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September 1, 1999
Vol. 57
No. 1

In Chicago / Countering Anonymity Through Small Schools

Small is better when it comes to school size—especially when a change in size alters the relationships within schools, leads to teacher collaboration and student visibility, and establishes true learning communities.

Instructional Strategies
When it comes to student engagement in learning, anonymity is the enemy. Large schools, which often process students with bar codes and ID numbers, sacrifice a sense of community and caring. In big schools—whether urban or suburban—students who need supportive relationships often turn to cliques or gangs. The Littleton, Colorado, shootings have revived a focus on small schools—supportive communities for kids where caring adults play a leading role.
Chicago educators are countering anonymity with new, smaller public schools that have been restructured and recultured into small learning communities that focus on personalized instruction. Since the mid-1990s, they have created 130 small-by-design elementary and secondary public schools. Most are schools-within-schools, others have found their own sites, and still others are charter schools and alternative high schools. Each has its own curricular focus or theme and a commitment to knowing each student as an individual. Many have strong partnerships with universities, museums, or community development agencies. Chicago's small schools have sprung up throughout the city and reflect the range of student and teacher interests.
About 10 percent of Chicago's 420,000 public school students now attend schools that are intentionally small. Enough restructuring experience is available for researchers (Bryk, Easton, Kerbow, Rollow, & Sebring, 1993; Bryk et al., 1995; Anderson, 1998; Chicago Panel on School Policy, 1997; Small Schools Coalition, 1999) to conclude that the small schools are out-performing the big schools in many important areas, including measurable student achievement, improved attendance and course-passing rates, and, most important in the aftermath of Littleton, the creation of safer environments. Not surprisingly, one immediate result of small-school restructuring is a reduction in violent or disruptive behavior on the part of students, which small-schools teachers attribute to a greater sense of ownership of a school by its students.
In Chicago, a small-schools movement, replete with networks and coalitions, has brought educators together with business and university partners and has garnered generous foundation support as well. Chicago Public Schools has established an office for small schools and a point person reporting directly to the Chief Education Officer.

A Look at Four Small Schools

At Best Practice High School—one of three small schools housed in the former Cregier High School—field internships are the distinctive feature. Every student works one day a week in a museum, library, health institution, or community service agency. In a conventional high school with, say, 1,200 students, this arrangement would be a forbidding logistical task or would be available to only a small slice of the student body. The small population of 150 students allows each young person to explore his or her needs and interests. An additional fringe benefit for the teachers is a common free day for planning and professional development.
Telpochcalli School serves the Mexican immigrant neighborhood known as Little Village. The curricular focus at this K–8 school is Mexican cultural heritage, with an emphasis on the visual and performing arts. Through a partnership with a local museum, the school provides high-caliber studio arts instruction to its 240 students.
Telpochcalli began life as a teacher-initiated school-within-a-school in a building serving 1,300 students. Space was at such a premium that art projects were difficult at best. Telpochcalli parents and teachers canvassed the area and identified a vacant wing of a nearby school. The school system agreed to rehabilitate this dilapidated space for use as a small school with its own administration and budget. In its new location, the school has art, dance, and music studios. Today, Telpochcalli's hallways are a stunning collage of large-scale murals depicting the folkloric and artistic history of Mexicans in the United States.
Chicago Vocational Career Academy jettisoned its old vocational curriculum with its scores of obsolete courses but few high-tech opportunities. Its 2,300 students are now divided into eight minischools, each with its own career focus—business and finance, architecture, horticulture, and so on. Once crime ridden and underperforming, the school is now recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as one of the five New Urban High Schools. Its graduation rate is now among Chicago's highest.
Paul Robeson High School, with 1,300 students, was restructured into six small focus schools, in partnership with the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The schools-within-a-school are part of a comprehensive plan aimed at removing the whole school from academic probation and reconstitution. Students can select a field of special interest, such as computer graphics, world languages, or allied health. Now in its third year of restructuring, Robeson shows significant gains in attendance rates, student achievement on standardized tests, and violence reduction.
In Chicago, K–8 elementary schools can be as large as 1,800 students. Identifying students in difficulty is improbable, and lateral mobility—the annual transitions from teacher to teacher—compounds problems for struggling students. In the 15 small schools that are part of a small-schools network funded by the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, small cohorts of students remain with teams of teachers over a continuum of at least three to four years. A solid relationship thus forms, and student retention rates decline.

Developing a Community

"Some years it takes me until February to learn all my students' names," complains an 8th grade teacher. "How can I really expect to figure out their learning styles if I can't even keep the kids straight?" Getting the sheer numbers down, then, is an essential component in any strategy for combating anonymity and a herd mentality. A school of 1,000 students can be reconfigured into four or more schools or academies sharing a common physical facility.
Rather than make an argument simply over numbers, though, the small-schools movement has made small schools a metaphor for learning communities. The point is not just to be small. Rather, it is to change the relationships within schools so that teaching can be more collaborative and personalized to take into account varied experiences, interests, and learning styles. At the same time, the movement offers a curriculum that is standards-based and schools that are accountable for student progress. In addition, the process of identifying a faculty, agreeing on a strategy, finding a common curricular theme or focus, and designing the instructional plan can focus the energies of reform-minded teachers.
Small schools and schools in the process of restructuring have tried to capture two vital qualities: teacher collaboration and student visibility. A small, cohesive group of teachers, working with a common focus and sense of purpose, stays together with self-selected students for several years—long enough for them to know one another well.

