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February 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 5

Big Schools: The Way We Are

Despite research that suggests that being small has advantages for student achievement, big schools are finding ways to make the best of their size.

Large schools are a fact of life in the United States. Although the issue of school size and its link to academic achievement and social and emotional well-being has been debated continually in the current wave of school reform, the arguments are taking place in an education landscape of big schools that is unlikely to change soon.
More than 70 percent of U.S. high school students attend schools of more than 1,000 students, according to the U.S. Department of Education (McNeil, 2000). Large middle schools also are on the increase. Between 1968 and 1996, middle schools of more than 800 students increased from 16 percent to 30 percent (McEwin, Dickinson, & Jenkins, 1996). Although such populous cities as Los Angeles and Miami have high schools with enrollments of 5,000 students, outsize schools are not an exclusive creation of the late 20th century—DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, New York, boasted an enrollment of 12,000 students in 1934, which placed it in the 1963 Guinness Book of World Records as the largest high school in the world.
Researchers say that large schools are a result of Americans' penchants for efficiency, economies of scale, and curricular choice and their belief that it's cheaper to educate more students in one building than in several. Studies by Walberg (1992) and Howley (1994) note that between 1940 and 1990, despite the U.S. population growing 70 percent, the number of elementary and secondary public schools declined from 200,000 to 62,037 (Cotton, 1996).

How Did We Get So Big?

Although James Conant's The American High School (1959) accelerated the push for school consolidation amid worries that small schools couldn't offer the scientific rigor needed to win the Russian-American space race, the roots of large U.S. schools go deeper. Especially after World War I, urban schools were becoming larger to meet the needs of growing populations swelled by successive waves of immigrants: A major thrust of the Progressive Movement was the establishment of a national network of large high schools, designed to conform to such typically American ideals as efficiency, differentiation, specialization, depersonalization, and standardization; in effect, this network was a . . . well-oiled machine whose goal was the production of human capital. Few educational reform efforts have ‘succeeded’ as well as the comprehensive high school. (Lee & Smith, 1995)
In many cases, large urban high schools became the capstone of the Americanization process—efficient factories for producing citizen-workers employable in the well-run engines of U.S. commerce. Although megaschools now are regularly derided as impersonal factories that decrease achievement and increase student alienation and crime, in the past, reformers believed that the large urban high school was the logical staging ground for launching civic-minded adults into the larger society.
Because societies change, however, the heyday of beneficial big urban high schools is long gone, suggests Craig Howley, director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools.
“Consolidation has a long history and has surely provided some benefits. Benefits are temporary, however, because the organizational structures are a legacy that seemingly run—with few exceptions—in one direction only: bigger and bigger. [Schools] may be better for a while, but as neighborhoods change, the good they once harbored can and does turn bad. So the benefits don't get passed down,” says Howley.
“City schools, once prosperous beyond measure, are widely believed to be ‘ungovernable.’ We made them difficult to govern through making them large—expanding their levels of governance, piling on expertise after expertise—all in the pursuit of efficiency,” he argues.
Howley's research shows that smaller schools maximize achievement in impoverished communities, whereas larger schools maximize achievement among the affluent. He speculates that well-off students do better in large schools because they are prepared in middle-class homes to be competitive, objective, credential-seeking, and “footloose”—that is, they're expected to apply to out-of-state colleges “in search of brilliant careers.”

