The Small Schools Movement: Implications for Health Education

By Cleary, Michael; English, Gary | Journal of School Health, September 2005 | Go to article overview

The Small Schools Movement: Implications for Health Education


Cleary, Michael, English, Gary, Journal of School Health


Beginning in the 1950s with the Russian launching of Sputnik, American political leaders, influential business organizations, school boards, and the general public believed that larger, comprehensive schools offered students the best opportunities for academic success. Today, approximately 70% of American high schools enroll 1000 or more students each, while almost one half of high schools enroll more than 1500 students each. A growing body of evidence, however, is showing that small schools, especially secondary schools, serve both students and teachers better than the large and often impersonal "factory model" of schooling. This article describes the prominent elements of effective small schools with implications for a strengthened "presence" of the coordinated school health program at the high school level.

In the 1980s, education reformers were galvanized into action by the much publicized "Nation at Risk" which forecast barely literate high school graduates and a workforce ill-prepared to compete in a global economy. (1) Subsequent school reform focused on student standards and increased testing. As these initiatives evolved, researchers and policymakers began to examine the physical and curricular organization of the schools themselves. The resulting "restructured schools" movement calls for changes in organization and governance, redesign of instructional duties, and improvements in teaching and learning. (2)

The most recent example of restructuring is the push for smaller schools. Most education researchers point to the Chicago, Ill, public schools as the "birthplace" of the small schools movement. Created as a means to increase student achievement, reformers subsequently found that many students unsuccessful in large secondary schools "caught up" with their peers after enrolling in small schools. (3) As part of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, the US Department of Education created the Smaller Learning Communities federal grant program to plan, implement, and expand smaller learning communities in large high schools of 1000 students or more. Recommended strategies to create a more personalized high school experience and improve performance include creating smaller "schools" within large schools, instituting career academies, reworking the school day, and employing teacher advisory systems linked to best practices in other successful small schools. (4)

Other national-level initiatives offering resources supporting small schools include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, (5) the Coalition of Essential Schools, (6) and the Small Schools Project. (7) The combination of federal, nonprofit, and philanthropic support has led dozens of school districts nationwide to open new small schools or break existing ones into smaller units. Chicago hopes to create at least 100 additional small schools, while New York City plans to open 200 small schools in the next 3 to 5 years. (8) Hendrie (9) states

   The goal is not only to get more young people to the high
   school finish line, but also to get them there prepared for
   college and jobs. (p22)

EFFECTIVENESS OF SMALL SCHOOLS

Dryfoos (10) cited evidence that these schools result in positive benefits for students, families, and communities that go beyond letter grades. Investigators have found, for example, that smaller high schools resulted not only in greater academic achievement, but higher faculty morale, less student misbehavior, and greater family satisfaction. (11) After examining numerous studies comparing students attending large versus small schools, Raywid (12) concluded that small schools overall had higher achievement, higher attendance, and higher graduation rates and fewer problems with alcohol and drugs. More recently, it has been shown that compared to their peers in large high schools, minority and working class students are more likely to feel connected to their teachers, challenged by their coursework, and believe they are being treated fairly compared to other students.

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