SOME districts that set out to establish small learning communities simply assign teachers and students to them at random. In doing so, they are missing a tremendous opportunity. Small, themed schools can be enormously successful as high schools. And the themes can help bring together a group of teachers and students who will make a good match.
Once, we dreamed of comprehensive high schools that would enroll all youngsters in the name of democracy. It took nearly a century for us to realize that the contortions this arrangement required were often anything but democratic. Then the question became, How can we group students in ways that will be democratic? One of the soundest answers seems to be grouping them according to their interests. Set up schools with different themes, and let students select the theme that interests them enough to engage them in a full curriculum. It is possible to devise themes that are at the same time attractive to adolescents, broad and significant enough to lead them into a full curriculum, and not inequitable. Moreover, we can do this in ways that will not penalize youngsters who make poor choices.
Themes play an equally significant role for the faculty. They provide a faculty with something to coalesce around--be it an area of shared interest or a general approach to thinking. And developing and sustaining the theme makes collaboration necessary in order to provide coherence to an otherwise disparate array of subjects. Here are some examples of high schools that have succeeded well at sustaining their themes.
The Alternative School--a school within-a-school housed in Wheatley High School in East Williston, New York--has run a triple-themed program for almost 30 years. (1) Its three emphases are human relations, democracy, and a rigorous program of electives among which students choose. One visitor commented that this is "a school with a strong sense of fellowship and a special graciousness." (2) Students' commitment to the place is truly extraordinary, and that strong sense of ownership is not surprising because students actually run the entire program. An elected student moderator presides at weekly meetings of the whole community, a student committee chooses among proposals from teachers and students for which courses should be offered during each six week module, and another student committee plans human-relations activities, including retreats. Yet another student committee mediates grade disputes between teachers and students. Although applications and admissions are open to all students, those enrolled usually include a number of Wheatley's most outstanding students.
The School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley, Minnesota, otherwise known as "the Zoo School," has the unusual feature of being located on the grounds of a zoo. It enrolls ap-MARY ANNE RAYWID is professor emerita of educational administration and policy studies, Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y., and a member of the affiliate graduate faculty at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. proximately 400 students who share a particular interest in researching animals, learning from zoo officials, and experiencing "a sense of community and a feeling of connectedness with other students." (3) According to two observers, it is that desire for connection--rather than career interests in becoming environmentalists or veterinarians--that lures most students to the school. Every morning they enter a large, open, and inviting space. At the Zoo School, students enroll in an array of interdisciplinary courses, as well as taking part in internships, apprenticeships, and community-service options. These last options are made possible because every seven weeks of classes is followed by three weeks of study and service within a community.
The School for Writing and Publishing, known as "SWAP," was located in Harlem. Though SWAP is no longer operating, it is a good example of a small, themed school. …