Limitless and Limiting Choices

Evanston Township High School, big and high-achieving like many of its counterparts in Chicago's North Shore suburbs, is a springboard for those brilliant careers. With an enrollment of 3,100 students, Evanston is unusual because, as well as being big, it is diverse. Evanston's student population is 50 percent white, 39 percent black, and 11 percent other minorities, with 25 percent of students coming from low-income families. About 70 percent of the class of 2000 went to four-year colleges, with another 8.6 percent entering two-year colleges.
The course offerings at Evanston exemplify what a big suburban school with a budget of $67 million can provide students. For example, the foreign language department offers four years of Latin, German, Hebrew, and Japanese, and two years of American Sign Language, in addition to the more common languages. A popular Asian studies program combines Japanese with content courses. This year, Swahili, spoken in East and Central Africa, is being offered for the first time. More than 350 students are already studying African history as part of a global studies requirement at the school.
As a result of offering Swahili, “we expect that interest in African studies will also grow,” says Laura Cooper, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. She notes that the Asian studies program has provided many Evanston students solid grounding for serious career choices “at an unusually young age.”
Built in 1928, Evanston's three-story school building with 30 acres of floor space and 3.5 miles of corridors is currently undergoing a $12.5 million renovation to carve 28 new classrooms and 4 new science labs out of existing space. And there's no shortage of space at Evanston—the school was enlarged in 1966 to make room for 5,500 students. Still, with a current full-time staff of 529, including 294 teachers, how does Evanston prevent its 3,100 students from getting lost amid all the curricular choices and fellow students?
One answer is “limiting choice,” says Cooper. “In the past five years, we've been ambitious to delete courses that were seen as escape courses because they lacked rigor. In some cases, it means taking away choice to ensure that in the freshman and sophomore year, they have core courses.”
Karen Seashore, professor of educational policy and administration at the University of Minnesota, agrees that limiting choice is a good idea. The comprehensive curriculum is “one of the toughest issues in education in America” because with so much choice, students don't necessarily put together the best combinations of courses to promote achievement, says Seashore. Especially in urban schools, students say that they don't get enough information to make sensible choices.
“Schools with fewer choices have higher academic results because the curriculum is more coherent,” says Seashore. An added problem of poor course selection is how it articulates with a career track, and with an average ratio of one high school guidance counselor to 700 students, counseling everybody about career preparation is difficult.

Seeking the Ties that Bind—To Excel

Making a school feel personal is a challenge for schools with thousands of students. Evanston has experimented with 201 “home bases” where a teacher meets with the same group of 15 students, diversified by race, each morning for the four years of high school. It's only 18 minutes at the beginning of the day, but teachers use it to discuss grades, attendance, or personal issues with students.
“If you don't have a personal relationship with students, you can't ask questions. We know an awful lot about them by the time they're seniors,” says Cooper, who, because of her duties as assistant superintendent, shares a home base with another teacher.
One of Cooper's home base students had a hard time making the transition from the bilingual program to the mainstream classes because he worked after school to support his family. Cooper and another teacher worked with the student to carve out time during his school day to do homework. Happily, this particular student went on to join the honor roll during his senior year.
But ties to caring teachers are not the only way to personalize learning, Evanston's students recently told teachers. At an inservice day for the teachers, academically successful African American and Latino students talked about the barriers that still exist to higher achievement for minorities. To fight the clique mentality of high school life, minority students urged teachers to “assign partners for group work so that we don't just work with our current friends.”
“It's not about friendships but about building working relationships,” says Cooper. “Teachers need to take greater responsibility for creating a positive classroom culture where each student feels known and accepted.”

