SMMUSD HDQTRS — A line of parents slowly began forming behind the podium, some rehearsing a prepared statement in their heads, others exhaling heavily in nervous anticipation of speaking before the Board of Education.

To an audience of district officials, parents and even some children, they each started touting a six-year-old educational approach that has personalized the learning experience at Santa Monica High School, strengthening the relationships between students and administrators.

For these parents, it was just the beginning of an upcoming battle to convince the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District to keep the existing House System at the high school intact as officials face the challenging task of closing a gaping hole in the budget.

The scene at the school board’s financial workshop on Wednesday was in contrast to the resistance that the small learning communities concept received when it was introduced as an option for Samohi years before its inception in the 2003-04 school year.

Parents began rallying last week after learning that district officials were considering restructuring the House System to save up to $550,000. The school board on Thursday authorized the issuance of letters to the house principals that they could be terminated or reassigned in the next coming months. Officials have yet to introduce a formal proposal outlining the possible changes.

An equally controversial proposal to cut nurses and elementary school teachers was rejected at the meeting.

The House System concept was brought up about a decade ago but was pushed into action after former superintendent of schools John Deasy arrived at the district in 2001.

All six houses — each of which are named after a letter in Samohi — are staffed with its own principal, administrative assistant, advisers, student outreach specialist, teacher leader and set of teachers from the different disciplines. The houses are located in different buildings across the campus and are designed to allow the student to take a full schedule of courses in the same structure.

The system is considered a hybrid model since some students do cross over to other houses to take classes.

For years before its inception parents and school officials discussed the possibility of developing a structure that would essentially create six smaller high schools on one large Samohi campus, which has several thousand students.

“The goal was to give students a more personal experience,” said Cynthia Cottam, who was the Samohi PTSA president from 2000-2002 and served on an ad hoc committee tasked with examining the small learning communities.

Numerous studies were conducted in the years preceding the system’s inception, finding not only a disturbingly wide achievement gap between white/Asian students with their minority and socio-economically disadvantaged peers, but a perception among the latter population that they were being overlooked.

The response was to look into creating a more personalized high school campus that would allow better interactions between students, teachers and advisors.

“It was not just the House System, but it included doubling the number of counselors, which was major and an expensive and structural change … the Board of Education made, making sure every student felt they could get good advice,” said Louise Jaffe, who served as the PTSA co-president from 2002-2004.

But the concept received initial resistance by the Samohi faculty which was unhappy with the process by which administrators developed the proposal and even some parents who questioned the effectiveness of the system.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association at one point reached a settlement with the district in which officials agreed to hire more counselors to reduce the ratio to students.

Many teachers have over the years come to find positive aspects of the House System, said Harry Keiley, the president of the SMMCTA.

“Ultimately at the end of the day, the teachers are the ones who had to implement and live with the House System so it makes sense that the more we included the teachers in the conversation and decision making, the more likely it is that a reform and change will be effected,” Keiley said.

Among the parents who have embraced the system is Maurice Maxwell, a 1981 Samohi grad whose daughter is currently a junior.

“I was used to the old system and I wasn’t happy with the way [the House System] was structured,” Maxwell said.

He accepted the houses once he saw how easy it was for students and parents to access administrators.

“There’s hands on experience with the students and parents, which didn’t exist before,” he said.

Amy Van Pelt, who has a son at Samohi, said while she placed her faith in the administration to make the House System work, she did have questions on how it would affect the students.

She also wondered whether the system would have an impact at all on her eldest son, who was a junior when the houses were put into place. The difference with the new system is the house principal, she said.

“The overall feeling of belonging is a good thing for all students, whether it’s in their house or they find it in music or athletics,” she said. “Those kids who don’t have (athletics) have a sense of belonging in their house.”

Van Pelt said she doesn’t believe the House System has reached its full potential, adding it could take 10 years before the students can reap the full benefits.

One of the biggest changes that house advocates have noted is the jump in test scores, particularly among minorities and socio-economically disadvantaged students.

The state’s Academic Performance Index Results (API) scores, which measures student progress over the past year using standardized tests, for the 2002-03 school year was 695 for the general population at Samohi. Those scores increased to 772 in the 2007-08 school year.

Scores among major racial groups have also increased. Test scores for African-American students jumped from 569 in 2002-03 to 631 in 2007-08, while Latino/Hispanic students similarly saw an increase from 567 in 2002-03 to 690 in 2007-08. Students in the socio-economically disadvantaged category saw their scores increase from 555 in 2002-03 to 684 for years later.There is still a gap between white and minority students.

“We know we have a far way to go,” Oscar de la Torre, a school board member, said.

Current students are generally complimentary of the House System, finding that it makes a difference in the ninth grade but having less of an effect thereafter.

“After (ninth grade), electives create scheduling variables that make it impossible to create ‘house classes,’” Matteo Fonda-Bonardi, who is in the O House, said. “On the plus side, it gives us a small sense of unity.”

Clare Sim, a junior in the M House, said she hopes that the system can remain intact.

“I get more personal attention from counselors and it makes me feel more a part of the school,” she said. “The house system is really great — it’s one of the main aspects of Samohi that makes the school stand out.”

As administrators discuss restructuring the House System over the next several months, one thing that might be taken into consideration is the fact that enrollment has dropped in the high school over the past several years. One talking point will be what is the appropriate number of houses, Keiley said.

“That conversation is being driven not so much by the desire to eliminate the House System,” he said. “I think there is wide support to keep the House System in place, but the question is if the student population has gotten smaller … what is the right infrastructure needed to go forward.”

melodyh@smdp.com. Catherine Cain contributed to this report

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