Four years ago, West Clermont, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, had two traditional high schools with a district graduation rate of about 76 percent and problems with student attendance and behavior.
"We felt we served part of our population well but there was a large part we were not serving well. Students fell through the cracks," says Mary Ellen Steele-Pierce, assistant superintendent of the West Clermont Local School District.
West Clermont retrofitted the school buildings so that each contained five small schools with about 200 to 400 students. Each school was designed around a separate theme, like world studies, creative arts and design, and business and technology. Now, although all the data isn't in yet, the graduation rate is up to 85 percent and student attendance and behavior have improved noticeably in the last two years, Steele-Pierce reports.
Similarly, 14 years ago in North Berwick, Maine, Noble High School "wasn't very good," declares Paul J. Andrade, superintendent of Maine School Administrative District #60. "We had state test scores that were below average and a fair amount of pupil misbehavior. We thought we had to do something different."
So the district, which serves three small towns comprised of about 16,000 residents, "untracked" its single high school, creating 15 "learning communities" of 100 students each, who now meet in a new building that opened three years ago designed around team learning pods. As in Ohio, academic achievement and attendance are up and discipline is down, Andrade reports.
Meanwhile, in New York City, with 1.1 million students in the school system, 42 small schools opened last fall and 60 more are scheduled to open this year as part of a major initiative by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein to boost student performance. And Chicago Mayor Richard Daley unveiled a plan in June to create more than 100 new schools in the city by 2010, largely by converting high schools that don't perform well into smaller specialized facilities.
The movement towards small schools--also called small learning communities--marks a reverse in the course of American education over the last half century. After the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik satellite in 1957, large high schools that featured more courses and new equipment were thought to produce better-prepared graduates who would help the United States win the Cold War. Soon, however, some educators began questioning whether larger really meant better in terms of student achievement, attendance and behavior. In 1974, Deborah Meier, an education pioneer, opened Central Park East, a small school in New York's East Harlem district. Other small schools followed in the city and test scores and graduation rates soared.
Now, with mounting evidence from across the country that they produce positive results, small schools are a big deal in education reform. The small school movement is "mainstream," declares Michael Klonsky, a professor of education at the University of South Florida. He also directs the Chicago-based Small Schools Workshop, which has worked since 1991 with teachers, principals, parents and district leaders to create new, small, innovative learning communities in public schools.
There is no central database that lists the numbers of small schools in the United States, but other figures tell the story. Through its Smaller Learning Communities Program, the U.S. Department of Education has awarded 542 grants totaling about $275 million to hundreds of districts since 2000. The Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, created by the Microsoft founder and his wife, has poured more than $630 million into the movement during the same period to support more than 1,400 high schools nationwide. "Our goal is to increase the high school graduation rate," explains spokeswoman Marie Groark. The foundation reports that more than 150 new small high schools or converted large schools opened last year alone.
Educators say the federal No Child Left Behind law has spurred the growth in small schools. The measure gave new prominence to DOE's existing Smaller Learning Communities grant program to help local school districts promote academic achievement. "School districts are under tremendous pressure to narrow the achievement gaps because of NCLB mandates. They see smaller learning communities as a way to do that," says Klonsky.
In one grant announcement, DOE's Office of Vocational and Adult Education stated that the awards "not only provide support for breaking down large high schools into smaller learning communities but also help ensure that instruction is focused on the core academic skills that students need to succeed." The announcement said DOE, "at a minimum," encourages local education agencies to focus its small schools programs around "a rigorous course of study," especially in reading and mathematics. But DOE isn't ready yet to issue a bottom-line report card on whether SLCs are successful in doing that. "Research to date has found positive impacts on student attendance and reductions in student disciplinary actions, but nothing on improved student achievement," asserts Assistant Secretary Susan Sclafani. The agency is "attempting to ensure evaluations can provide good data on the effectiveness" of SLCs as a strategy for improving student achievement, Sclafani says.
The key to success of small schools, educators agree, is the individualized attention that teachers and administrators give to students who otherwise would be lost in larger, impersonal learning environments. "One of our goals was that every child would become known by an adult within the district," Steele-Pierce says.
"The issue is strengthening relationships between students and adults," states Laurie Levin, director of the nonprofit Institute for Research and Reform in Education. "The approach we take is that every student in a school has an adult who will be with them the entire time the student is in that school."
Are SLCs Good for Rural and Urban Districts?
Levin also maintains that SLCs work equally well in urban, suburban and rural environments. IRRE, based in Philadelphia, partners with schools and school districts to implement a "First Things First" initiative built around SLCs and families. First Things First sites range from Houston, the country's fourth largest city, to rural Shaw, Miss., with about 2,300 residents.
IRRE staff and consultants work with schools as they organize into SLCs, involve families in an advocate system that bridges the gap between school and home, and develop ways to actively engage students in rigorous academic work. Graduation rates rose in Kansas City, for example, from about 45 percent to 70 percent after the program was implemented. Student attendance was up and achievement gaps between state averages and the district narrowed in reading and math.
Klonsky suggests that small schools have their greatest impact "on kids from low-income families and children of color." Small schools can help counter most negative effects of poverty on student achievement, he says. "The strongest benefits of smaller schools are felt by the kids who need them the most," Klonsky declares.