Personalized Learning Through Projects

Teachers, too, need help in forging working relationships in a large high school. Principal Donald Hoecherl likes to tell the story of two teachers who only discovered that they taught at the same huge high school during a chance encounter at a local grocery store. At G. Holmes Braddock Senior High School in Miami, Florida, Hoecherl instituted a monthly faculty meeting to bring together all 252 members of the instructional staff once a month “to make all people feel like they belong to one school.”
Two years ago, Braddock billed itself as the “largest high school in the United States” at 5,300 students. Although its current enrollment of 4,730 doesn't exactly make it a slip of its former self, teachers no longer “float” without a classroom. Thirty-nine portable classrooms help house the overflow of students, although teachers still complain about an average class size of 30, says Hoecherl.
Hoecherl describes the school as “middle class,” although 40 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Nine out of 10 Braddock students are Hispanic, coming from a community that strongly supports education.
“I do not find school size a deterrent. I find it a great strength,” says Hoecherl, who points to the school's range of sports and classes, including a top Advanced Placement program that offers 39 subjects. “Being big doesn't mean we expect less.” At the same time, he admits that the first challenge of running a large school is “letting parents and the community know that size is not a problem.”
To eliminate the perception that school is “a large place where students don't learn,” Hoecherl last year brought in the Conect school reform model to train teachers to collaborate in project-based learning and the use of technology.
In the fall, Joy Hellard, who teaches English to gifted students, worked with the world history teacher, the design teacher, the media specialist, and a Conect consultant on an interdisciplinary project that involved students making models of buildings from ancient civilizations. Groups of students built large models of Aztec and Mayan temples, Chinese pagodas, and an interactive Egyptian pyramid large enough to walk through. Other students and parents toured the models, while student “curators” explained the details of these ancient cultures.
“At Braddock, if a better way is introduced to do something, everybody jumps on. I don't see so much compartmentalizing of subjects and hoarding of information. Teachers are open to showing kids the interconnectedness of information and how it relates to life,” says Hellard.
Nevertheless, teaching in a school the size of Braddock is challenging. “It's a huge school. The bell rings and nearly 5,000 kids move to the next class in five minutes. It's a mall. A large two-story mall. But the kids are friendly, and the teachers are friendly and open. There's a feeling of safety despite the size. Most kids do the right thing,” says Hellard.

Communicating the Vision

Down county from Braddock, American Senior High School has an enrollment of 2,900. Principal Alberto Rodriguez considers American one of the “smaller schools” in the area. But often school size is an issue of perception. Recently, Rodriguez was a member of an accreditation group evaluating three northern Florida high schools of 1,000 students each. His reaction as he entered the first building: “It's such a small high school!”
The smooth running of a high school as large and diverse as American—it's 54 percent Hispanic, 38 percent African American, and 6 percent white—depends on how the principal communicates his vision to staff and students, contends Rodriguez.
In 1997, when he became principal, Rodriguez urged teachers at American to “change the paradigm” in the school. He encouraged staff to “teach students with the same high expectations that they would want from their own children's teachers.” He also makes sure teachers compare their students' passing rates on Florida's accountability tests to district and state figures so that teachers can decide where to improve their instruction.
Recently, Rodriguez's school was selected as a state model school that serves a high percentage of disadvantaged students because its test scores were comparable to schools with higher socioeconomic indicators. In 1998, roughly 63 percent of American's students tested at the bottom level in math on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests (FCAT). By 2001, that figure had decreased to 23 percent. The number of students whose FCAT tests in reading placed them in the lowest level decreased from 49 percent to 38 percent during the same period.
“If you have nearly 65 percent of your kids scoring at the lowest level in math, that's a huge concern. That says that these students don't have reasoning skills—that they're just drifting through high school,” says Rodriguez.
To prevent students from dropping out, American mandates that freshmen with a “dropout profile” in 8th grade—truancy, high absenteeism, and a disciplinary history—be enrolled in a Junior ROTC program. “The program is successful because students are taught discipline, good citizenship, and the value of a good education. It has been something of a boot camp, but it has also taken the shock away for students going from middle school into high school,” says Rodriguez. After 9th grade, students may leave the program if their teachers agree that they have made sufficient progress.
Even in a school of thousands, Rodriguez believes “you can treat each child with nurturing and caring.” Early in the school year, he meets with groups of 30 students in the school's media center. Within three weeks, Rodriguez meets with the entire student body. Students learn from Rodriguez that the school's “intense curriculum will prepare them for life” and that after-school tutoring and technology are available to help them. They in turn must “meet us halfway,” says Rodriguez.
The principal shares his vision with staff, students, and parents, but stresses that “you've got to empower your staff” with decision-making responsibility. “You've got to delegate. You can't oversee everything. But you spot-check and snoop around,” adds Rodriguez. “When you have a large school, you cannot micromanage.”

