05/05/04 — Small-school idea presented in Mt. Olive

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Small-school idea presented in Mt. Olive

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 5, 2004 2:10 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- Three dozen residents, school board members and county commissioners turned out Tuesday night to hear about a plan to create up to 45 small high schools in North Carolina.

The New Schools Project was begun last year by the Governor's Education Cabinet and the Public School Forum of North Carolina. It is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave the state an initial $11 million in grants to launch eight small high schools.

Tony Habit of the New Schools Project said he has been working with communities, the state Board of Education and the Department of Education on programs to reduce achievement gaps, dropout and retention rates, and to prepare students for college. He said it is critical for the county to create better high schools.

Among the concepts he mentioned was the idea of "theme" high schools, such as health and science, converting large schools into smaller versions, and "start-up schools" on college or medical center campuses. Changing the public concepts is not easy, he said, and even with the best planning some of the programs can take up to two years to implement.

Mount Olive Town Manager Ray McDonald said he came to the meeting to hear "how we're going to get our high school back."

"I have heard through the years that maybe bigger is not better," he said. "I have come to believe that community schools is the way to go."

Lynn Williams, a member of a steering committee wanting a high school built at Mount Olive, asked whether the community school concept is cost-effective in the long run.

Habit said that creating small schools may cost 4 to 5 percent more but when compared with the cost per student, if every child reaches graduation, that cost goes way down.

School board member Shirley Sims said, "My main interest is to know if what we have in mind will fit into your program. We're thinking of getting out of a bigger-school concept and going to a smaller one."

Ray McDonald Jr., the town manager's son and also a member of the high school steering committee, expressed concern about the idea of having a "themed" school and whether that would result in leaving some students behind.

Habit said that the group could do its own research and determine what type of school would work best for the community.

School board Chairman Pete Gurley said, "What I would like to hear is, what do we need to do in order to get some of this $11 million that the Gates Foundation has available? As a board member, I would like to see how we can get some of that funding."

Resident Charles Brown said that it is equally important to consider "how the town will get from here to there."

"We want the best possible education we can get for every child in this community," he said. "What we need at this time is the guidance to get a local community high school to provide the public education for every child in this community."

Habit encouraged the group to submit proposals through the project's Web site. He said there are also plans for school administrators to be invited to share their thoughts and ideas.

"We're going to be looking for folks that really want to do ambitious work in a smaller community and want to make some changes," he said. "It will require thinking outside the box."

Resident Leonard Crumpler said he saw the merits in Habit's message. "Y'all have put a lot of thought into it and these things will work," he said. "We have got to open our minds beyond the straight and narrow."

Habit commended the group for taking the time to research the New Schools Project.

"We're trying to help every single community that we possibly can," he said. "What you're doing is really important. You get the schools you earn, and good schools happen because people get involved."