But small schools "are no magic bullet" in education reform, asserts B. Alexander (Sandy) Kress, an Austin lawyer who was an architect of No Child Left Behind. "It's not automatic that a small school is a better school," he maintains. "You can do a lot of things in a large school that you sometimes can't in a small school. You can achieve efficiencies that are important to administrators in terms of shared costs and reduced overhead. I think it's a mistaken view that you are going to get more effective education just because you change from one type of organizational setting to another."
Kress says he is more interested in "the principal's leadership and the direction and characteristics of the school," not its size.
Always A Challenge
Even if you're sold on the small school concept, creating such schools is not easy. "Changing the American high school is an incredibly daunting task," Steele-Pierce asserts. The West Clermont district spent two years planning its changeover but could have used a year more, she says. The planning process included reviews of student data, community forums, student focus groups, and evaluation of national research in best practices.
Professional development remains a key part of the transition. "We're still in the process of training staff," Steele-Pierce says. "You cannot change the structure of a school without also changing the culture, and that is challenging." Often new teachers must be hired with expertise in certain subject areas around themes within the SLCs, says Levin.
West Clermont found that technology--specifically a software program developed by ACE Software of Grove City, Ohio--helped address scheduling, which was one significant challenge.
"Scheduling 10 independent high schools is different from scheduling one large campus," says Steele-Pierce. "We have five small schools with five different bell schedules, and we offer one-, two- and three-trimester classes," explains Dennis Ashworth, principal at Glen Este, one of the high schools. The software allows independent scheduling of each school, Ashworth says.
In North Berwick, Maine, parental and community involvement remains a critical part of the small school initiative. "You need to involve parents early so they don't come out later and shoot you in the foot for untracking the school," advises Andrade. "We had some complaints from parents that their children wouldn't be able to see their friends because they were on different teams." Also, "we hear the occasional complaint that the top kids are not challenged. We run some AP classes to address that," Andrade says.
Meanwhile, in New York, the new small academically rigorous secondary schools scheduled to open this fall will bring the city past the halfway point of its commitment to create 200 small schools by September 2007. Bloomberg calls the plan "the most ambitious new schools initiative in the nation." The environments created by small schools "are safe and supportive and provide students individual attention. Students who attend small schools perform better academically and are more likely to graduate and go to college," the mayor declares.
Most of the new small schools opening in September--high schools, sixth through 12th grade schools and middle schools--will have specific themes such as health sciences, history, applied math and sciences, culinary arts, engineering, law and justice, media studies, fire science and safety, architecture and design, international studies, and the performing arts. The schools will expand year by year but at their largest, none will have an enrollment higher than 525 students. They will be "strong learning communities with high expectations for student performance," says Chancellor Klein.
They also will be located in traditionally underserved communities "that are in dire need of high-quality schools," Klein states. Many will be housed in the city's largest high school buildings, transforming them into secondary school campuses. But some critics point to problems that develop when small schools are housed within large ones. An example is Bronx Aerospace High School, with 161 students who enjoy perks like laptop computers, a $40,000 flight simulator and field trips to an air museum and other places. They also wear uniforms and meet in classes of 28 at the most.
The small school is housed in the 3,100-student Evander Childs High School, one of the city's unruliest schools, where students meet in larger classes, wear what they want, have no laptops and rarely take field trips. Tensions between the two schools have escalated, and the city Department of Education is under pressure to pay more attention to larger schools like Evander Childs and the differences in resources between large schools and small ones.
Klein says the DOE will work to support both the new and existing schools in the same building with management councils to coordinate activities and by providing new funding to the existing "host" schools. The funding will be used for educational support like after-school programs, weekend academies and evening programs, and youth development activities, including mentoring, enriched guidance and counseling.
In Chicago, about half of the 100 new schools to be created will be high schools and half will be elementary. Most will be limited to 500 students. The program, known as Renaissance 2010, seeks to "turn around Chicago's most troubled elementary and high schools," Daley explains. "We must face the reality that, for schools that have consistently underperformed, it's time to start over." He adds that the schools will provide new options in underserved communities and relive school overcrowding in communities experiencing rapid growth.
The plan calls for five-year performance contracts for the new schools, two-thirds of which will be operated independently by outside partners under charter or contract agreements, with Chicago Public Schools running the rest. Business leaders and foundations have committed to raising $50 million to help fund the effort. "This model will generate competition and allow for innovation," says Daley. "It offers the opportunity to break the mold. It gives parents more options and will shake up the system."
The Education Commission of the States, while citing "numerous potential advantages" of small schools, also points to "pitfalls and difficulties" encountered in creating effective small schools. They include laws, regulations and policies designed with large schools in mind; impatience by people outside a school for improved student achievement, such as parents and/or community leaders; staff who do not fully understand and accept why a large school has been downsized; increased demands on a small school staff's time and energy; and difficulties in maintaining long-term stability.
Educators in districts that have adopted small schools agree that the initiative requires continuous adjustment. "We don't have it perfected yet. We still have a long way to go," says Steele-Pierce in Ohio.
"It's not perfect," adds Andrade in Maine, "but we're on our way and we feel that we're doing something good."
Alan Dessoff is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.