Large School, Small Academies

Teachers were given an important role in shaping Newburgh Free Academy in Newburgh, New York, after the community mobilized against creating a megaschool in 1996. Now with 2,505 students, the 10th–12th grade public high school has turned to theme-based academies housed in one building.
Students at Newburgh can choose to attend one of eight academies that include performing arts, international studies, business, engineering and technology, communications, and health, or they can remain in the school's core liberal arts program. To receive funding from federal Smaller Learning Communities grants, teachers submitted a plan based on research and expert advice. They determined that the academies would be inter-disciplinary, involve parents and community resources, and have a cap of 125 students per grade. A third of the school's 10th–12th graders are in academies, but transfers into the specialized programs are growing.
Teachers integrate the academy theme into the content areas to provide meaning for students, who have chosen an academy on the basis of personal interests, explains Annette Saturnelli, executive director for funded programs for the Newburgh school district. “Students have to be intrinsically motivated to come to school,” she says. The academies, combined with attendance tracking strategies, have resulted in a lower dropout rate, say school officials.
“Students have told me if it weren't for teachers being constantly in their lives, mentoring them, and letting them bring us their problems, they probably would not have graduated from high school,” says Grace Bowles, a vocal music teacher who oversees the Academic, Arts, and Related Technologies Academy of 300 students.
Although state funding has been uncertain for academy activities that include hands-on experiences in the performing arts industry in New York City, Bowles proudly points to the fact that the academy's first graduating class saw 80 of 110 students enter college studies in the performing arts.
Positive changes in school climate also have come to Newburgh as a result of the academies, says Saturnelli. Two years ago, an average of 12 teachers were out sick each day, a figure that dropped to five teacher absences per day in the last school year. Student violence, mainly fighting, decreased 62 percent in the same period, from 437 to 168 incidents. More students are taking the SAT, and the students' average score rose eight points to 960, inching toward the New York state average of 997. But the current SAT average still falls short of the 11-point annual rise sought by school officials.
To make the physical learning environment more intimate, Newburgh is undergoing a $21 million renovation that will restructure the school's existing space into three clusters, each of which will house three academies. Plans call for each cluster to have its own administrator, guidance counselor, computer lab, and science labs, but funding is making this uncertain. Liberal arts students—those not in an academy—will also be designated as their own smaller learning environment.
One of the challenges in sustaining the academies is recruiting students to enter them, says Newburgh principal Peter Copeletti. Although school officials are promoting the academies in the district's three junior high schools, Copeletti supports adding the 9th grade to the high school so students can explore the academies firsthand and make informed choices. Ironically, this would increase the schools' enrollment, a move the community rejected five years ago. But school administrators believe the academy system changes the nature of how large schools operate.
“We actually can get bigger and grow smaller,” says Copeletti.

