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February 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 5

How Smaller Schools Prevent School Violence

Research shows that small schools are safer schools—and several real-world examples help explain why.

Educators and the communities that they serve are increasingly turning to small schools, academies, schools-within-schools, and smaller learning communities as strategies for enhancing school safety and reducing school violence. Because parents place safety high on their list of school concerns and because families feel more comfortable with small schools, such schools are gaining popularity in many communities where violence is perceived as a threat.
Public schools are generally safe places for students, and statistics demonstrate that school violence has been on the decline for nearly a decade. The fear and insecurity stemming from world events, gang violence, and headline-grabbing school shootings have had a significant impact, however. Of even greater concern among parents, students, and teachers is the smaller-scale, ubiquitous violence—bullying, intimidation, and racial conflict—as well as self-inflicted violence and suicide. Student suicides, which rarely make the headlines, far outnumber school shootings. For every adolescent who opens fire at a school, thousands more commit or attempt suicide.
When asked what he would do about the scourge of juvenile violence, James Garbarino, director of the Family Life Development Center and professor of human development at Cornell University, answered, “At the adolescent level, if I could do one single thing, it would be to ensure that teenagers are not in a high school bigger than 400 to 500 students” (What can be done, 1994). He and a host of child psychologists and educators have been sounding the alarm: If you want safe schools, get schooling down to size.

The Case Against Big Schools

More than one in four secondary schools nationwide now enroll more than 1,000 students, and enrollments of 2,000 and 3,000 are not uncommon. We keep building large schools despite abundant research showing small schools to be safer environments.
According to a 1998 report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), serious violent crimes were more likely to occur in large schools. Among schools with 1,000 or more students, 33 percent experienced a serious violent crime, compared with 4–9 percent of small and medium-sized schools. Large schools had a ratio of 90 serious violent incidents per 100,000 public school students, compared with 38 per 100,000 in medium-sized schools. The most recent NCES report (1999) confirms the findings of the earlier study. It shows, for example, that large schools (those with more than 1,000 students) are eight times more likely to report a serious violent incident than small schools (those with fewer than 300 students).
The 1998 NCES study found larger schools are more likely to use police or security officers and to rely on such security measures and devices as metal detectors and random locker searches to maintain control. Such approaches take the anonymity of students for granted. Tactics such as arbitrary searches and mass suspensions and expulsions, as well as the overreliance on metal detectors and police guards, tend to criminalize young people as a class and make schools act and feel more like prisons. They also raise the expectations for, and the acceptability and inevitability of, violence.
Small schools can offer viable alternatives to such approaches. Deborah Meier, who in the mid-1970s founded Central Park East, a pioneering small schools effort, insists that small schools “offer what metal detectors and guards cannot: the safety and security of being where you are known well by people who care for you” (1995, p.112). The anonymity that often characterizes large schools is the enemy of safety and security.
In addition to fostering anonymity, large schools are a haven for exclusionary cliques, where those who don't easily fit in are often targets of harassment or violence. School shooters—for example, the young men who opened fire on classmates at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, or the Santana High School (Santee, California) shooter—have been suspected of reacting violently to cliquish bullying.

The Small School Alternative

The difference between large and small schools, according to much of the research, lies not in the schools' concern for student safety but in their ability to implement effective strategies that produce desired outcomes. Whereas large schools rely much more on external measures for controlling student behavior—metal detectors and security guards—smaller schools stress engagement of the faculty, school community, and students.
A two-year study of Chicago's small schools conducted by the Bank Street College of Education found the district's small schools to be safer than larger schools and linked this positive effect to the “increased sense of identity and community” that small schools promote. “Students feel safer in their schools because they are learning the skills of conflict management and democratic citizenship” (Wasley et al., 2000, p.35).
Small schools advocate and principal Nancy Mohr (2000) provides a case in point as she describes her experience in trying to provide a violence-free environment at University Heights School in the Bronx (New York). At first, the school adopted a strict, impersonal, punitive nonviolence policy. Eventually, however, Mohr realized the school was not teaching students how to build a safe community; instead, it was teaching them “that the only reason they were safe was because of the fear of being asked to leave” (pp. 140–141). After a schoolwide dialogue, the school changed the policy and instituted a new process of inquiry. Before the school took action against fighters, it examined certain criteria: “Had they sought mediation? Were they new in the school? Had the adults in the community done everything they could have to prevent this from happening?” The new process worked, and, says Mohr, “We were able to practice real justice and keep our community safe at the same time” (pp. 140–141). For Mohr and her students, this kind of community-building required smallness and a lot more—namely, changes in relationships and school culture that smallness makes possible.

