San Mateo's Hillsdale High: Why Small Schools Work

An amazing thing happened two weeks ago at Hillsdale High in San Mateo, Calif. Nearly a dozen ninth graders spent lunch in their history classroom to discuss, with great vigor, key strategies of various World War I battles. And they were doing it voluntarily. They crunched Fritos in between mentions of the Western Front, and gulped Gatorade as their peers spoke of trench warfare. The group referred to themselves as the British Army; in a week, they would be reenacting a WW1 battle on school grounds. The mock battle was part of a freshman history project, but for these kids who ditched lunch to talk history instead of play Grand Theft Auto, the assignment had clearly become all-consuming. Was their water-balloon arsenal big enough to soak their foes? "We'll all have to fill up our stockade at home," surmises a "general" in a Bob Marley T shirt. Will their squirt guns be powerful enough to drive "German" forces back into the eucalyptus trees lining Del Monte Street? "We can hold our guns at a slight angle for maximum squirt," offers a "lieutenant" in polka-dotted sneakers. The most fantastic aspect of this conversation was not that tap water would serve as bayonets. It was that a history lesson--the mere thought of which has lulled many a high-schooler to sleep on their desk--was engaging enough to drive Hillsdale's kids into battle.

This WWI campaign would have not been possible if it weren't for another battle: Hillsdale High vs. The Antiquated Public School System. Hillsdale is the latest experiment in American education, and is one of many large public schools that are adopting a smaller class system in hopes of ending a 30-year slump in U.S. high-school academic scores. It's quite a task, especially when one considers that Hillsdale, a school 20 miles south of San Francisco that draws from San Mateo's affluent hillsides and its industrialized flatlands, had the lowest AP test scores in the district less than 10 years ago.

The school of 1,200 wasn't being destroyed by drugs or gang violence. Like many big suburban schools around the nation, it was simply collapsing under its own weight. "It was near impossible to really reach the 300 kids moving in and out of our classes everyday," says history teacher Greg Jouriles, the man behind the war games. "The other teachers and I read about school reform in books like 'Horace's Compromise' and were talking about it. But reform usually happens in schools that are deeply troubled, and Hillsdale was not that. Still, we thought maybe it is possible to convert a suburban school."

And so began a teacher-led reform to turn Hillsdale into a public learning institution that would push all its students--not just the honor roll--to become high achievers destined for four-year colleges. In 2003, under the guidance of Stanford University's School Redesign Network and with the approval of the district, the teachers and administration began the task of cutting the school into three small, autonomous "houses" with four core teachers to every 100 students. They'd start with the ninth grade, and agree to adopt a common learning rubric in order to create consistency between subjects like algebra and social studies. To finance the reform, Hillsdale would sacrifice electives like ceramics and rely on a Small Learning Community (SLC) grant from the district. Then they would wait four years to see if their first class to graduate out of the new SLC system had really benefited from the radical conversion.

By the time the Hillsdale class of 2007 threw their caps in the air, they had earned $2.6 million in scholarships over four years--the highest amount in San Mateo's Union High School District. Fifty percent of them met University of California eligibility requirements, a huge leap from the class of 2003's 16 percent. And as for the school's sagging test scores? They jumped too, from last place among the district's six high schools to third ("and rising," says English teacher Greg Lance). "I strongly believe this is a movement," says Lance, who helped lead the school's conversion. "Comprehensive high schools say we offer all this, and if your kid has the initiative, they'll find it. But what if they don't? That's why there needs to be an educational movement like a civil-rights movement. I think Hillsdale offers a lot of potential."

Nationally, smaller schools show some sign of higher graduation rates, but only a few schools like Hillsdale have shown significant achievements gains after making the change. Still, educators around the country are intrigued. Groups from as far away as New Mexico and Iowa tour Hillsdale to witness how a giant school can splinter--and thrive. It's even more impressive when visitors realize how diverse Hillsdale is, both socioeconomically and ethnically. Over 30 languages are spoken on the Hillsdale campus, and when you walk down the main quad at lunchtime, you'll find Pacific Islanders, Latinos, African-Americans, Anglos, Arabs, South Asians, Vietnamese and Bulgarians. "The idea was and still is to shrink the world of students and create more coherence," says Hillsdale principal Jeff Gilbert of the school's overall strategy. Gilbert was a teacher at the school before the conversion. "For the student, that means fewer teachers to interact with, and more time with those teachers. On the flipside, the teachers have more time to collaborate with each other. They have more time to meet and make much more individualized plans that are appropriate for each student. It's not rocket science. Talk to anyone about when they learned best, and it's when they knew and trusted the teacher and were engaged."

Kevin Rodriguez often confides in his English language development teacher, Kennet Santana, and admits he would likely have dropped out of school if it weren't for this critical connection. The 17-year-old nearly failed out of his last two public high schools, and started hanging with gang members. "I just never cared before, but now, there are teachers here like Mr. Santana who make me want to do better," says a soft-spoken Rodriguez, whose parents are immigrants from Mexico. He lives in an apartment near the racetrack with his mother, a manager at a dry cleaners, and his extended family. "Mr. Santana helps me. I never had that before." Rodriguez may be a grade behind, but he is now passing all his classes and is on track to graduate in 2009.

Dean Tayara, a senior who transferred into the school in 10th grade from San Mateo High, wasn't failing his classes, but he wasn't thriving either. He was "just sort of there." "I was insignificant," says the 17-year-old. "I felt really lost, no real connections. I asked my mom if I could transfer out to Hillsdale because a friend told me he really liked it. She wasn't so sure because this school used to have a bad reputation. But my GPA has gone from 2.5 my last semester at San Mateo High to 3.8 my first six weeks of Hillsdale. The only drawback is sports, like the football team still kind of sucks, but we're working on that."

But Hillsdale is scoring plenty of points elsewhere, such as in its advisory classes. Hillsdale core academic teachers also run a daily class where the focus is their pupil's academic progress, emotional standing and even social skills. As adviser, the teacher is also in charge of liaising with families of their 25 pupils and helping them plan for college. They serve as a mother hen for two years of the teen's school life until the student moves onto a new adviser for 11th and 12th grade. The advisers, students say, know everything: what they did in third period, who their friends are, how their weekend went. And what the student doesn't tell them, they pick up in conversations with the other kids in their house. "It can sometimes get embarrassing," says senior Tayara. English teacher Chris Crockett says the teachers, in turn, feel more invested in their kids: "There's just a greater sense of accountability," she says, "and it's self-imposed. You just never want to lose track of your kids."

Hillsdale's core teachers like Crockett also hate losing students to daydreaming, which is why the curriculum calls for assignments based in special projects. The mock WWI battle is one example, as is the students' re-enactment of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation trials. "I had to defend an African who had been attacked," says Sydney Ellison, a freshman. "It was really sad, but I learned a lot about apartheid." Hillsdale doesn't track students by ability, so in classes such as biology or English, high and low achievers are in the same study groups. The advanced students help pull up the less motivated, but are challenged by extra assignments tailored for them by the teacher. Structural changes like these in the classrooms--and a more challenging curriculum overall--are why so many more graduates are now prepared to move on to a four-year college when they leave Hillsdale.

But for students of Greg Jouriles's freshman history class, college preparedness or educational reform are not half as important as trouncing the Germans on the "battlefield" adjacent to the school parking lot. They will succeed, they say, no matter how many water balloons it takes. Win or lose, it's a lesson they're not likely to forget.