DeWitt Clinton: Up, Down, and Up Again

One historically large school, DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City's Bronx borough, also attributes a turnaround in academics and school climate to the creation of smaller learning environments. From its world record enrollment in the 1930s, the school declined in numbers and academic prestige in later years, so that by 1990, it had the highest dropout rate of any school in the Bronx. Long known for its academics, athletic prowess, and famous graduates (including poet Countee Cullen, actor Burt Lancaster, and a host of New York judges), by 1986, Clinton's star had fallen so much that it graduated fewer than 12 percent of its students.
When Clinton's enrollment was at its highest in the 1930s, the Bronx population was 50 percent Jewish, with Irish Catholics and other immigrant groups making up the difference in a fairly prosperous borough, says Bronx borough historian Lloyd Ultan, history professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.
“Certain cultures had a tremendous educational tradition. That may have given a cast to the school. Also, in the 1930s, jobs were scarce, so you better darn well stay in school to get a job,” explains Ultan.
Economic and social changes in the 1970s and 1980s contributed to Clinton's decline, says former assistant principal William Dougherty, now an education professor at Manhattan College. The opening of nearby John F. Kennedy High School in the early 1970s “bled off all the better students and the most involved parents,” budget slashes closed down Clinton's gifted program and made it difficult to offer teachers competitive salaries, and the size of the school itself fractured faculty and students into four shifts, creating a school day that ran from 7 <EMPH TYPE="6">a.m. to 5:30 <EMPH TYPE="6">p.m., says Dougherty.
The leadership of current Superintendent of Bronx High Schools Norman Wechsler is often credited with the turnaround of Clinton during his six years as principal there in the 1990s.
“We needed to create the ‘gang’ or the ‘church’ or whatever you call it that was going to hold youngsters to high standards. That means you're in students' faces. If you don't love kids it doesn't work,” says Wechsler.” This “tough love” approach is the responsibility of teacher coordinators in each house who monitor students' attendance, lateness, behavior, effort, grades, and test scores, in addition to being alert to emotional downs on any particular day.
Clinton's current enrollment of 3,864 students is 56 percent Hispanic, 35 percent African American, 5 percent Asian, and 3 percent white, with 8 in 10 of its students eligible for free lunches. Students can enroll in one of 10 houses, organized by grade level—with student-picked names like “Rave” or “Trailblazers”—or by special interest. Each house has its own office, assistant principal, teacher coordinators, guidance counselors, and family assistants who reinforce the school-home link.
Assistant principal Marlene Diaz, who heads Clinton's International House, which includes 350 English language learners, says Wechsler's call for weekly house team meetings, which he would visit, made his leadership “crucial” for success.
“He was there to know what the problems were and what support we needed, whether it was equipment, staff, or new ideas,” Diaz recalls.
Wechsler encouraged Diaz and other teachers to pay attention to how their students were progressing. In 1994, only 6.5 percent of Diaz's students tested out of entitlements. In 2000, 34 percent of her students did so, with a number of them transferring to the Macy/Excel program that caters to the school's most gifted students. By 2000, Clinton's graduation rate had risen to 60 percent, and graduates garnered $25 million in college scholarships and financial aid.
Because of Clinton's progress with smaller learning environments, Wechsler's vision for making big high schools into smaller learning communities will be carried out throughout the Bronx. With funding from a New Century High Schools consortium that includes the Bill &amp; Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, and other private groups, Wechsler will lead a district-wide effort to create 15 smaller schools in the Bronx's five large high schools.
But a more intimate learning environment will be only one attribute of these schools, says Wechsler. “Small” will succeed only if other changes take place as well, he insists, including a constructivist approach to teaching and learning, project-based learning, interdisciplinary teaching and collaboration, and student performance monitoring—many of the reforms that other U.S. schools are using to increase achievement. To further develop what Wechsler calls Clinton's “golden age,” the school will have to make progress in these areas as well, he says.
“Even though many students are having enormous success at Clinton today, 1,000 students are failing three or more subjects. That's a loss I'm not willing to live with,” says Wechsler. “In smaller schools, having a student ‘bomb out’ would be a relatively rare occurrence.”

Cotton, K. (1996). School size, school climate, and student performance. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators. Available:www.aasa.org/issues_and_insights/prof_dev/rural_small/cotton.htm

Lee, V. E., &amp; Smith, J. B. (1995). Effects of high school restructuring and size on early gains in achievement and engagement. Sociology of Education, 68(4), 241–270.

Howley, C. (1994, June). The academic effectiveness of small-scale schooling (an update). ERIC Digest. Charleston, WV: Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. (Eric Document Reproduction Service No. ED 372 897)

McEwin, C. K., Dickinson, T. S., &amp; Jenkins, D. M. (1996). America's middle schools: Practices and progress—A 25-year perspective. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.

McNeil, P. (2000, April 14). Smaller schools and learning communities: The wave of the future? Presentation at the American Youth Policy Forum, Washington, DC. Available:www.aypf.org/forum-briefs/2000/fb041400.htm

Walberg, H. J. (1992). On local control: Is bigger better? In Source book on school and district size, cost, and quality (pp. 118–134). Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs; and Oak Brook, IL: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. (Eric Document Reproduction Service No. ED 361 164)

Rick Allen is a former ASCD writer and content producer.

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