Attributes of Small Schools

  • School enrollment is no more than 400 students.
  • Teachers know students well, and students know teachers well.
  • Teachers work collaboratively in a professional community, engage in reflective teaching practices, and look at student work as part of interdisciplinary teams.
  • A group of teachers stays together with a cohort of students for several years.
  • The school has a high degree of autonomy and teacher leadership.
  • The school has a curricular focus or a clear sense of purpose.
The small schools strategy for combating school violence stands on three pillars: (1) visibility of students, (2) a professional community of teachers, and (3) a clear sense of purpose.

Visibility of Students

Visibility of students is a priority at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (the Met), a unique public high school in Providence, Rhode Island, that opened in 1996. Each teacher has primary responsibility for only 14 students, forming a tightly knit group called an “advisory” that stays together for all four years. As a result, teachers know their students well and “have time to help all of their students with even the toughest academic and personal problems” (Levine, 2002, p. xviii).
Compared with other Providence high schools, the Met has one-third the dropout rate, one-third the absentee rate, and one-eighteenth the rate of disciplinary suspensions. It is a safe and relatively violence-free public school that serves a representative student body (41 percent white, 38 percent Latino, 18 percent African American, 3 percent Asian; half qualifying for subsidized lunch) and produces a high percentage of literate, college-bound students. Although small school pedagogy varies from school to school, many of the new small-by-design schools share important aspects of the Met approach: personalization, high student visibility, and the close collaboration of teachers.
Another small school that emphasizes student visibility is Perspectives Charter High School, which occupies a former factory warehouse in downtown Chicago. The school's curricular focus—or theme—is “A Disciplined Life.” Every entering freshman is carefully interviewed and counseled, becoming familiar with the norms and expectations of the school as the teachers become familiar with the student's interests and experience. The 200 Perspectives students, in grades 6–12, represent an equal mix of African Americans and Latinos. Parents are integral to the life of the school, which they had a hand in choosing and shaping. In their neighborhood, the students have all experienced violence, the code of the streets, and racial tensions. But when a fistfight broke out between two students on the basketball court, it quickly ended when someone said, “Hey! This is Perspectives. We don't fight here.”
Teachers who know their students well are better able to anticipate potentially violent or disruptive behavior and deal with it before it erupts. Lines of communication between adults and students (who can usually anticipate incidents of school violence) are shorter and often more effective. Violence prevention programs, such as peer mediation and counseling interventions, tend to work better, as do parent and family involvement programs, in smaller environments.

A Professional Community of Teachers

A second principle that affects school safety is a professional community of teachers. Teachers in small schools often engage one another in forms of “teacher talk,” a reflective practice that helps them know students well. Practices such as interdisciplinary teaming and examining student work in small groups foster a sense of professional community, which, in turn, helps make schools safer by enabling interventions in potentially violent or self-destructive situations before they reach the crisis stage.
At a recent teacher talk session at a small high school in Sarasota, Florida, a group of teachers looked at a piece of student writing together. (Sarasota is one of several districts that is turning all its large high schools into smaller learning communities as part of a districtwide initiative.) The host teacher presented the writing assignment of her student, Daniel, to the interdisciplinary team for review and feedback. The assignment called for describing the artifacts that students would put in a time capsule, expressions of their life and culture to be discovered a century from now. Daniel, a freshman, offered his skateboard, his Bob Marley CD, and a “joint.” The three artifacts expressed his love of extreme sports, reggae music, and smoking marijuana with friends on the weekend.
The team listened attentively as their colleague explained the assignment. They all knew Daniel and had him as a student in the core subject areas. After asking a few clarifying questions, they gave feedback related to the quality of Daniel's writing. Then the discussion became more intense and focused around questions related to Daniel's drug use. Suggestions began to fly for dealing with a troubling situation and helping Daniel. For the rest of the hour, the participants explored Daniel's writing assignment and his situation from several angles. Every teacher on the team had something to offer.
Whatever response the host teacher would make to Daniel's paper, it was certain that she would act with a supportive process behind her and make decisions with Daniel's interests at heart. Daniel was not faceless or anonymous—he was known through his work. The meeting ended with a strong sense of possibility. The teacher decided to work closely with the guidance counselor on a series of one-on-one meetings with Daniel in which she both praised his literary skills and expressed concern about his apparent drug use.
The teachers in Sarasota were acting powerfully. They believed their actions could mean something in the lives of their students. In the many interviews that I conducted in large comprehensive high schools, few teachers expressed the feeling that what they do affects more than a few willing and able students. Teachers who face 130–180 students each day are not likely to feel powerful.

