. Analysts at the Utah State Treasurer estimated it would add an additional $1.3 billion onto our already burdened education budget, and researchers at the University of Utah weighed in with their own study that put the value of smaller schools in doubt.

Clearly, our state’s educational system is at some sort of crossroads. Educational administrators admit that smaller schools are preferable. At the same time, they almost insist that, given meager funds, Utah’s schools do the best they can under the circumstances.

Too bad we’re probably chafing our teachers in the process. Not only do they deal with the some of the largest classes nationwide, but they must also handle an increasing menu of “life skills” curriculum whenever society feels that social problems must be addressed in the classroom. Drugs, HIV, alcohol, sexually transmitted diseases and now, school violence and anger management; all these have ended up on teachers’ plates, taking time away from academic subjects.

Verne Larsen, coordinator of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program for the state Department of Education, believes the trick is blending all these “life skills” classes in a way that won’t interfere with the academic curriculum.

“In Tennessee they even teach kids how to manage possible gambling problems,” Larsen said. “I know, it’s gotten out of control. I’ve heard people say, ‘Heaven help the teachers, because if they get any more curricula they’ll become violent.’ What we’re seeing in our schools is the coming together of academics and health. Instead of colliding the two and looking for what wins out, we need to merge the two.”

So it is that in Utah’s overcrowded elementary schools, students now practice “The Chill Drill” when their anger gets out of hand. There to help them is a special cartoon character, “Chilly Chill.” And to ease the sting of alienation at the secondary level, we add counselors, special mentoring and advisory programs, or education plans designed to involve parents in their children’s education. Anything to create a sense of connection and involvement in a school where the teacher might not even know your name.

If more and more studies point to the benefits of smaller schools, the great irony is that, ever since the 1920s, America has been in a race to make its schools ever larger.

Fifty years ago studies actually argued that bigger was better. At one time, the nation actually held more than 100,000 school districts. But after a 1923 book on school finances by the team of George Strayer and Robert Haig argued that more kids could be educated with less money, the race to consolidate was on. Bigger was not only better, it was cheaper.

The 1957 launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, of all things, exacerbated the situation. Politicians demanded that kids enter bigger schools so more scientists could enter the race for space.

As a grade-school teacher, Cox would be hard to sway on that point. He’s arrived at his beliefs after 20 years in the public education system. There’s a vast expanse between real-life experience and clinical research. “Some of the best public education is happening in the upper Midwest,” he said, citing yet another example. “And most of the districts there are the size of one of our high schools and its feeder schools.”

Religious convictions drive him as well. One reason the LDS church has expanded so rapidly and efficiently, Cox notes, is that it knows how to manage growth. When a ward house grows past a certain size, it splits into two.

Nor does Cox buy the argument that Utah can’t afford to give its children better. If we still hold education as the center and origin of a just and stable society, but place our pocketbooks above the well-being of future generations, we might want to take on the age-old task of reconsidering our priorities.

“Our pioneer forefathers built more schools than we have today. They actually built schools that, in their poverty, were much smaller than the large ones we build in our prosperity,” Cox said.

Images of the past stir the blood, but not necessarily the brain. Sorting the problem is a cinch. Getting to solutions is not for the faint of heart. Utah Education Association President Phyllis Sorensen sympathizes with Cox, but felt his legislative attempt bounded the realm of possibility. Utah’s lawmakers and taxpayers need to show a greater commitment to education before schools can shrink.

On the whole, kids are still safer in schools than most other places, Sorensen points out. Car accidents will continue to kill more teenagers than school shootings. But like Cox, she dreads the day when parents lose all faith in the public school system.

“It’s not that we haven’t hired more teachers and counselors, it’s that we haven’t hired enough,” Sorensen said. “I see us headed for disaster, and in more ways than one. Because parents want their kids safe they’ll take them elsewhere. But if we’re going to continue to tolerate large schools then there has to be a safety net in place, and it costs money. I don’t know of any other way to put it.”

The need for smaller schools is probably greater at the elementary level, says Sorensen, because it’s there that children first establish behavioral patterns conducive to discipline and anger management. One disturbing trend she’s started to notice: student assaults on teachers.

“That problem is an anomaly, but has increased very rapidly,” Sorensen said. “We’re handling a lot more of those cases here. We have a lack of respect, a lack of sense of community and greater good.”

Back at Ketchoyian’s sociology class, it’s clear that if teenagers don’t sit in the same ivory tower as adults, they care every bit as much, sometimes more.

The debate is spirited. Social cliques, bullying and intimidation are as old as time, and will exist no matter what the school size. That said, most agree that they’d learn more and get a better education in smaller schools. What they are most certain of, though, is what the problem is not. It is not the music they listen to, the video games they play, or violence in the media. Think of us as people—thank you—not sheep.

“It makes me sick whenever I hear another old congressman talk about how the music we listen to somehow incites us as young people,” said Matt Jolley. “Come on, someone has to be thinking on a deeper level than that.”

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