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. (13) While many small school advocates argue that no school should have more than 400 or 500 students, the research indicates that the effective size for a high school is in the range of 400 to 800 students. (14) Despite the concern that smaller high schools are not cost effective, researchers have found that when the higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates are factored in, small schools often incur lower costs per graduate. (15, 16)
ELEMENTS OF SMALL SCHOOLS
Small school proponents are quick to point out that high levels of achievement are not dependent on fewer numbers of students. Rather, a small school is a platform for creating educational experiences that make small schools effective. (17,18) The Small Schools Project, (7) the Coalition of Essential Schools, (6) and the US Department of Education's Smaller Learning Communities (4) program have identified several elements that are characteristic of these evolving institutions.
Small schools commonly employ school-based management practices whereby curriculum, staffing, class schedules, and funding decisions are made as close to the classroom and community as possible. Under this decentralized decision-making model, small schools accept greater autonomy in exchange for assuming more responsibility for their students' success. All stakeholders including teachers, students, staff, administrators, school boards, and lawmakers voluntarily "sign on" to the challenges and opportunities in these unique learning environments. (14) In addition, neighborhood councils are often established to provide input into all areas of school policy. (12)
In small schools, every student has an adviser or advocate who works closely with the family to plan a personalized learning plan, taking this element beyond the typical "homeroom." In some schools, teachers may serve as advocates for the students with other teachers as well as liaison with community and social services agencies. Often, teacher-led advisories meet throughout the week with students to focus on academic goals, problem solving, and team building. Other advisories devote time to mentoring, discussions about specific topics, and planning ways to get parents and the neighborhood involved in the life of the school. Through these and other types of advisories, students are more likely to acquire sustained relationships with caring adults, sometimes over multiple years. (4,6,7,14,19) Washor and Mojkowski (20) state
Most small schools feel a special responsibility, to be accountable to the community, families, students, and themselves for each one of their children. Not only are they concerned about not leaving any child behind, but their practice of personalizing their schools with advisories, learning plans, internships, exhibitions, professional development, and portfolios aims to ensure that no child is left unknown, as a learner and as a person. (p40)
Accountability and Assessment
Like traditional schools, small schools must measure overall student progress on districtwide and statewide tests. In keeping with their theme of personalized learning, small schools also employ performance-based demonstrations that reflect each student's application of acquired knowledge and skills. In addition, projects are usually cross-disciplinary in nature. Many projects involve community partners who sometimes assist teachers in assessing portfolios and exhibitions. (20) The emphasis is on the students' demonstration that they can do important things. (6)
The results of these assessments inform decisions regarding school improvement and professional development. (19)
Identity and Curricular Focus
Small schools, especially small high schools, do not attempt to offer the large "smorgasbord" of courses typical of large, comprehensive high schools. Not only does each school have a special mission and distinctive characteristics, students attend voluntarily and have therefore "bought into" the school's culture and expectations. Many small high schools, for example, are organized around particular emphasis areas such as the arts, math and science, service learning, humanities, and technology. (21) There are even high schools organized around health sciences and health-related careers. For example, the World Academy for Total Community Health (WATCH) High School prepares students to make health lifestyle choices and to advocate for the total health of their families and communities. (22) Active-learning pedagogies support the concept of "student as worker" whereby teachers are more likely to view themselves as coaches and facilitators of student work. Weertz (21) writes
Theme schools principals say a primary benefit of launching a theme school is that it motivates staff members to implement innovative strategies in the classroom. The transition to a theme school often brings cohesiveness to a school's staff and offers new opportunities for leadership. (p71)
Small high schools also are expected to establish learning partnerships with community-based organizations such as social service agencies, museums, colleges, and civic organizations. Successful partnerships enable students to immerse themselves in hands-on "real-world" projects to benefit their neighborhood and also to prepare for life after high school. (23) For example, students at New York's El Puentes Academy helped organize a coalition of low-income residents to successfully block the installment of an incinerator that was going to further pollute their neighborhood. (3)
IMPLICATIONS FOR COORDINATED SCHOOL HEALTH PROGRAMS
Despite their reported academic benefits, there is no evidence that small secondary schools generally emphasize a high-quality health education program or that coordinated school health programs are more prevalent than in large schools. While some health-themed schools and academies (such as WATCH) may in fact make health promotion a priority, the majority of mission statements and guiding principles set forward by national leaders in the smaller-schools movement consistently omit any reference to comprehensive school health education. Because health education is not defined as a "core discipline" by the federal No Child Left Behind Act and because many districts do not routinely assess student learning in health education, it may be tempting for smaller schools to de-emphasize this critical area of the school curriculum.
