For Urban Schools, Smaller May Be Better

By Kate Walter, American News Service | The Christian Science Monitor, June 5, 1996 | Go to article overview

For Urban Schools, Smaller May Be Better


Kate Walter, American News Service, The Christian Science Monitor


As the debate over school reform rages, a growing number of educators argue that America's schools have just gotten too big. The typical urban public school houses some 750 students and some put as many as 5,000 students under one roof.

"For the past 15 years, there has been tremendous dissatisfaction from students and teachers and parents with large neighborhood high schools. Everyone knew they were not working," says Michelle Fine, professor of social psychology at City University of New York.

As a result, a number of bulging urban schools are experimenting with the educational equivalent of "downsizing." These reformers aren't arguing for a return to the one-room schoolhouse, but they do say there's a limit on the size of an effective school. They put that number at 300 to 500 students.

"A good small school keeps the teachers aware of students as people, and students don't slip through the cracks," says Anne Hallett, executive director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, a national coalition of city-school reformers based in Chicago. "The kids also take more responsibility for themselves and each other."

Three years ago, New York City's Julia Richman High School, with 3,000 students, was deemed a failure by the school board. Stretched over several blocks, the school drew students from all over the city, but not from its own silk-stocking residential neighborhood on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Plagued by poor performance, the school had the highest rate of violence in the city.

The board of education and the teachers' union closed Julia Richman and launched six smaller high schools to replace it.

The old building became the Julia Richman Education Complex. It houses four small high schools and will soon include one elementary school. It's also home to a program for pregnant teens; Head Start and programs for teens with children; a college transition program; and a professional development center. Several other new small schools are in renovated spaces in nearby office buildings.

"There are no police patrolling the outskirts of the school or the corridors," says director, Anne Cook, "and the {violent} incident rate has dropped to one of the lowest in the city. …

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