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SMALL SCHOOLS
WHY THEY MATTER

The Progressive Review

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NEW YORK CITY PLANS TO OPEN 60 SMALL SECONDARY SCHOOLS

ELISSA GOOTMAN, NY TIMES - Sixty new small schools with themes ranging from firefighting to cooking to "peace and diversity" will open next year, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced yesterday. Among the new schools will be 41 high schools, 4 traditional middle schools and 15 schools based on the less common sixth- or seventh-through-12th-grade model. Three of the schools will be single-sex, four will cater to students who are behind in their credits, and each of them will ultimately have about 500 students.

The creation of small schools is a centerpiece of the overhaul of the New York City school system under Mr. Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel I. Klein. Officials hope that carving some of the city's enormous high schools into more intimate learning environments will reduce dropout rates, keep more students interested in academics and limit the number of students who get lost in the thunderous shuffle of high school.

MICHAEL A. FLETCHER WASHINGTON POST, APRIL 2002 - Students who attend small schools are less likely than others to engage in risky behavior such as drug use, violence or early sexual activity, largely because they feel better connected to their teachers and one another, according to a study. The results drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a federally funded survey of 72,000 junior high and high school students, found that when the number of students in a school increases beyond 1,200, students become more isolated from one another, which contributes to a wide range of unhealthy activity . . . In addition, the survey found that harsh disciplinary codes, such as zero-tolerance policies that call for automatic student suspensions or expulsions for offenses such as smoking or fighting, often alienate students even if they foster a more orderly environment. While zero-tolerance policies are designed to make schools safer, researchers found that students in schools with those types of discipline policies report feeling less safe than do students in schools with more moderate policies.

WASHINGTON POST: Education Secretary Richard W. Riley said yesterday that the best solution to violence in schools is not more metal detectors or locker searches, but rather making the nation's high schools smaller and more personalized so that students feel connected to each other and caring adults. Riley's prescription differed from what has been the prevailing view that tighter security measures and student discipline are needed in the wake of school shootings in Littleton, Colo., and elsewhere .... Riley cited a study by the National Association of Secondary School Principals that recommended an enrollment of 600 as the ideal size for a high school. Many high schools, particularly in rapidly growing suburbs, enroll three to four times as many students. Given the expense of replacing large high schools with smaller buildings, Riley said that subdividing existing schools into smaller units called "schools within schools" was another way to "make young people feel more connected." [TPR has from time to time argued for smaller schools. Since the corporatization of education following Sputnik, the number of schools in this country has declined almost in inverse relation to the growth in number of students. This has, among other things, produced monster-schools like Columbine High, where instead of a principal, one needs a combination corporate CEO and prison warden.]

D. KEVIN MCNEIR, OAK PARK & RIVER FOREST JOURNAL: Educators and parents throughout Oak Park and River Forest are concerned about the threat of violence and the increasing achievement gap in their schools. But at a recent workshop held at Village Hall, University of Illinois-Chicago professor Michael Klonsky said the solution is to reduce, not increase, student populations. "There is now a compelling body of research showing that, on a wide range of measures, when students are part of smaller, more intimate learning communities, they are more successful," Klonsky writes in his 1998 publication, "Small Schools: The Numbers Tell a Story." . . . "When it comes to student engagement in learning, anonymity is the enemy," he said. "Large schools, which often process students with bar codes and ID numbers, sacrifice a sense of community and caring, in big schools - whether urban or suburban-students who need supportive relationships often turn to cliques or gangs." . . . Klonsky defines a small school as one with 350 students or less, and said there are two key ingredients to making schools places that are safe and conducive to learning. "All children must be known by their teachers and peers, not just those at the very top and the at-risk students at the bottom," he said. "It's the kids in the middle who often become invisible. And there needs to be a professional community of teachers who communicate with one another regularly and discusses classroom environment and teaching strategies." . . . "When we started the Small Schools Workshop many suburban schools did not accept our system," he said. "They believed everything was fine and did not want to make any changes. But then we had the Columbine incident . . . Since then, there have been seven or eight similar occurrences in predominately white, middle-class schools with the shooters all being white males. And ironically, in the same year as the Columbine shootings, 48 Chicago Public Schools children were killed - but the story was buried in the back pages of the local newspapers."

ETHAN ALLAN INSTITUTE: Thirty years ago Vermont was torn by a passionate debate over small schools. Three progressive commissioners of education, led by A. John Holden, had aggressively forced the closure and consolidation of dozens of Vermont's small schools as possible in the name of "efficiency." As Commissioner Harvey Scribner put it, following the then-popular education school theory, children learn by being exposed to "learning experiences" facilitated by certified educators. Large schools naturally offer more "learning experiences" than small schools. Therefore, children who attend "efficient" large schools will learn more. There was no empirical evidence to support this neat and simple proposition. Of the billions of dollars spent on educational research by governments and universities since World War II, not one study could be found comparing the educational achievements of small-school children versus large-school children . . . So the progressive commissioners (on dubious legal authority) forced the closing of small schools all over Vermont. But now, thirty years later, the education establishment has decided that closing small schools may not have been such a Great Idea after all. Act 60 required the Department of Education to study of the role and value of small schools. That report was released last month. In the words of study chairman Bob McNamara, "small schools do cost more to operate -- the smaller you are the more expensive it is - but they do have a value added because the students in these schools do very well in achievement results." . . . Small schools and small communities have a symbiotic effect. The school is the focus of the community, and parents and community people give generously in time and effort to the school as the community's principal activity. This notion was definitely out of fashion in the 1960s, when education "reformers" sought to separate children from parents and community so that they could be molded properly by high-minded experts free of the detracting influence of untrained and often wrong headed parents and pastors.