Highly visible, large-scale reform movements certainly do not guarantee high-quality school health education. As mentioned, New York City seeks to open 200 small schools in the next few years. Even if these schools offered as much health education as their large school counterparts, it would still be inadequate. For example, a recent study (24) by New York Assemblyman Scott Stringer found enormous discrepancies between New York City and New York State health education mandates and actual practice. In addition, the study found that many districts within New York City are unaware of, and unable to comply with, the minimal state and city mandates related to health education. While many district health coordinators indicate a desire to strengthen health education programs in their schools, they claim to be seriously limited by lack of resources and government support.
This report (24) has brought attention to the need for high-quality, comprehensive, and coordinated health education programs. In response, new collaborative relationships between different governmental agencies are emerging to address the issues identified in the report. Reform efforts and new collaborative strategies are being developed around the issues of physical activity, tobacco use, and nutrition. While these efforts and new collaborations are promising, the jury is out as to whether the change required to produce a meaningful transformation will be adopted to address the myriad of challenges that stand as obstacles to environmental and systematic change.
Unfortunately, students will not acquire health knowledge and skills through osmosis, even in an otherwise academically rigorous themed program of study. Only when students are healthy will schools be able to meet the goal they have established for themselves. (25) It is therefore critical that the elements of the coordinated school health program become manifest in the day-to-day lives of students whether they attend a themed school or not. Fortunately, small school start-ups and coordinated school health programs share similar developmental pathways. For example, both need involvement at the building, district, and community levels to achieve optimal effectiveness. Further, stakeholders must be brought into the process at the onset of the planning phase. (25) To ensure the presence of strong coordinated school health programs in small schools, it is imperative that school health councils be created alongside other planning advisories while key decisions regarding resources, curricular focus, and staffing are in the early stages of discussion. For example, members of the school health council could begin by employing the School Health Index (26) to inform the school's physical activity, healthy eating, tobacco prevention, and safety policies. Another suggestion would be to modify the New York Healthy STARS (School Teams Achieving Results Successfully) checklist (27) that was recently developed by the New York Statewide Center for Healthy Schools. Currently, the Healthy STARS awards program is designed to recognize school districts that can provide evidence that they have successfully developed a districtwide infrastructure that supports the implementation of a comprehensive approach to school health. With minor modifications, the Healthy STARS checklist can easily be adapted to assess structural supports for the healthy schools approach at the school or building level.
Because of their shift from a time and credit-based education system to one based on standards and performance, many state leaders supporting small schools may grant waivers from state education regulations. (28) In general, requests for waivers must be accompanied by a plan for implementing alternative graduation requirements. In New York, for example, the State Board of Education has granted waivers for several schools, allowing them to substitute alternative assessment measures for required graduation tests in science and social studies. Increasingly, state education leaders across the country are working with small schools to create alternative methods of assessing student learning across a variety of academic disciplines. (29)
One of the functions of a small school's health council would include examining any request to waive traditional requirements for health education. If the waiver is to go forward, then the school health council should take a lead role in crafting defensible alternative assessments that address the most critical health concepts and skills students should demonstrate. The Assessment Framework (30) could provide a basis for developing rigorous performance-based assessments in health education. In addition, Smith (31) has described several examples of how school-community partnerships are using public health as a focus for student projects and advocacy efforts across several academic areas. Clearly, school health councils (or their counterparts) must be established before programmatic decisions are made rather than merely grafted onto a small school's governance process as an afterthought.
