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North Chatham High School needed regardless of expansion of Northwood

By Jeffrey Starkweather
Posted Tuesday, April 10, 2007

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Pittsboro, NC - Dear School Board members: Thanks for your frank discussion the other evening about future high school facilities for eastern Chatham and your willingness to allow citizens, such as myself, to speak during your discussion.

While I understand your desire to explore all options was one of the basis for your consideration of a possible expansion of Northwood High School, I believe we cannot afford to abandon the need for the NE Chatham high school, whether or not we add an addition to Northwood High School.

While I am only speaking for myself, let me preface these remarks to explain my organizational interests. As Executive Director of the North Carolina Smart Growth Alliance, headquartered in Pittsboro, I am concerned that we build schools as part of communities, that we avoid placing them so as to induce further sprawl in Chatham, and that we locate new schools near population centers to reduce transportation costs, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. As chair of the Chatham Coalition, a political action committee supporting candidates on the basis of managed growth and a sustainable economy and communities, I went door-to-door canvassing in North Chatham. During that canvassing and in other election events, there was no question that one of the two highest priority issues for citizens we talked to was education: e.g. paying for it, overcrowding and the need for a North Chatham high school. Of course, the other high priority issues were managing growth. Clearly both are related. Also, as a board member of the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation I am aware that quality public schools are a community’s most important form of infrastructure needed to attract good paying jobs. Finally, as a member of the county chapter of the NAACP, I attended a meeting last week in Siler City where Dr. Hart was quizzed about the gap in end-of grade testing scores between minority and white students. Those scores somewhat shocked me. Let me quickly explain.

At the elementary and middle school levels in Chatham last year only 62.6 % of males and 67.8 % of females passed both the reading and math end of grade tests. The gap between black and white students was 33.6%. Coincidentally, the gap between economically disadvantaged and the rest of students was virtually the same margin [28.7%]. Those are unacceptable numbers if we want to attract higher quality jobs to replace the thousands of low paying manufacturing jobs were are losing, as well as bring in new jobs to balance our tax base with the rapid influx of residential units, which in the aggregate do not pay for themselves.

The high school results were slightly better for end-of-course testing, 73.2% for boys and 72.6%. However, these figures are clearly inflated by absence of dropouts., since only 67.1% of students entering the ninth grade graduate, according to recently revised figures. The comparative passage rates for white and black students’ narrows to 28.7 at the high school level, again probably explained by drop-outs.

See #6 below on the importance of the quality of our public schools to economic development.

All this leads me to the issue facing the school board concerning location and size of new high school facilities in eastern Chatham. As educators we are supposed to be instilling in our children critical thinking skills. These include making sure you can state the question or hypothesis in such a way that it can be empirically tested. Here where we do not have an empirical basis to test the impact of school size and location on student performance. Thus, we must rely on professional research literature from education facilities studies. To put this simply, we must learn from what researchers and educators have learned from studying other communities across that state and country that have faced similar circums public policy, of course, we have to add another element - community input. But even here the input is less valuable when the citizens are not informed about the research and evidence from other communities. Finally, and most importantly, critical thinking requires an open mind and willing to “think outside the box.”

For that reason, I have provided below internet licks to research and experience from across the county that you can use to help guide these difficult decisions. This research comes to two principal conclusions; 1] Use smart growth principals in locating schools, which means locating those schools, as best you can, in existing communities and as close to large population concentrations as possible. This approach allows a school district to cut down on transportation and helps make our schools integral parts of the community; 2] School sizes matters and smaller high schools [500-800] generally produce better quality education outcomes than larger outcomes, without sacrificing educational choice and quality. From one of the studies cited below the research literature on school size show that smaller high schools [400 to 800 students] provides the following advantages: students learn well and often better; violence and behavior problems diminish, attendance is higher, dropouts fewer; extracurricular participation increases, and poor and minority students benefit the most. However, if you are going to have high schools larger than 800 students then it is imperative for student success that you disaggregate the student body into several smaller learning communities [see item # 2 below].

