By going smaller, Woodburn scores big gains on graduation rates
Senior Alma Salgado is on track to graduate, and she credits the extra attention she got at Woodburn’s Academy of Art, Science and Technology.
Eleven years ago, the Woodburn School District broke up its high school into four smaller high schools so that students wouldn’t be lost in a large crowd.
WAAST, as it is known, is Salgado’s fourth high school, and when she started there during her junior year, she was behind on credits. She says WAAST staff helped her make up classes as well as encouraged her to get better grades. They also made her feel comfortable.
“Because I moved a lot, I didn’t get to know my teachers, but here there is more connection with the students and teachers,” she said. Now she is making plans for college.
The Woodburn School District has an 88.9 percent graduation rate for 2016-17, 12 percentage points above the state average. The district qualifies for reduced-price lunches for all students, and two-thirds of the students start school while learning English as a second language. Historically underserved populations in Woodburn are graduating at nearly the same rate as the student average.
“We think about what kids need and try to provide it,” said Superintendent Chuck Ransom.
Small Schools Initiative
In the 1990s, Woodburn High School rapidly doubled in size. The school building grew, staff numbers swelled and the student body soared to more than 1,000 students.
“Our staff didn’t really know our students, and our staff didn’t know each other,” said Laurie Cooper, Woodburn’s director of teaching and proficiency learning. She was a Woodburn teacher in the 1990s and was teacher coordinator on the five-year project to divide the high school.
Statewide testing under the No Child Left Behind mandate showed the school was doing a poor job educating its students, particularly students in poverty, according to Cooper. A district committee looked at research into effective education models and determined the high school needed to go smaller.
In 2006, Woodburn High split into the Wellness, Business and Sports School; Woodburn Arts and Communications Academy; Academy of International Studies; and Woodburn Academy of Art, Science and Technology. Enrollment at each runs around 400 students.
The schools share a campus, mascot, cafeteria and sports teams. But the schools are distinct, with different administrators, course options and educational cultures.
A national movement toward breaking large high schools into smaller ones has had mixed results in the past 10 years, with many giving up the model. Cooper said one of the reasons Woodburn’s decision has been successful is because Woodburn has rigorously kept the schools separate, despite the shared building. Students take all their classes in their school, and they are discouraged from transferring to another Woodburn high school. The schools report separately to the Oregon Department of Education.
“When all the teachers in a school can fit around a table, then they are all talking about the same group of students and they are all on the same page about what to do for those students,” Cooper said.
Teachers work across several grade levels, seeing students over the course of their high school careers, rather than having multiple classes of students for only a single academic year. They can get to the teaching sooner in the year because they already know the students’ strengths and weaknesses, Cooper said. Teachers also already know the parents, making that partnership easier.
“The success is not because the high schools are small; it’s what that structure enables us to do in terms of relationship building,” said Superintendent Ransom.
The tighter weave of students, parents and teachers keeps teens from falling through the web of support.
“The whole concept of small schools in a nutshell is that you can develop a better relationship with kids,” said Linda Reeves, a retired educator who is chair of the Woodburn School Board. “We try to create learning environments that meet the needs of kids.”
Blake Kuroiwa is a student teacher in the Wellness, Business and Sports School. He graduated from a large high school, and he says he has been impressed with the way Woodburn teachers get to know students in the smaller setting.
“They find ways to motivate students on more than just grades,” he said.
Wellness, Business and Sports School health sciences teacher Angie McNett has been with the district for 20 years. She says the transition was rough, as planners tried to decide what the schools would teach and how they would be staffed.
“It was nice that the school board made a lot of the hard decisions,” she said.
Teachers and administrators worry that the smaller-schools model limits some student choices. Those concerns are outweighed, though, by the sense they can reach every student.
“We’re a family,” McNett said. “These are my kids.”
Students say they feel the same way. They say teachers check up on them, asking how they got a bruise or trying to find out what might be bothering them.
“If we are not behaving in class, our teachers will call home and ask our parents what’s going on, if something is bothering us,” said Jorge Perez, a senior at Academy of International Studies. “It feels like a family.”
Even though Woodburn has a huge building and sprawling campus, the academies are mostly housed in separate wings. Signs and different-colored stripes on the walls demark boundaries.
“We are two hallways here,” said Juan Larios, principal for the Academy of International Studies. “I can see just about every kid during passing period.”
Superintendent Ransom talks a lot about a community’s ability to affect individual behavior, and harnessing that power to improve student achievement.
“Teachers’ natural tendency is to give everything they have to help their students succeed,” Ransom said. “Schools need to create structures, programs and policies to leverage that natural tendency to make it more powerful.”
Woodburn Academy of Art, Science and Technology Senior Alma Salgado says that with a smaller high school, she got to know her teachers better and that made it easier to ask for help. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
Day 2: Dual-language programs teach students English, increase academic abilities
Day 3: Dedicated college and career counseling helps students through uncharted territory