A look at Madison Memorial’s Small Learning Communities

Andy Hall:

In 2000, Memorial became the first Madison school to land one of the U.S. Department of Education grants. It was awarded $438,000 to create its neighborhood social structure. West High School became the second, winning a $500,000 grant in 2002 and reorganizing its ninth and 10th grades around core courses.
In August, district officials were thrilled to learn the district was awarded $5.5 million over five years for its four major high schools — Memorial, West, La Follette and East — to build stronger connections among students and faculty by creating so-called “small learning communities” that divide each high school population into smaller populations.
Officials cite research showing that schools with 500 to 900 students tend to be the most effective, and recent findings suggest that students at schools with small learning communities are more likely to complete ninth grade, less likely to become involved in violence and more likely to attend college after graduation. However, the latest federal study failed to find a clear link between small learning communities and higher academic achievement.
Each Madison high school will develop its own plan for how to spend the grant money. Their common goals: Make school feel like a smaller, friendlier place where all students feel included. Shrink the racial achievement gap, raise graduation rates, expand the courses available and improve planning for further education and careers.
The high schools, with enrollments ranging from 1,600 to 2,000 students, are being redesigned as their overall scores on state 10th grade reading and math tests are worrisome, having declined slightly the past two years.

7 thoughts on “A look at Madison Memorial’s Small Learning Communities”

  1. A couple of brief comments regarding the Small Learning Communities (SLC) initiatives at Memorial and West. First, if the SLC model was truly creating connection and community at Memorial, there shouldn’t be racial tensions amongst Memorial’s students. Second, data from both West and Memorial do not support the argument that the SLC model is improving student achievement or student “connectedness.”
    Data from Memorial – http://www.schoolinfosystem.org/archives/2007/08/district_slc_gr.php
    Data from West – http://www.schoolinfosystem.org/archives/2007/08/district_slc_gr_1.php

  2. Does anyone know if students/families have been surveyed about their feelings towards the West and Memorial SLC initiatives? I’d be interested in knowing how the masses feel more than how one or two families perceive SLCs. East is about to go down the SLC path, though I suspect it will be a different path than the other high schools. I do know that my alma mater, Emory University, has a division that is using SLCs with great success, but that’s likely apples and oranges with a multi-cultural public high school!

  3. “First, if the SLC model was truly creating connection and community at Memorial, there shouldn’t be racial tensions amongst Memorial’s students.”
    I’d disagree. Isn’t there an argument that racial tensions can still exist at the same time that better connections are being made at Memorial? Can’t one view the SLC effort (deferring the academic argument for the moment) as worthwhile in creating greater connectedness, while acknowledging that racial tensions are likely to occur some of the time in any diverse community?
    Are there racial tensions in our country? Yes. Are race relations in our country better than they were in, say, 1961?

  4. Students and families at all MMSD schools are given the opportunity to fill out Climate Surveys every year, and have been given that opportunity for the past many years. Unfortunately (unbelievably?), those data have never been looked at (despite claims in the SLC grant proposals that they would be looked at). Let’s hope that that changes.
    You didn’t ask about teacher perceptions and support, but I’ll mention that there are teacher/staff data in the West analyses, at least. (I can’t recall if the Memorial analyses include them or not.) What it looks like is happening is that — over time — only the SLC-supportive teachers take the time to fill out the survey. It is easy to imagine that the less supportive teachers come to feel “why bother?” because their input has not been valued in the implementation process, which has been very top-down. (That is my best understanding of the numbers. Take a look and let me know if you have an alternative explanation for the pattern of staff responses over time.)
    The student/family “feelings” you ask about are not unimportant; but we really need to be placing the highest priority on HARD DATA (and it only takes one or two families to keep putting the easily accessed DPI data out there, David :-)). Acting on “beliefs” and “good intentions” and such only gets us into trouble, not to mention the fact that it hurts kids and is therefore professionally irresponsible. If you take the time to look at and understand the data, you will see that the changes at Memorial and West have NOT resulted in improved minority achievement; smaller race-based achievement gaps; better attendance, suspension and graduation rates; an improved sense of community connectedness and belonging; increased parental involvement; etc.
    As a social scientist and community activist, I find it heart-breaking. We all care and so we want the SLC’s to work. (We all desperately want SOMETHING to work.) But they are not working. Period. We are pretending that they are working, in part because this has become an us-versus-them political issue. Well, fie on politics, and shame on us for once again politicizing our children’s educational needs. Our priority should be student achievement and well-being — as reflected in the data — not a hollow triumph over community members we don’t like, don’t agree with politically, etc.
    The experts on smaller high schools (for example, Kathleen Cotton) have made it clear how they should be implemented if they are to have any chance at success. They cannot be too big (i.e., no more than 400 students); they should be physically separate from one another; they should be theme or content based; students should be self-selecting into them based on those themes; parental involvement with the school must be high; etc. Some writers say quite baldly “If you cannot do it this way, do not waste your time or your money.”
    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I would be a million times more upset about all of this — the continuation and spreading of a failed initiative — if I were a poor minority parent.

  5. I think that most parents, regardless of income level or race, really don’t care. I’m hoping that some of the administrators care, and knowing Pam Nash, she’s not going to do anything that’s ruinous. Experimental, perhaps.But certainly not maliciously detrimental. I’ve yet to see a huge outcry one way or the other on SLC’s…if anything, in the MMSD, parents who oppose something make more noise than parents who approve of something.
    But, since all politics are local, I’m reserving judgment until I see how they get implemented at East, the school community with which I’m most familiar.

  6. My understanding of the implementation of the SLC grant at East is that the money will be used to fund initiatives already underway to improve student engagement and achievement and there is no intent to follow the Memorial or West model. Since Mr. Harris reorganized away from grade level principals a couple of years ago, the concept of “neighborhoods” divided among the assistant principals, as Memorial has, wouldn’t work within East’s structure.

  7. I have a Memorial student and I interviewed many Memorial students prior to him entering because I was scared for him entering such a large school. I attended a school with a graduating class of 84 and I knew everyone and their mother/sister/father etc…..
    Views I have received over the years are, if you have a good “back-yard” (small group leader) teacher you can make connections. Few including my son,feel this connection. They instead felt a connection with Drama, Music, sports, and other extra curricula activity. I have complained for a while why we don’t invest in say a Marching Band that would provide a community for 200 or more students, and a dance team like La Folletes, and better fund other extras and make them important. My kids hang with kids with similar interest and yes there are kids that fall between the cracks…..but there are enough kids to make it happen….Memorial had a Seinfield club last year where kids came together at lunch and watched Seinfield! These are more connective than a computer randomly selecting students. But I know there are recorded cases of students making connections in these back yards. Just don’t know if you get as much bang for your buck as my suggested idea. I’d rather 100’s of students feel connected than a random few.

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