Schools within Schools: Possibilities and Pitfalls of High School Reform

By DellaPorta, Chris | Catholic Education, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Schools within Schools: Possibilities and Pitfalls of High School Reform


DellaPorta, Chris, Catholic Education


Schools Within Schools: Possibilities and Pitfalls of High School Reform

Valerie E. Lee & Douglas D. Ready

Teachers College Press, 2007

$35.95, 211 pages

America's large high schools developed for three main reasons. Since the early 1900s, small districts have combined with one another to form larger districts with the goal of cutting costs. This has led to a reduction in the number of secondary schools. Second, immigration and population growth have led more adolescents to enter high school, and stricter state requirements cause more to stay in school. Third, many people desire large schools so that a community's diverse needs can be met under one roof. The past decade has seen the large size of public high schools criticized. Among recent reform ideas is the schools-within-schools (SWS) design.

Schools Within Schools examines successes and struggles in five schools that implemented this new reform. The book is written by Valerie E. Lee, professor of education at the University of Michigan, who has researched the social and academic organization of high schools and the effect on student learning, and Douglas D. Ready, who has studied outcomes of educational policies and practices on equity and access. Their earlier research showed the benefits of smaller high schools on student learning. Lee and Ready sought to answer the question, "How can high schools actually be made smaller?" (p. vii). At the time the authors began their research, the SWS model was not widely accepted. The key idea is that rather than building new, smaller buildings, the large troubled high schools could be divided into independent schools that share the same large building.

The authors provide enough background information that their findings are clear, even to those who do not possess firsthand knowledge and experience in how high schools function. They introduce their discussion of the SWS high schools by describing a more conventional high school so that the reader will have a basis for comparison. Lee and Ready explain that the duties of the principal and assistant principals in typical schools include "complying with federal and state policy, record-keeping, maintaining order and discipline, and fostering positive relationships between the school and the community it serves," while "academic leadership more commonly rests within subject-matter departments" (p. 66). Then the authors clearly show the contrast to the SWS high schools. "The organizational structures of these SWS high schools included, by design, an additional administrative layer: the subunit" (p. 66), or the small independent schools that create the SWS.

Another strength of the book is a description of general characteristics of the SWS design. "The responsibility for teaching and learning in schools resided primarily in subunits in these schools, and the subunit heads' main job was to coordinate their instructional programs" (p. …

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