KATHLEEN CUSHMAN, PRINCIPAL MAGAZINE: In 1992, when Naomi Booker became principal of Clymer Elementary School in one of Philadelphia's most dangerous neighborhoods, she found many of its 900 students failing in basic skills and being taught by a burned-out staff that expected no better. "It was unmanageable," Booker recalls. In a neighborhood plagued by crime and drugs, where almost all families receive public assistance, only 75 to 80 percent of Clymer's students regularly attended school and barely 10 percent could read at grade level. "I spent most of my day putting out fires," Booker recalls. "Over 400 kids a year were showing up in my office for behavior problems." Today, that number is closer to 40 and Clymer's pattern of failure has been transformed into a pattern of steady success. Student attendance averages 90 to 92 percent and there are few staff absences. Sixty-five percent of students read at their grade level, the honor roll boasts 200 names, and the number of children identified as "mentally gifted" has increased twelve-fold.

Booker produced these results by leading her school through a simple but dramatic structural change. She divided Clymer into three smaller "learning communities," each with about 225 students and its own collaborative team of 12 to 17 teachers. (The school's population had decreased due to neighborhood change and the departure of overage students.) Teachers work collaboratively in the learning communities, staying with one group of students as they pass from the early grades through fifth-grade graduation. Twenty-five staff members-arts specialists, social workers, school secretaries, and custodians-work in all three communities, mentoring students needing extra help, helping to mediate and resolve conflicts, and leading all-school projects like the annual spring cleanup . . . Behavior issues, too, seemingly evaporate before escalating into serious disciplinary problems . . . Although Clymer was the first of Philadelphia's large elementary schools to break itself into smaller learning communities, the city's elementary and middle schools have formed over 600 such communities since 1995 . . .

In other districts nationwide, elementary school principals are considering similar action as they seek ways to handle the steady rise in school size that has seen the average school population increase five-fold since the end of World War II. A push to consolidate schools has reduced the number of districts by 70 percent in the same period. Ironically, this trend toward big schools coincides with research that repeatedly has found small schools - commonly defined as no more than 400 students for elementary schools - to be demonstrably better for students of all ability levels, in all kinds of settings. Academic achievement rises, as indicated by grades, test scores, honor roll membership, subject-area achievement, and assessment of higher-order thinking skills. For both elementary and secondary students, researchers also find small schools equal or superior to large ones on most student behavior measures. Rates of truancy, classroom disruption, vandalism, theft, substance abuse, and gang participation all are reduced in small schools, according to a synthesis of 103 studies.

ROOTS OF COLUMBINE HIGH - Bill Kauffman, writing in Chronicles, supports the argument made here before that one of the most deleterious changes in public education has been the increase in school -- rather than class -- size. Kauffman notes that this was intentional, led by people such as Harvard President James Conant who produced a serious of postwar reports calling for the "elimination of the small high school" in order to compete with the Soviets and deal with the nuclear era. Says Kauffman, "Conant the barbarian triumphed: the number of school districts plummeted from 83,718 in 1950 to 17,995 in 1970."

GEORGE ARCHIBALD, WASHINGTON TIMES - Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates is committing billions of dollars to radically redesign failing public high schools into smaller, more academically rigorous institutions in predominantly black and Hispanic communities in which less than half the students graduate. The goal, says the executive director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is to double the graduation rate for minority students by the end of the decade and quadruple the number of inner-city students prepared for college.

Smaller is better, as shown by New York City's small-schools movement that started in the late 1970s, he said, adding that national school reform efforts need to take into account "a century of success in private education, particularly urban Catholic schools." Other "pockets of excellence" pointing the way forward, he said, are "innovative and highly successful charter schools, including Houston's KIPP Academy, the 'Met' school in Rhode Island, San Diego's High Tech High, and the Aspire public charter schools" in the San Francisco Bay area of California. . . Earlier this month, the foundation gave $9 million to the California community college system to create 15 early-college high schools in the state, each having no more than 400 students.

STACY MITCHELL, INSTITUTE FOR LOCAL SELF-RELIANCE: In 1930, one-room schoolhouses accounted for nearly 70 percent of the nation's public educational facilities. Between 1940 and 1990, the number of elementary and secondary schools decreased from 200,000 to 62,000, despite a 70 percent rise in US population. Average enrollments skyrocketed from 127 to 653.

The trend toward giantism continues. The number of high schools with more than 1,500 students doubled in the last decade. Two-fifths of the nation's secondary schools now enroll more than 1,000 students. Some schools have as many as 5,000 students and enrollments of 2,000 or 3,000 are common.

. . . Today, riding on a wave of real-world success and a mountain of empirical evidence, a full-fledged small schools movement has emerged. It's transforming public education in several big cities and, in rural areas, reinvigorating a long-standing fight to wrest local schools from the jaws of consolidation.
The movement has received endorsement from high offices. In May 1999, prompted largely by the shootings at Columbine High, a school with 2,000 students, Vice President Al Gore criticized the practice of "herding all students into overcrowded, factory-style high schools" A panel of school security experts was convened by Education Secretary Richard Riley. Their top recommendation had nothing to do with gun control, metal detectors or police on the premises. Rather, they said, reduce the size of the nation's schools. Small schools are a powerful antidote to the sense of alienation that can lead to violence. In September, Riley told the National Press Club that the nation needs to "create small, supportive learning environments that give students a sense of connection. That's hard to do when we are building high schools the size of shopping malls. Size matters."

According to the US Department of Education's report, Violence and Discipline Problems in US Public Schools: 1996-97, more than half of small school principals report either no discipline or minor discipline problems, compared to only 14 percent of big school principals. Furthermore, compared to schools with fewer than 300 students, big schools (1,000 or more) have 825 percent more violent crime, 270 percent more vandalism, 394 percent more fights and assaults and 1000 percent more weapons incidents.