By Aaron Drevlow & Dan Ralston, assistant principals at Stillwater Area High School; Shelly Phernetton & Kyle Kane, assistant principals at Stillwater and Oak-Land junior highs
Our ninth graders are earning high school credit and their grades are reflected on their high school transcript, and yet they are spending their days in junior high buildings. While our junior high schools have done a great job of stretching themselves to meet the unique needs of learners, we realize that ninth graders are ready for more. And more is just what our high school has to offer them.
Stillwater Area High School is a comprehensive school that provides a wealth of opportunities for students. Families choose our school because of its ability to provide students with world class programs - from nationally recognized music to unique hands-on science courses. Students can choose from nearly 100 elective courses in art, music, agriscience, engineering and more. They can also enroll in more than 20 college-level courses, which allow students to earn more than two years of college credit while still in high school. Not to mention the 25 varsity sports and 45 student clubs that keep our students active and engaged after the school day is over.
Already 15 percent of ninth graders are traveling on a bus to the high school each day to take advantage of higher-level math and science classes or to participate in sports and activities. Even more students are ready for these experiences, but don’t want to leave their own school during the day to participate. It’s time for our community to do what the majority of communities across the state and country have done by moving ninth graders to the high school to access greater opportunities.
While the benefits of a grades 9-12 high school are clear, we also recognize that extra steps must be taken to ensure a smooth transition for our ninth graders and their families. A committee of parents, teachers and support staff has been meeting to discuss how the high school can change – both in structure and in operations – to meet the needs of ninth graders. We’re working with architects to design new classroom spaces, an expanded cafeteria, gymnasiums and even a common area that will serve as a “home base” within the building for ninth graders. We’re reviewing research, visiting other districts, and learning from educational experts about how to create a much smaller feeling for students within a large building. We’re talking about the many ways we can build relationships and help students connect with peers and adults around common interests.
The reality is that big high schools aren’t bad. In fact, some of the most highly rated high schools in the state are even bigger than what our school would be with the addition of ninth graders. Research has found that school size rarely matter in the effectiveness of a school. Rather it is the learning strategies, quality of teachers, curriculum, and relationships that are present that control for the performance levels of a school. Big schools mean big opportunities, and when thoughtfully designed and operated, big schools can also be intimate and welcoming places for students to learn.
We have an outstanding high school already. We believe the addition of ninth graders will only make it better. As a community it’s time for us to celebrate that the size of our high school and the vast experiences it offers our students as strengths that further differentiates us from the competition.