Let me briefly summarizes the research that you can directly access through the internet that I have outlined below: 1] The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities provides a host of PDF downloadable research articles on both school size and smart growth issues (Attached]; 2] The Impact of Smaller Learning Communities as a Single Site Initiative – doctoral dissertation studying smaller learner centers in the eastern NC high school. 3] New Study Says NYC Small High School Reforms Boost Student Performance: A look at four years of experience of small high school in NY City[Attached]; 4] Are small schools better? School Size considerations for safety and learning: Policy Brief of West Ed saying size matters because smallness invites stronger personal bonds, greater parent and community involvement, simplicity and focus, improved instructional quality and teacher working conditions and job satisfaction and built-in accountability. 5] School Size, School Climate and School Performance, 1996 analysis of 103 research documents concluded that small schools – at least for poor and minority students

– is at least equal and often superior to that in large schools. No study found large-school achievement superior. [Attached] 6] Public Schools and Economic Development: What the Research Shows. Consensus among researchers that quality public schools enhance workforce development and high paying jobs and raises property values. And 7: Smart Growth and Schools: Environmental Protection Agency. Numerous research and policy articles show that local government are looking to do a better job locating schools where they cut down on transportation and air pollution and promote community involvement.

Applying this research to the facts on hand here in Chatham leads me ask you to carefully explore an alternative site to the Jack Bennett for locating a school in Northern Chatham before you make a decision about possibly expanding Northwood High School. Here are some of my concerns:

Size and community ownership: Both my grown children graduated from Northwood High School that last in 1996. For eleven years when I ran a newspaper I spent considerable time at all three county high schools. During the six overlapping years my children attended Northwood I attended sports events and other events at all three schools. Based on years of observing the school climate and culture of all three high schools in the county is no question in my mind that locating Northwood out of the country away from a real community has hurt the sense of community involvement in that school, particularly compared to Jordan Matthews and Chatham Central. By the way, I was the last person to see the inside of the old Pittsboro High School in the mid-1970s before it was burned to the ground at the site of our current jail in Pittsboro. I was there taking photos. I was amazed what an interesting inside courtyard design it included. Hundreds of graduates of that school came to the burning with tears in their eyes. All wanted a souvenir brick. Would graduate come to the burning of Northwood High School? Would anyone shed a tear? I doubt it.

School size and organization: My personal experience and the education research I have reviewed back up the need of Chatham officials to be extremely leery building large high schools. Look at the drop out rates for poor and minority children in Chatham? Those dismal statistics will only get worse with a large high school. One of the best ways to keep students engaged is for them to be involved in extra-curricular activities. That diminishes with increased school size. However, if we are going to consider expanding Northwood [e.g. regardless if needs upgrading] we should make sure we design smaller learning communities with the school.

Travel costs, energy uses, air pollution and global warming: Clearly the smaller the high school the more likely students will travel a shorter distance to get to and from the school. Before we get too excited about costs saving with expanding Northwood, there needs to be an analysis of the transportation, road traffic and air pollution saved or prevented if a new school were located in the new ideal location – Fearrington area on 15/501.

Traffic at Northwood: It seems that there is a possibility of a real traffic nightmare along our major north/south highway in eastern Chatham if Northwood is expanded. If another entrance/exit is located along 15/501 this would appear to greatly enhance traffic congestion and safety concerns. Also, you need to factor in what type of development will go in across the highway from Northwood.

Real estate values and economic development: We are essentially building a town in the Briar Chapel/ Fearrington area and it seems from both a job attraction and home values standpoint that having a high school in that area will be an economic development attraction for the county.

Land Banking: Again, if the school board decides to expand Northwood and, thus, delay the building of a Northeast Chatham high school, then as a minimum we should simultaneously purchase the land needed for a future high school in the new ideal area: Briar Chapel/Fearrington.

Given the statistics on the economic development of public schools to a community, I do not believe saving on up-front costs of the school should be our first or primary goal. Would a business person scrimp on the most important investment need of their business? I believe this philosophy of putting off the future needed investments for sustainable prosperity that we have been operating under for the past 30 years in Chatham has put us in the economic and fiscal bind that we now find ourselves. Add to that totally irresponsible residential development approval mania that was allowed to occur during the last four years without long-range planning and foresights, and this county is at a crossroads. We can no longer afford to make decision on the fly with only considering current conditions and outlooks. Just as we must educate the next generation of students in our schools to be prepared for a changed world that requires adaptability, flexibility, tolerance of diversity, critical thinking, and an open mind, so must the elected and community leadership of the county use the same skills and approach in tackling these difficult and complex public policy issues that we are asking of our students. I have confidence that the new leadership of both our county schools and county government are approaching these difficult problems with those types of skills and that approach.