Establishing Small Schools

In the early period (1992–1995), Chicago small schools were mainly initiated by groups of autonomy-seeking teachers who sought to secure some protected space where good, innovative teaching could take place, free from bureaucratic constraints. Several of these initial small schools have become models of good teaching and innovation. Others were awarded charter school status when the Illinois legislature passed a charter law in 1997.
In 1995, Mayor Richard Daley assumed political power over and responsibility for the Chicago public schools. The school board's request for proposals for school improvement resulted in 27 new small schools. Business reform groups, such as Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI) and Leadership for Quality Education (LQE), helped coordinate the proposal process and have been at the center of the small-schools movement. They have offered support to small schools and have worked at the policy level to smooth the way for their development.
Since the mayor's takeover, the focus has shifted as the new wave of accountability put pressure on schools—especially high schools—to change or to suffer penalties. Increasingly, establishing a small school has become a strategy for principals and teachers in schools "on the list." Among the most improved high schools this year was Bowen, which came off academic probation by using its six small schools as a scaffolding for teaming teachers and redesigning its schedule. This and other turn-around efforts have prompted Chicago to incorporate the small-schools concept into the redesign plan for all city high schools.
This development brings up another strategic problem for the small-schools movement, albeit a problem that many school reformers would love to have. If small schools are imposed from above, will teachers and the local school community buy into the idea? Creating initiatives at the school level that provide more opportunities for teachers to work as professionals may help.

Teacher Talk

The Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago uses a protocol for professional dialogue among small-schools faculties to promote a strong professional community while increasing personalization. In many of the small or restructured schools, teachers come together in their teams for Teacher Talk, a classroom-based form of staff development that has helped small-schools teachers examine the work of their students.
Teacher Talk rotates from classroom to classroom within the small school, usually every week for one hour. The time is protected. It's not a business meeting or a gripe session. The host teacher presents for 15 minutes on two topics: the classroom environment and one student, through his or her work. The environment piece might include how desks are organized, what's on the walls, and where and why the teacher stands or moves during class.
A teacher presents a student's work with an eye on developing the best instructional strategy for him or her. The presenter consciously stays away from generalities, such as "my kids are not readers." The group operates with the assumption that a teacher can't lift one student without lifting all. The observing teachers respond with questions and references to their own experiences. They all know the student and, although not being prescriptive, often have some new insights to offer about changes in student behavior, a breakthrough they have made, or a helpful suggestion.
Teacher Talk isn't remedial or evaluative. Comments are generally warm and supportive. But teachers feel an obvious pressure to improve the classroom environment by the time the meeting rotates around to their room. Teacher Talk also generates thoughtful discussion about the student with an eye to future improvement.
At a recent session in an inner-city high school biology classroom, the absence of microscopes or functioning lab equipment turned from a "that's always how it's been" problem into an urgent cause by the entire school staff when one teacher asked, "Where can we expect Gary [a failing student] to be in five years if nothing changes?" The presenting teacher was young and, like so many in troubled urban schools, uncertified in high school science. But she was hardworking and expressed a commitment to Gary. She explained that her emphasis on teaching vocabulary words on the chalkboard was a reaction to the lack of other classroom resources.
"What does Gary like to do?" asked one teacher. "What is he interested in?" The presenting teacher offered that Gary likes to work with his hands and make things. The disparity was obvious; nothing in this environment would encourage Gary to work on projects or experiments. Fellow teachers were supportive and helpful. Ideas began to flow about getting equipment and making do until the promised science lab is finally built. Someone offered a project idea that involved teaming with the veteran math teacher. The meeting ended with some commitments and some promises.
Most Teacher Talks aren't so remedial. The students being presented come from all levels of performance. It's up to the host teacher to explain why he or she has chosen to focus on a particular student. At a Teacher Talk at Telpochcalli, the host teacher presented Rafael's artwork—a painting in the traditional retablo format that depicted his family's journey from Texas to Chicago. The teacher explained that the image represented an essay that Rafael had written to fulfill an assignment to identify a transformative or life-changing event. Rafael's progress has been exciting to watch. His paintings and his essays reflect Mexican cultural traditions and portray his academic progress and his personal struggle to conquer the subject matter and language. The response from the teachers was strongly supportive, and fellow teachers told how they could use what they'd learned in their own classrooms.
Teacher Talk is one of many forms of small-schools discourse. The hope is that the discourse moves from protocol to a natural feature of the life and culture of the school.
As the small-schools movement continues to grow, it offers promise as a systemic as well as a local strategy to deal with the lack of personalization in our increasingly large schools and school districts. Evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, certainly points in that direction. *
References

Anderson, V. (1998, May). Smaller is better. Catalyst, 9 (Special Supplement), 8.

Bryk, A. S., Easton, J. Q., Kerbow, D., Rollow, S. G., & Sebring, P. A. (1993). A view from the elementary schools: The state of reform in Chicago. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Bryk, A. S., Easton, J. Q., Sebring, P. A., Luppescu, S., Yeow, M. T., Lopez, W. A., & Smith, B. (1995). Charting reform: Chicago teachers take stock. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Chicago Panel on School Policy. (1997). Initiative status report on small schools. Chicago: Author.

Small Schools Coalition. (1999). Small schools: Hopeful beginnings. An initial report on Chicago's RFP small schools. Chicago: Author.

Michael Klonsky has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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