Jefferson gets a small-school feel

Federal grant would shrink high school’s community for more effective learning

DALY CITY — Jefferson High School’s 1,300 students could get a taste of life at a smaller school with the help of a nearly $800,000 federal grant.

Jefferson High School has been awarded a $799,586 Small Learning Communities Grant from the federal government, money that will be used over five years to expand its “school within a school” pilot program to the entire freshmen class next year. The Jefferson Union High School District board will vote on accepting the grant funding at its meeting tonight.

San Mateo’s Hillsdale High School has been operating such a program since the 2003-04 school year, when its entire freshmen class joined into smaller “houses” to take the same core classes and forge multi-year relationships with teachers. Hillsdale has so far been one of the few schools nationally to expand the program to encompass the entire student population but is working to maintain funding.

Forty freshmen and 80 sophomores take part in the “school within a school” program at Jefferson, which creates smaller classes for the core subjects math, English, and literacy, Superintendent Michael Crilly said. Oceana High School in Pacifica has something similar in the freshmen and sophomore classes, he added.

“This then kind of launches us in the direction to dothis schoolwide,” Crilly said, noting that science would be added to the list of core classes. “What you're really trying to do is create a sense of community that is more easily engendered in a smaller school, but you’re trying to do that in a larger school.”

Board member David Mineta, who worked on the grant application, and Crilly both emphasized that smaller learning communities didn’t necessarily mean smaller student-to-teacher ratios because that would require more space and, subsequently, more money than they have.

Mineta said the money would go in part to staff development and assisting teachers during the school day by, for example, having them teach in pairs. Teachers would also have common preparation times to sit down and go over lesson plans and talk to each other about individual students and their development.

“By concentrating on the teachers and smaller units, we think it could make a big difference,” Mineta said.

Jefferson has struggled to raise its test scores and presents a challenge to educators due to the social and economic diversity of students there.

Spencer Holeman, founder of Children’s Empowerment Inc., a nonprofit that offers teenagers academic help and career advice, works with Jefferson on their “school within a school” program. He said part of the success of the program — 91 percent of the 80 sophomores last year passed the English part of the California High School Exit Exam on the first try, he said — came from the teachers having the “opportunity to sit down and talk to each other about their students.”

“All the teachers work together, and a [Children's Empowerment, Inc.] person contacts the family when a student starts to fail so no one slips through the cracks,” Holeman said.

The federal grant comes on the heels of a $50,000 state High Priority Schools Grant awarded this year to reshape the academic focus and school program to increase student success and scores, Crilly said.

If the school’s plan is accepted, then they'll receive approximately $400 more per student during the next four years, Crilly said.