Facilities research on school size, smart growth and impact of public schools on economic development

1National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities:

School Size-Small Schools:
Smart Growth and Schools:

2. The Impact of Smaller Learning Communities as a Single-site Initiative: a Case Study.

Baldwin, Christina (Doctoral Dissertation, East Carolina University, Greenville, Mar 2006)

Describes one eastern North Carolina high school's initiative to implement Smaller Learning Communities as a strategy for strategic change. The study revealed that the implementation of SLC's elevated expectations within the school and community. The SLC's provided support for all stakeholders through structured systems that increased leadership capacity, self-efficacy, and personal and professional growth. As SLC's were created, learning communities formed that acted as catalysts of change within the school and district. The greatest gains in student achievement were experienced by students specifically in SLC structures. Students benefited most when SLC structures and strategies were implemented. Teachers' level of collegial support was greatest for those involved in SLC structures. Parents and community members viewed the SLC implementation as providing a specialized experience for the high school students and viewed the restructuring in a positive light. It was found that SLC implementation was very time-intensive for teachers and administrators, with SLC administration and teachers feeling isolated. Interestingly, they were deeply committed even though implementation was time-intensive. 281p.

Report NO: 3205620 ISBN: 978-0-542-55571-8 TO ORDER: Proquest, 300 North Zeeb Road, P.O. Box 1346, Ann Arbor, MI, 48106-1346; Tel: 734-761-4700, Toll Free: 800-521-0600, email:

3. New Study Says NYC Small High School Reforms Boost student Performance:

(01/30/2007) High Expectations, Extra Support Prepare Students for Postsecondary Success: A report examining the first group of the new small schools in New York City that opened four years ago finds that those schools are making significant progress with impressive graduation rates.

4. Are small schools better? School Size considerations for safety and learning: Policy Brief 2001 [WestEd: Improving education
through research, development, and service,]

Recent school shootings have intensified concerns that many students get lost in large, impersonal schools and some become tragically alienated. At the same time, the push for higher achievement and the quest to narrow the achievement gap between poor students — who are often African American and Latino — and those from middle-and upper-income families have led to questions about the role school size plays in student learning.

Major benefits found to derive from small schools are: * students learn well and often better; violence and behavior problems diminish * attendance is higher; dropouts fewer; * extracurricular participation increases * poor and minority students benefit the most

Why Size Matters * strong personal bonds * parent and community involvement * simplicity and focus * improved instructional quality * improved teacher working conditions and job satisfaction * built-in accountability

Conclusion: Small schools are not a panacea, but they may be a key ingredient of a comprehensive approach to student success. Especially for high schools, which often seem impervious to change, small size is increasingly becoming part of any serious reform effort. Attention to size may be particularly important in turning around low performance and giving poor and minority students the extra boost that a community of caring, competence, and high expectations offers. Finally, a more-human scale is a potent antidote to student alienation. While impersonal bigness may actually provoke disruptive or violent behavior, small schools conducive to trust and respect tend to defuse it.

5. School Size, School Climate, and Student Performance, May 1996, by Kathleen Cotton [] [See Attachment]

Summary and Conclusion

Our data, based upon general tendencies, persist in repeating a single message—smaller seems to be better.

— Robert W. Jewell, 1989

The following list highlights the major points identified in this paper:

1 School consolidation has been carried out through much of this century, resulting in many fewer and much larger schools and school districts. Consolidation efforts continue into the present time.

2 The research base on the relative effects of large and small schools is large and quite consistent. The research base on the effects of school-within-a-school (SWAS) arrangements is smaller and less conclusive.

3 There is no clear agreement among researchers and educators about what constitutes a "small" school or a "large" school. Many researchers, however, indicate that an appropriate and effective size is 300-400 students for an elementary school and 400-800 students for a secondary school.

4 Much school consolidation has been based on the beliefs that larger schools are less expensive to operate and have higher-quality curricula than small schools. Research has demonstrated, however, that neither of these assertions is necessarily true.

5 Academic achievement in small schools is at least equal—and often superior—to that of large schools.

6 Student attitudes toward school in general and toward particular school subjects are more positive in small schools.

7 Student social behavior—as measured by truancy, discipline problems, violence, theft, substance abuse, and gang participation—is more positive in small schools.

8 Levels of extracurricular participation are much higher and more varied in small schools than large ones, and students in small schools derive greater satisfaction from their extracurricular participation.

9 Student attendance is better in small schools than in large ones.

10 A smaller percentage of student drop-out in small schools than in large ones.

11 Students have a greater sense of belonging in small schools than in large ones.

12 Student academic and general self-concepts are higher in small schools than in large ones.

13 Interpersonal relations between and among students, teachers, and administrators are more positive in small schools than in large ones.

14 Students from small and large high schools do not differ from one another on college-related variables such as entrance examination scores, acceptance rates, attendance, grade point average, and completion.

15 Teacher attitudes toward their work and their administrators are more positive in small schools than in large ones.

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