A Clear Sense of Purpose

Another quality associated with lower levels of violence is a clear sense of purpose. Often this sense of purpose or focus centers on a school-to-career program in the high school or on a common theme, such as the “Disciplined Life” focus at Perspectives. Raywid (1989) describes a focus school as having a clear, coherent mission, with a commitment both to character and academic development. It features a core of shared content and experience, and emphasizes the reciprocal responsibilities of students and adults as it stresses student outcomes.
At the Academy of Communications Technology, a small charter school in Chicago, Illinois, developing and communicating a clear focus became the key to making the school safe. The Academy was housed in an old church building in the city's West Side—a low-income, high-crime area-and was open to all students who wanted to enroll. Parents in the neighborhood were eager to move their children out of the local high school, which had a reputation as being unsafe and academically underachieving.
The Academy was seen as the last resort for students who had been in trouble or weren't succeeding in other schools. According to Michelle Smith, the codirector of the Academy, the school's first few years were chaotic: “Not much teaching went on. Most of the time was spent on discipline. One student threw a pair of scissors across the room and wounded another student” (personal communication, February 3, 2001).
Smith attributes the initial problems to a lack of focus in the goals of the school. To address the problem, Smith says We started looking at our student base. Who are we attracting and why? We were trying to serve every student. . . . Our students should have chosen us because they were interested in technology and the arts. . . . By trying to serve all students, we weren't serving any. The divide between the intended curriculum and the actual curriculum led to dissatisfaction and rebellion.
School leaders began describing the school's program as being college-preparatory, not just as a school-to-work program, and clearly set out the school's high expectations to parents of potential students. Once the school's leaders began presenting the school differently to the community, the violence and anti-social behavior at the school declined steadily. The school has a zero tolerance policy for violence, but does not have metal detectors or random searches. Smith says, “Students now seem willing to tell teachers if something dangerous is going on in the school. They seek help. They value the safe environment.”

Staying Small, Staying Safe

Small schools create the opportunity for knowing students, for intervening as professionals before problems reach a crisis stage—before students resort to violence, suicide, or other forms of destructive behavior. In small schools, faculty can more readily share responsibility for recognizing and responding to troubled students and can designate the adults who will provide assistance. Simply stated, small schools obliterate anonymity—the handmaiden of many forms of youth violence—and create an environment where students are visible to those charged with their education and many aspects of their social and cultural development—their teachers.

What can be done about the scourge of violence among juveniles? The experts on different fronts of the battlefield discuss strategies. (1994, December 30). The New York Times, p. A24.

Levine, E. (2002). One kid at a time. New York: Teachers College Press.

Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas: Lessons from a small school in Harlem. Boston: Beacon Press.

Mohr, N. (2000). Small schools are not miniature large schools: Potentials pitfalls and implications for leadership. In W. Ayers, M. Klonsky, & G. Lyon (Eds.), A simple justice: The challenge of small schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1998, March). Violence and discipline problems in U.S. public schools: 1996–97 [Online]. Available: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs98/violence/index.html

National Center for Education Statistics. (1999). Indicators of school crime and safety, 1999. (NCES 1999-057). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

Raywid, M. A. (1989). Focus schools: A genre to consider. (Urban Diversity Series No. 106). (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 377 293).

Wasley, P. A., Fine, M., Gladden, M., Holland, N. E., King, S. P., Mosak, E., & Powell, L. C. (2000). Small schools, great strides: A study of new small schools in Chicago. New York: Bank Street College of Education.

Michael Klonsky has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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