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February 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 5

Small Schools: The Benefits of Sharing

Innovative collaborations and new small schools are improving learning environments, with impressive results.

Throughout the United States, educators and parents are creating small schools by partnering with the community and sharing facilities. In urban, suburban, and rural areas, they are consulting the latest findings on school size to construct and modify their schools. The results are encouraging: improved student achievement, higher graduation rates, and better faculty morale.
Latest industry estimates show that U.S. school districts will spend around $84 million on school buildings during the next few years (Agron, 2001) because many buildings are wearing out and need upgrading. Communities facing these costs have a marvelous opportunity to rethink buildings and community collaboration. Research shows that small schools need not be more expensive and can provide tremendous benefits for students and their communities (Nathan & Febey, 2001).

Research on Small Schools

In a report commissioned by the U.S. government, Mary Anne Raywid, a leading authority on small schools, examined hundreds of studies that compared the effects of school size—large versus small—on similar groups of students. She noted that students attending small schools had higher achievement, better discipline and attendance, and higher graduation rates. Moreover, students, families, and teachers reported greater satisfaction in small schools. Raywid concluded that the value of small schools has been “confirmed with a clarity and a level of confidence rare in the annals of education research” (1999, p. 1).
But aren't these better, smaller schools more expensive? Not necessarily. In a recent study of New York City schools, for example, researchers examined both the cost for each student and the cost for each graduate. Although per-pupil expenditures were somewhat lower in large schools, smaller schools were clearly more cost-efficient in terms of expenditures for each high school graduate (Steifel, Latarola, Fruchter, & Berne, 1998) because a greater proportion of their students graduated. In studies of school size and cost, University of Chicago researcher Antony Bryk concluded that “in light of the positive consequences for both adults and students associated with working in small schools, the reality is one of dis-economy of scale” (1994, p. 7).
One of the best ways to make small schools no more expensive than massive ones is to share facilities. Sharing resources helps educators who say, legitimately, that they cannot, by themselves, meet all the needs of students and their families. In these collaborative arrangements, educators can spend more time concentrating on helping students learn. Calling these innovative efforts “community schools,” Joy Dryfoos argues that their successes “go beyond the expectations of traditional education reform” (2000, p. 7).

Innovations That Work

Academics and Activism: El Puente

El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, a small public high school located in a low-income area of New York City, shares a former church building with social service staff who help the 200 students and their families with such concerns as health, counseling, and literacy.
With the encouragement of faculty members committed to developing students' traditional academic skills and their ability to work for a better world, El Puente's students combine classroom work with community service and activism. For example, the students helped create a coalition of African Americans, Hispanics, and Chasidic Jews to successfully block construction of an incinerator that the city was planning to put in their neighborhood. Students are using advanced mathematics to plan a skateboard park that will be built under a nearby bridge.
About 95 percent of El Puente's students are from low-income families, compared with the average of 65 percent in all New York City high schools. El Puente also enrolls a higher percentage of students with special needs and students for whom English is not their first language. Nevertheless, El Puente's attendance and graduation rates are higher than those of other schools in New York City, and 76 percent of El Puente's students passed the statewide Regent's English examination compared with 39 percent of the students in all New York City high schools.

Working with Social Services: Parham

Seven years ago, Parham students had the worst record of any K–8 school in Cincinnati (Ohio). Attendance, achievement, and discipline all needed major improvement. A new principal, Sharon Johnson, asked for assistance from FamiliesFORWARD, a local social services agency, which agreed to place several staff members at the school. After meeting with families to find out what programs they would like at the school, FamiliesFORWARD staff set up classes to teach students' family members such skills as how to read, handle finances, and discipline their children. After-school classes for students included dance, the history of Africa, and help with homework.
Attendance, achievement, and discipline have improved dramatically. On Ohio's 6th grade statewide tests, the percentage of Parham's students passing reading, math, science, and citizenship has more than doubled. The school of 425 students has won district awards for the progress that came not only from changes in curriculum and instruction but also from the close collaboration with FamiliesFORWARD.

Best of Two Worlds: The Academy of the Pacific Rim

Drawing inspiration from their experiences in Japan, educators in Boston created a small charter school that combines Asian and American traditions of education to teach 290 students in grades 6–12. Housed with several other organizations in a large building that was formerly a carriage factory, the Academy has no admissions tests and serves a variety of low-income students. Students and faculty start each day with an assembly, during which at least one student receives an award for demonstrating perseverance. Each student must take some form of martial art and study an Asian language. Classes start with students standing and bowing to their teacher, and the teacher also stands and bows to the students. Another Asian influence is a longer school day and year.
The Academy incorporates active-learning ideas. For example, when students learn about the U.S. Constitution, they participate in a mock Constitutional Convention, portraying a person who attended the convention and dressing in the way that person did.
The results are impressive. Although the school enrolls a high percentage of students from low-income families, all of its 10th graders passed the statewide English test, compared with about 75 percent of students in the state and about 67 percent in Boston. Student scores in other areas of statewide testing are also above both state and Boston averages.