IMPLICATIONS FOR PROFESSIONAL PREPARATION
The interdisciplinary environment of smaller secondary schools means health educators may be sharing instructional responsibilities with other teachers. Professional preparation programs will need to address working in planning teams including the use of protocols, agreed-upon guidelines for a conversation between colleagues about teaching and learning. A protocol makes it safe for teachers to ask challenging questions of each other. The presenter has the opportunity not only to reflect on and describe an issue or a dilemma, but also to have interesting questions asked and to gain differing perspectives and new insights. Protocols build in a space for listening, without the presenter having to continuously respond. (7)
Due to thematic emphases, health education might "look" very different depending on the school. Regardless of the overall curricular focus, project-based learning and other pedagogies must strive to address all 7 national health education standards. (32) University professional preparation faculty will need to provide numerous examples of health education "best practice" that can be integrated into themed schools of all kinds. For example, engaging students in health advocacy projects through the photovoice process (33,34) merits discussion in methods classes. As mentioned, Smith supports the creation of a dynamic public health curriculum because it can accomplish several health-related goals. Smith (31) states
It teaches students about health and how to access health information and health care services. It strengthens students' connection to their school and communities. It exposes students to potential careers in the public health sector. And it is also an effective vehicle for learning because public health can be integrated into the curriculum across disciplines. (p11)
The interdisciplinary nature of small schools will drive many nearby colleges of education to rethink their course offerings and to craft new models of school-university partnerships. Professional preparation programs and ongoing professional development workshops will also need to address how to blend performance-driven assessments with the necessity of preparing students for standardized testing. (5,19)
IMPLICATIONS FOR RESEARCH
The restructuring of the traditional American high school presents several questions for school-based researchers. For example, what does health education look like in themed schools versus others? It is possible that certain curricular themes and staffing arrangements lend themselves to more or less coverage of particular health skills. For example, does health education tend to "suffer" in math and science--oriented high schools and flourish in schools dedicated to activism and social justice? On a related note, does attendance at a particular themed school mean that students are more or less likely to be involved in CDC risk behaviors? As mentioned, some researchers have reported that small secondary schools have fewer problems with alcohol and drags. (12) A recent analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, however, found that smaller public schools have higher rates of depression and a higher percentage of males attempting suicide. (35) The study also found that smaller private school students were more likely to use or threaten to use weapons than students in large public schools. Clearly, more studies are needed to determine the relationship between school size, organizational structure, and adolescent physical and emotional well-being. In the meantime, it appears safe to conclude that every school, regardless of size, can benefit from a coordinated school health program.
STEPPING UP TO THE CHALLENGE
Despite their reported strengths, small schools are not without critics. Many teachers complain that small schools are opening without a clear idea of how to make them work. Some small high schools succumb to the pressure to produce instant improvement on high-stakes examinations and subsequently scale back their personalized, project-based learning. (5,19) A small school's past successes also do not guarantee future funding. For example, despite achieving the district's highest graduation rate and proficiency-test scores, budget deficits threaten the continuation of the Cleveland School of the Arts, a much-lauded grade 6-12 magnet school that has combined college preparation with arts education for more than 20 years. (36)
Regardless of the problems, the small schools movement continues to gain momentum. Health educators have a unique opportunity to nurture a vibrant coordinated school health program in these emerging institutions. We must step up to the challenge.
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Michael Cleary, EdD, CHES, Professor and School Health Coordinator, (firstname.lastname@example.org), Department of Health and Safety. 210 BSB, Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock, PA 16057; and Gary English, PhD, CHES, Director, (email@example.com), Statewide Center for Healthy Schools, 77 North Ann St, Little Falls, NY 13365.…
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Publication information: Article title: The Small Schools Movement: Implications for Health Education. Contributors: Cleary, Michael - Author, English, Gary - Author. Journal title: Journal of School Health. Volume: 75. Issue: 7 Publication date: September 2005. Page number: 243+. © 1999 American School Health Association. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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