A few years ago, Marysville Pilchuk High School, one of the largest high schools in Washington state, had 3,000 students crammed into a building designed for a little more than half that many. Students were getting lost in the crowd: In the 2007-08 school year, the state-calculated graduation rate was 50.8 percent. School district officials decided that when it was time to upgrade, it was also time to downsize.
The school was split into eight schools. Half of the old Pilchuk campus’s students now attend four smaller schools on the new Getchell campus, one focused on science, one on communications, one on entrepreneurship, and one on construction and engineering. Small schools received attention from foundations and nonprofit groups earlier this decade. Though that attention has trailed off, Lawrence Nyland, the superintendent of the 11,000-student Marysville school district, says that small schools have made a world of difference in Marysville.
“Students know each other, they know their teachers, teachers know students. It’s so much harder for students to fall through the cracks in this kind of new environment,” he says. The district’s high school graduation rate climbed to 77 percent in 2009-10 (72.3 percent by the new federally approved method of calculating graduation rates).
Jamie McDonald, 17, is a senior at the Getchell campus’s School for the Entrepreneur. “I came here as a sophomore,” she says, “and I automatically felt such a difference.”
For example, the school’s library now doesn’t require students to use a checkout system. Its loss rate is only about 3 percent higher than at a neighboring school that still has a traditional library.
The school was designed with a number of guiding principles in mind, and principle No. 1 was relationships. In addition to the construction of four smaller buildings, the Getchell campus has design features intended to foster trust and collaboration between students. Open glass doors, through which students can view the outside, “were a big deal for about two days, and then the distraction was gone,” says Nyland. They allow students to work together or outside, or to see if the library area is free.
Even the school’s eating spaces are designed to increase the “family feeling,” Nyland says. Students can choose between a smaller or a larger cafeteria area.
The smaller schools, more open design, and guiding principles all tie together, he says. “If there’s more engagement,” says the superintendent, “students are less likely to be a behavior problem, more likely to stay in school and to be able to do what they want to do next.”