Urban Schools-Within-a-School: Wyandotte

Eight years ago, Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas, was a troubled place. The graduation rates, attendance, and achievement levels of its 1,500 students were awful. A new principal, Walter Thompson, worked with the faculty to create eight small schools in the building. One of them, the Opportunity Center, serves only incoming 8th graders who did poorly in middle school and 9th graders who did not do well in their first year of high school. Thompson chose a talented leader as principal of the Opportunity Center, who in turn selected several staff members. Other students in grades 9–12 may choose from among the special themes—such as business or creative arts—of the seven other schools.
Attendance, achievement, graduation rates, and behavior have improved dramatically. During the past three years, for example, attendance has gone up more than 10 percent and graduation rates have gone up more than 20 percent. And the faculty, many of whom worked at Wyandotte during its troubled times, report that they find their work now far more rewarding.

Suburban Schools-Within-a-School: South Grand Prairie

Seven years ago, South Grand Prairie High School enrolled more than 2,000 students in an above-average suburban high school near Dallas, Texas. The faculty and administration decided to improve the school by dividing it into five smaller schools. Students select from among the schools' themes: communications, humanities, and law; creative and performing arts; health sciences and human services; math, science and engineering; or business and computer technology.
The number of students taking Advanced Placement examinations has grown from 69 in 1997 to 346 in 2000. Although student performance had not been low, the school provides an example of how creating smaller schools-within-a-school helped students reach their full potential.

Zoo School: Minnesota School of Environmental Studies

Another suburban community agreed that being above average was not good enough. Almost 10 years ago, teachers and parents in Apple Valley, Minnesota, planned seven small schools, all sharing facilities with a medical complex, businesses, and other institutions. The School of Environmental Studies has been open for five years and is on the grounds of the Minnesota State Zoo. Calculated on the cost per pupil, the building's construction costs were the same as those for the much larger high school buildings in the district. The school's several hundred 11th and 12th graders make regular public presentations about what they are learning and participate in internships. The U.S. Department of Education has named it a New American High School because of its creativity and outstanding performance.

Rural Cooperative: Minnesota New Country School

Sixty miles away from the School of Environmental Studies is a noted rural school—the Minnesota New Country School—which enrolls about 125 students in grades 7–12. The school functions as a cooperative, with teachers setting their own salaries and working conditions.
There are no grades or bells. Each student has a computer at a workstation decorated with pictures of family and friends. After meeting with an advisor and family members at the beginning of the year to plan an individual program, students work individually or in small groups on projects to achieve the required mastery of material. Faculty see themselves as facilitators and coaches, moving from student to student during the day. The school uses multiple measures to assess student progress. Every six weeks, for example, the school has a presentation night, during which students share what they have learned, often including computer graphics.
Students are often in the community, doing research and performing service projects. One project that attracted nationwide attention involved several students' discovery of frogs that did not have four legs. The students' presentation to the Minnesota legislature led to an allocation of hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn what produced the frog deformities.

Sharing Facilities: Three Recent Collaborations

In Phoenix, Arizona, a group of educators approached a community college to see whether the college would house a small charter high school focusing on agriculture and equine science. The new high school, called the Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center, has several classrooms and shares the excellent resources of the college: the library, extensive computer labs, lounges, physical fitness facilities, and the college faculty. Most of the 120 students take some college courses while in high school, and some have even received their high school degree and an associate of arts degree during the same week.
Another Arizona charter school, Mesa Arts Academy, operates on the campus of the South Mesa Boys and Girls Club. It serves 180 K–8 students in one of the lowest-income areas of Mesa, an area also home to several violent gangs. According to state statistics, students at Mesa Arts Academy are showing some of the greatest academic growth of any public school, charter or otherwise, in the state. On the Stanford 9, all four grades that were tested at Mesa Arts Academy for the past three years showed an increase in total scores when compared with students nationwide.
The Northfield (Minnesota) Community Center is a 50,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility that serves residents of this rural community throughout their lives. Taking just a few steps from their classrooms, the 110 students at the Area Learning Center, a public high school, can help at the Head Start Center or go to the senior center to conduct interviews for history research.

Small Schools Are Doable

During the next few years, many communities will be rethinking the kinds of buildings that house schools. They will be thinking about how can they can make the best possible use of tax dollars. Research and experience show many benefits from creating small schools of choice within large buildings or in collaboration with various organizations. The evidence is powerful. Doing things differently is never easy. But small schools and shared facilities are not just desirable. They're doable.

Agron, J. (2001, May 1). Building for the boom. American School & University [Online]. Available:www.asumag.com

Bryk, A. S. (1994, Fall). More good news that school organization matters. Issues in restructuring schools, 7, 6–8.

Dryfoos, J. G. (2000, October). Evaluation of community schools: Findings to date. New York: Carnegie Corporation.

Nathan, J., & Febey, K. (2001). Smaller, safer, saner, successful schools. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. Available: www.edfacilities.org/pubs/saneschools.pdf

Raywid, M. A. (1999, January). Current literature on small schools. (EDO-RC-98-8). Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. Available: www.ael.org/eric/digests/edorc988.htm

Stiefel, L., Latarola, P., Fruchter, N., & Berne, R. (1998). The costs of size of student body on school costs and performance in New York City high schools. New York: Institute for Education and Social Policy, New York University.

Joe Nathan has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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