Small Schools, Big Benefits

Small Schools, Big Benefits

A big focus for school district leaders should be smaller schools.

OFTENTIMES RESEARCH confirms common sense. And sometimes it inspires commonsense action. That seems to be the case in the Chicago Public Schools, where a special section of the district's Web site makes the case for small schools. In part it says: "The Chicago Public Schools is committed to creating and sustaining small schools as a district-wide school improvement strategy. There is almost 40 years of existing research and literature on small schools which indicates that students in small schools have higher attendance and graduation rates, fewer drop-outs, equal or better levels of academic achievement, higher levels of extra-curricular participation and parent involvement, and fewer incidences of discipline and violence." It goes on to provide a compelling review of research on small schools, which I recommend to readers of this magazine (http://smallschools.cps.k12.il.us/research.html).

The only aspect of schooling for which the research does not overwhelmingly favor small schools is academic achievement. But even in this regard, about half of the 30+ studies reviewed found student achievement in small schools to be superior to that in large schools, while the other half found no significant differences in academic achievement between students in big schools and students in small schools. None of the studies found any negative correlation between academic achievement and small schools.

Safety and Security

But academic achievement, important as it is, is not the reason small schools should be a big priority in American education. The real reasons are safety and security.

Academic achievement, important as it is, is not the reason small schools should be a big priority in American education.

This was made clear to me at DA's oneday seminar "New Paths to School Safety and Security," held last month in New York. Our speakers did not specifi cally advocate small schools as a major theme of the conference, but what they called for occurs best in small schools. (View or download their presentations at www.DistrictAdministration.com/seminars )

Collectively, our seminar speakers pointed out that virtually every school experiences some sort of disorder and disruption, including bullying. In fact, some 10 million students are bullied each year, which is no trivial matter. Bullying humiliates, angers and leaves lasting scars on far too many children.

Our seminar speakers also stressed that students need to feel a sense of belonging to the school community, that they are known, that they matter, that they're not insignificant members of a nameless, faceless herd. In a word, students need to feel a sense of connectedness within the school community. They need meaningful connections to adults and to other students, and they need to be known by name.

Even if there were no research, it's just common sense to conclude that small schools, by nature of their smallness, are better positioned to detect and help hurting students, and to address disruptive behavior before it escalates into tragic violence and abuse. When teachers know virtually all students in a school community by name, it fosters a culture of belonging, accountability, and support.

Research on Connectedness

But we are not without research. There is ample research to support the claim that small schools foster greater connectedness, leading to improved social behavior. A detailed review of research by the Center for Adolescent Health and Development at the University of Minnesota found that "students who feel connected to school are less likely to exhibit: disruptive behavior; school violence; substance abuse; emotional distress; and sexual activity at an early age" (allaboutkids.umn.edu).

And from the meta-analysis on the Chicago schools Web site: "The research linking school size to social behavior has investigated everything from truancy and classroom disruption to vandalism, aggressive behavior, theft, substance abuse, and gang participation. This research shows that small schools have lower incidences of negative social behavior, however measured, than do large schools ... [and that] the social behavior of ethnic minority and low-SES students is even more positively impacted by small schools than that of other students."

Making small schools a priority isn't just common sense-it's research-based common sense. And it may prevent big problems in your district.

Daniel E. Kinnaman is publisher of District Administration.


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