A new, smaller high school or middle school in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District may be a possibility in the future.

The school board discussed forming a task force to explore small secondary school models and study the feasibility of creating an additional school within the district at its meeting on Thursday, August 9th.

Although there was unanimous agreement on the idea, this was a “discussion item” on the agenda and the board will not take action on forming a task force until its meeting Thursday, August 23rd.

The secondary schools in Santa Monica and in particular Santa Monica High School — with over 3,100 students — are larger than optimal size, district officials say.

District superintendent Dianne Talarico says it seems evident that reducing the number of students at Santa Monica High would “significantly improve the teaching and learning conditions on that campus while also providing another learning opportunity for students in Santa Monica and Malibu.”

The Santa Monica Malibu Classroom Teachers Association union agrees, says union president Harry Keiley.

“The teachers association wholeheartedly supports the creation of the task force and hopefully an outcome will result in a recommendation for a small high school or middle-high school in the City of Santa Monica,” says Keiley.

“Santa Monica High School, a large comprehensive high school, excels — it’s one of America’s top 200 high schools, but at the same time, if we could do anything to reduce student enrollment and provide an alternative curriculum or alternative structure and smaller school, not only will the smaller school benefit, it would be beneficial to the Santa Monica High School campus, which is simply an overcrowded campus.

“By reducing the number of students, it will be a more conducive environment for teaching and learning.”

Talarico points out that current research on school reform validates the success of “small learning communities” — specifically schools of about 500 students.

“It’s a big topic within the educational world,” says school board member Kelly McMahon Pye of small-school models. “I think it’s a valuable exploration. While our current high schools offer an impressive array of opportunities and advantages, no doubt there are some students who may better thrive in an environment other than a large, comprehensive high school.

“I’m excited about exploring the possibility of having smaller schools within our community and examining small school models.”

This exploration will not be totally new to the district. In 2003-04, former superintendent John Deasy, several school board members and teachers union president Harry Keiley visited several small-school models.

Because of the board’s desire to create “additional and optimal learning environments for students, the board established the study of the small-schools concept and proposals” for the district as a performance target for that year, officials say.

As a result of funding challenges, the target was set aside and was intended to be brought back when funding became available.

Talarico says now is a good time to undertake this initiative, with the completion of the Facilities Master Plan and passage of Measure BB ($268 million bond).

“It’s a good opportunity and good timing,” Keiley said.

The task force would study and research small high schools and middle schools and examine the feasibility of this concept for Santa Monica-Malibu.

It would explore models other than a comprehensive high school that would attract students with different interests and provide an additional educational opportunity for secondary students, officials said.

It would also examine the feasibility of creating a smaller high school campus on existing district property, such as Olympic High School, a continuation school.

It would include members of the district senior staff, teachers, secondary school administrators, a teachers union representative, parents, students and school board members.

“What I like about this task force [if approved] is, it’s very inclusive,” Keiley says.

The task force would be appointed by October 1st and would present its findings to the school board in June, officials say.

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