Originally published March 12, 2013 at 6 a.m., updated March 12, 2013 at 9:38 a.m.
SAN DIEGO Ideas about improving public education come and go. Few people know that better than students and staff at Crawford High School in City Heights, which has been reorganized twice in the last eight years.
Smaller schools were supposed to solve Crawford High School's academic and enrollment problems. Now, being a traditional high school is supposed to do the same.
In 2003 San Diego Unified got an $11 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to break up Crawford, San Diego and Kearny High Schools into small schools. At Crawford, which was scarred by graffiti and racial tension, now-Vice Principal Debra Brown remembers community meetings about the new schools overflowed.
“It was like a revitalization in the neighborhood, something that, you know, our neighborhood school is going to do these great things,” she said.
Each of the four new schools at Crawford had its own academic focus and its own principal and staff. The small schools were supposed to raise test scores and put an end to student fights.
But academic improvements didn’t materialized equally. And in December 2011, with the Gates money long gone and the district facing a budget shortfall, the school board decided to turn the campus back into one, large traditional school.
Crawford staff and students, like Eleventh Grader Said Shaba, were at the meeting to protest.
“When you think of Crawford, the first thing people think of is an under-performing school," Shaba told schools trustees. "Those people couldn’t be more wrong. Thanks to the small school format and the personalized education, Crawford finally has the ability to compete with other schools.”
Shaba said you could see the school improvement in packed math tutoring sessions and growing participation in sports teams. But Phil Stover, the district’s business manager laid out a convincing case for changes.
“Crawford has lost almost 500 students in the last decade," he said "Right now it has a 38.5 percent market share of the students that live within its attendance boundary and we see some disparity between the API scores of several of the schools.”
Stover said parents in the community wanted the expanded course offerings that a large, traditional high school could offer.
The Gates Foundation funded the creation of small high schools all over the country. And when the grant money ran out and expected gains didn't materialize, many school districts made the same decision San Diego Unified leaders made about Crawford, and other small schools campuses they have reconsolidated in recent years.
Crawford's new principal, Ana Maria Alvarez, said the reformed, traditional Crawford is already offering some of the things that the small school model couldn't.
“We added three additional positions to increase our language offerings, increase our science offerings," she said. "They had a component with band, but one of the things we saw with our students, many of our students were leaving Mann, our middle school and going to Patrick Henry because they wanted to do band, orchestra, those types of things.”
The school has also kept many of the unique electives from the smaller schools' academic focus areas, like medial sciences, law and business, multimedia design and engineering.
Student government Advisor Kelsey Butcher has been a Crawford teacher for 12 years. She said the staff is trying to preserve the best of what the small schools setting offered.
“The educators on the campus, the staff, everyone, has felt what it feels like to know your kids on that level and they can see the power that comes from that," she said.
But counselor Dan Dadmun believes those intentions can’t make up for the fact that he just doesn’t know nearly all of the kids on the campus now.
“I’d walk into a classroom to talk to one kid and I’d see another kid and go, 'oh yeah, I need to talk to him and go talk to that kids afterwards,'" he said. "And I don’t have that opportunity as much now.”
Still, staff like Anna Asaro Baker, who manages the school’s finances, said they don’t miss the politics and confusion of dealing with four principals sharing one high school campus. In the past she had to wait for each principal to sign off on orders or student activities.
“Now there’s one person in charge of it. I meet with the principal on a weekly basis, we review these things and it just moves quickly,” she said.
Even Said Shaba, that protesting eleventh grader, said some good things have come of it. He’s now the school’s first solo student body president in eight years.
“If we have a good idea, we can just talk about it that day and we can make it happen and it’s a whole lot easier to meet with everyone with all the Associated Student Body together,” he said
During lunch hour in the school quad students said a lot of what they feared hasn’t materialized. There are just new teachers and students in their classes and some of the classes are bigger.
But Junior Ruweda Ali isn’t impressed with the new set up. She used to be in the campus’s law and business school.
“Four small schools was better because it gave each student an opportunity to choose a career goal on where they wanted to be and what they wanted to do in high school,” she said.
Efren Medina was in the school focused on medical sciences, the highest performing of the small schools, according to state standardized tests. He misses the personalization and the challenge.
“I felt like having the four schools was a good idea because you got to focus on your own specific teachers," he said. "It was kind of a challenge to get better grades.”
Whether the turmoil was worth it won’t be clear for years. ECurrent enrollment at the campus is down about 75 students from this time last year according to district attendance reports and the first year of test score data won’t be available until the fall.
There are still small high schools at the Kearny and San Diego High campuses but school board members voted to consolidate two of the San Diego campus schools last month.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is now focusing its education giving on programs aimed at improving teacher quality, supporting the new voluntary national Common Core curriculum standards and promoting digital innovation in the classroom.
This story has been corrected. It previously stated enrollment at Crawford declined by 300 students over the last year. The campus has about 75 fewer students now than a year ago and about 560 students fewer than the 2004-05 school year, when the campus was first divided into four small schools.