It’s been 10 years since Hillsdale High School began its small learning community program and schools across the country have been able to learn from the model.
Four years ago, Fulton High School in Knoxville, Tenn., went through a reconstruction, changing roughly 55 percent of its staff and redesigning the school’s structure as a result of dips in its graduation rate and with few graduates earning college degrees. This is all because of a federal school improvement grant and the fact that school officials were able to work with Stanford University’s Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and San Mateo’s Hillsdale High School.
Rewind to 10 years ago when Hillsdale was redesigned into the Smaller Learning Community model. Principal Jeff Gilbert used to teach at Hillsdale in the ’90s and has been principal for nine years. After discussions with the Stanford group, he said Hillsdale determined it wanted to raise the rigor of its academic program and increase personalization to stop students from slipping through the cracks.
With 330 new students each year, the freshmen class is divided into 110 students that form a small school within the school. Students take math, social studies, English and science classes, along with physical education, an elective, an advisory class and a world language. Students stick with their teachers during the ninth and 10th grades and are a part of small learning communities. Teachers share common planning periods and common grading standards. Right away, Gilbert said administrators saw huge increases in test scores, students getting into better colleges and students feeling safer and more connected. Hillsdale’s Academic Performance Index has increased 112 points since 2002; its Latino subgroup improved by 126 points and its socio-economically disadvantaged students improved by 199 points.
About five or six years ago, because of Hillsdale’s success and overwhelming requests from other schools to come in and observe the model, the school partnered with the Stanford group to standardize about three visits a year, with about 25 visitors at each. Those participating first spend a day at Stanford for an orientation on the school design theory.
Diane Friedlaender, senior associate for the Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, said her organization has been around for about 12 years, but has changed names a couple times.
“We have a very good, ongoing relationship with Hillsdale,” Friedlaender said. “It’s about taking their core, big ideas and thinking about how to apply them across the country. Hillsdale is the only high school we’ve had this collaborative of an effort with. They have been tremendously successful in their approach. At its core, it’s a values driven effort and they’ve so deeply committed to it.”
Former Hillsdale principal Don Leydig did consulting work for the Center for Policy in Education. He met Fulton’s former principal Jon Rysewyk at a conference in Palo Alto four years ago and decided to help Fulton with a redesign based on his experiences at Hillsdale. He just finished up work at Fulton this past June and is now going into retirement.
“They were a really extraordinary group [Fulton],” Leydig said. “I talked to them about how what they’d seen at Hillsdale might fit in to Fulton, then they would go back to Fulton and advocate for the changes they’d seen at Hillsdale. ... This is a more expensive model to run because of the advisories and smaller class sizes. What the two schools have in common is some pretty remarkable leadership that has seen the value of empowering teachers. The teacher leaders are in it for the long run. You won’t see a lot of change at other schools.”
How has this partnership with Stanford and modeling helped benefit Hillsdale?
“I think any time you make your work public it’s a good thing,” Gilbert said. “It creates a positive anxiety for us to have visitors walking around and asking hard questions because you have to be able to articulate your philosophy and program. We’ve gotten very clear with ourselves about what we’re trying to do and it’s really good for us. Being able to work with Stanford and have that partnership has opened up doors to us for getting advice.”
Gilbert said Hillsdale will continue the partnership with Stanford as long as there’s interest. In the last year, he said there’s been a shift in school’s more interested creating professional development programs to get everyone to move to the Common Core Standard Assessments. The new standards call for a shift to more project-based and team collaborative learning, with less time spent on lectures and more of an emphasis on students using technology in classrooms.
About 1,200 students attend Hillsdale. The school received a planning grant in 2001 for $30,000. That was followed by an implementation grant in 2002 for $499,900. It then received a second federal five-year $1.1 million implementation grant.
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