Big Time for Small Schools: With the Aim of Personalizing Education for Every Student, the Well-Funded New Small Schools Are Pioneering Innovative Approaches to Teaching and Learning

Article excerpt

With dropout rates soaring to 50 percent and higher in some urban areas, and 70 percent of American teens attending schools enrolling 1,000 or more, increasing attention is being paid to more efficient and viable alternatives to the huge traditional American high school.

Emerging chief among the reform options is the development of "smaller learning communities" a phrase used to encompass the growing number of autonomous small schools as well as programs developed within larger high schools geared toward individualizing the learning experience for students. Backed by research in large part driven by the Coalition of Essential Schools--established in 1984 in response to an early study questioning the efficacy of the large high school--the movement is finding broad-based support from funding sources as diverse as the U.S. Department of Education and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

A single major driving force in the small schools initiative has been the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which in the past decade has awarded more than $475 million to schools serving low-income, minority students across the country. To date, the foundation has made "Reinvention Grants" to states such as Texas and Ohio; to urban areas, including New York City, Indianapolis, and the San Francisco Bay Area; to school reform models such as The Big Picture Company, High Tech High, and New Technology Foundation; and to education reform organizations, including CES and The Institute for Student Achievement (see chart page 36).

Also offering support for the trend is the No Child Left Behind Act's Smaller Learning Communities Program, intended to help local education agencies plan, implement, or expand small learning communities in large high schools. With funding of $175 million for fiscal year 2004, planning grant awards range from $25,000-$50,000 for a single school, with implementation grants going up to $2.5 million for a group of schools. With such major funding initiatives, new small schools are currently in place or starting up in at least 41 states.

The exact number of small schools being launched is hard to track, as "new" schools emerge through charter school legislation, comprehensive high school conversions, and grassroots activism. For example, hundreds of small learning communities are being created out of Philadelphia's 22 high schools. Despite the difficulty in tracking exact numbers, the rapid proliferation of small schools is undeniable. New York City's first New Schools Initiative, for instance, reports 157 small schools scheduled for next fall.

Common Elements

While there are myriad variations on the theme of small schools--indeed, that is one of the hallmarks of the movement--there are also certain common characteristics. Enrollment is one. The identified population range for effectiveness is typically 200-400, with outside limits being 100 (The Met) and 500 (Chicago Public Schools Office of Small Schools).

Other elements common to effective small schools are: distinctively focused educational programs which don't try to be all things to all people; personalization, with each student being known well by at least one adult; multiple forms of assessment, extending beyond standardized tests to include student demonstrations of applied learning; and teacher collaboration, providing rigorous learning for every student. The Gates Foundation's "Seven Attributes of High-Performing Schools" include the above characteristics and add high expectations, a climate of respect and responsibility, and technology as a tool.

Focused Educational Programs

Creative approaches to teaching and learning are an integral focus of the new small schools.

Built from the ground up as a showcase for the use of technology in education, Los Angeles's High Tech High enrolls 180 students from 40 different zip codes, 52 percent of whom are on free or reduced lunch status. …