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Tiny Target

The theory of many school improvement initiatives assumes that good schools will thrive and bad ones will improve or shut down.

But economic reality in Syracuse, N.Y., might claim one of the state's best schools.

Solace Elementary School—one of just seven New York schools nominated for a prestigious federal award—is endangered because it is too small to be economically viable in a district that is facing declining enrollment and operating deficits.

But the school's size—128 pupils, K-6, in eight classrooms—is one of the reasons for its recent successes, according to Maria Cimino, the principal of the school on the east side of the city in central New York.

"All of the research proves that smaller is better," Ms. Cimino said, "but are we feasible in this severe budget crunch?"

No, according to a commission the school board convened to recommend ways to downsize the number of schools in the 22,000-student Syracuse city district. The district could save $1.2 million a year by shutting Solace and sending its students to nearby schools, the commission found. It proposed a total of $3.5 million in annual savings by closing two other elementary schools and converting others to K-8 schools or middle schools.

The district is planning to reduce its operating budget by $10.5 million—or 11 percent—for the 2004-05 school year. The school board was scheduled to vote on the school-closing plan this week.

Through a variety of research-based reading and mathematics programs, the school has produced a meteoric rise in test scores. Three years ago, just 41 percent of 4th graders passed the state math test, and 38 percent passed the state reading test.

Last year, all 4th graders in the predominantly African-American school aced the math test, and 91 percent passed the reading test.

Solace Elementary was one of seven New York state schools that the state education commissioner nominated for the federal No Child Left Behind-Blue Ribbon Schools award, which rewards schools for high performance.

While Solace may soon close, Ms. Cimino takes solace in knowing that some of its instructional methods are paying dividends elsewhere.

Two former "lead teachers" at Solace are now vice principals at other elementary schools in the city, and both schools are producing major student-achievement gains, she said.

—David J. Hoff

Vol. 23, Issue 27, Page 3

Published in Print: March 17, 2004, as Take Note

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