Converting a Comprehensive High School into Small Learning Communities: A Case Study of Mountlake Terrace High School

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation



Case Study Sector


To capture the benefits of small schools, a growing number of large traditional high schools are
breaking into smaller units. Mountlake Terrace in Edmonds, Washington, is one example of a
comprehensive high school converting into several autonomous small schools, which will exist
within the same building. This paper is a case study of the initial stages of Mountlake Terrace’s
change process and reflects a work in progress.

Small schools research shows that youth in schools designed to serve 400 students or fewer have
higher academic achievement, better attendance and graduation rates, more extracurricular
involvement, and a better sense of belonging. But few examples exist of successful school
conversions. As with other comprehensive school reforms, the conversion process is extremely
complex. In order to provide a model for future school conversions, this paper recounts the first
two years of Mountlake Terrace’s change process, examines how the staff dealt with its most
difficult aspects, and provides general recommendations to schools, districts, and funders
supporting conversions.

Mountlake Terrace’s conversion process raised difficult questions about changes in leadership,
the equitable distribution of staff and students among the new small learning communities and the
use of school resources. The need to build buy-in and support among the staff, parents, students
and district office posed more challenges. The most salient features of successful school change
are reflected in the following lessons about decentralized control, a multi-level approach that
engages the entire school community, and professional development that focuses on desired
student outcomes.

Mountlake Terrace’s experience provides example and insight into the process of enacting
comprehensive change. Lessons highlighted in this case study are echoed by the research on
school change. They can be applied to schools embarking on a conversion as well as the districts
that house them and the funders who support them.



  • Evaluation


  • Northern America

Blog Posts


Jan 27

JOIN US Wednesday, January 27th at 4:30 PM, on Zoom, for a VIRTUAL discussion on reinventing local journalism with philanthropic and civic capital. Registration is Required