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February 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 5

The Policy Environments of Small Schools and Schools-Within-Schools

Changing education structures and policies may be necessary to create the conditions that allow small schools to fulfill their potential.

Over the past decade, powerful pressures have encouraged the creation of small schools. One such pressure is the education crisis in U.S. cities, where substantial numbers of schools fail year after year. Data also reveal the changing demographics of public education and the new challenges of educating the growing numbers of minority and limited-English-speaking students. More recently, student violence has emerged as a threat in large schools—yet it remains negligible in small ones.
As these challenges might suggest, those urging school downsizing seek more than changes in size. They hope that downsizing will lead to safer, more humane, and more effective schools that can reach an expanded variety of students successfully. This goal, in turn, calls for new school environments, programs, and organizations.
Thus, the challenge of downsizing requires more than simply making schools smaller. To achieve the purposes of downsizing, the new education units will need to look different from the old ones and depart from them in fundamental ways.
Today, the pressures for school downsizing have been joined by some influential incentives. In 2001, the U.S. federal government offered grants of up to $50,000 to each large school that would convert itself into small learning communities. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has committed more than $250 million to the creation of small schools—a supplement to Ambassador Walter H. Annenberg's $500 million “Challenge to the Nation” gift almost a decade ago, a considerable portion of which went to the same purpose.

Innovation Without Structural and Policy Support

As a result of the pressures-incentives combination, districts across the country from Oakland, California, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, have implemented initiatives to downsize large schools. We have also seen individual school initiatives in St. Paul, Minnesota; Cincinnati, Ohio; Seattle, Washington; and Sacramento, California, as well as some hybrid programs (at the school and district levels).
We have created small schools and schools-within-schools by the thousands in the past few years. But for many of them, the going has not been easy—for the simple reason that we have yet to create the structures and policies that they need to thrive. We continue to bind these new organization entities within old organization structures, shackle them with outmoded practices, and impose regulations designed for another time and place—while denying them the particular supports they need for success.
Many have written on the virtues and advantages of smaller schools, and we know much about how to transform the oversized elementary school or the comprehensive high school into smaller units. But education policymakers have done little to address a central issue: What changes are necessary to permit these new organization forms to succeed? What conditions, controls, and supports external to the new units are essential to sustaining them?
The answers must be sought in two places: the organization structures into which we place the smaller units and the policy environments with which we surround them. Under some circumstances, one of these approaches works better, and under other circumstances, the other.

Models of School Downsizing

Efforts to create smaller schools or “learning communities” have emerged in such cities as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, as well as in less well-known locations such as Portland, Oregon; Kapaa, Hawaii; and Danville, Virginia. A number of different models have been created for generating and fitting new and small units into existing schools and districts. The following list, although not exhaustive, shows the different ways that I have observed schools and districts responding to the school downsizing idea.

Top-Level, Central-Office Support

New York City developed perhaps the oldest model in 1983, under then-Chancellor Anthony Alvarado. This large district created a separate top office with exclusive responsibility for the new units.
Alvarado was seeking a way to encourage secondary school innovation in the face of the city's High School Division—notoriously the education bureacracy's most rigid and intransigent office. Instead of trying to change the Division, Alvarado created a new position—Superintendent of Alternative Schools and Programs—to launch innovative schools, to represent them within the system, and to oversee them with more flexibility.
Almost 100 alternative schools and programs already existed in the city, but the new superintendent of alternative education encouraged principals and self-selected groups of teachers to create additional alternative schools. In the 1990s, when a number of new small high schools were launched, most asked to affiliate with the Office of Alternative Schools. By 1997, the city's alternative schools numbered 425 and were scattered throughout New York's five boroughs.
Alvarado had created a similar system in the 1970s, when he cultivated a famous set of elementary schools in Community School District 4. As superintendent of that district, he had invited self-selected groups of teachers to launch programs, which he placed in any school with the space to accommodate them. These schools-within-schools reported not to their building principals but directly to the superintendent's office where Alvarado functioned as their protector. Later, an associate superintendent was assigned this role as his sole duty.
The core of this model requires that self-selected groups of teachers be invited to launch small schools or schools-within-schools, which a high-ranking figure—the superintendent or an associate superintendent—then directly oversees. This supervision gives the new units a degree of protection and attention they might not receive if they were supervised by principals or middle-level, central-office managers.

Superintendent-Mandated Schools-Within-Schools

Between 1994 and 2000, a somewhat different downsizing model developed in Philadelphia, where Superintendent David Hornbeck made school downsizing the centerpiece of his program. Here, instead of turning to organization structure to bring about downsizing, the superintendent used policy.
Superintendent Hornbeck launched “small learning communities” with the mandate that no unit in Philadelphia schools could exceed 400 students. Any school with an enrollment larger than 400 had to break itself down into separate and distinct units. The units were overseen by their principal, who was responsible for carrying out the superintendent's mandate of downsizing, supervising the development of a distinctive theme for each unit, and, eventually, promoting student or family choice among units.
Such an approach has both assets and liabilities. The strength of the approach, of course, is the possibility of improving all schools from the start. The weakness is that a mandated effort of such scale is likely to succeed slowly, if at all. Hornbeck, however, had clear and plausible plans for helping schools move from shaky starts to successful development.

Small Schools to Counter Charter Schools

Boston represents still another sort of pattern. The 11 well-known small schools there were intended from the start as innovations to be given broad freedom.
The Boston Teachers Union proposed the small schools initiative in a reaction to the charter schools launched in Boston and elsewhere in Massachusetts. The union recommended the launching of “Pilot Schools” to prove that the district's establishment (that is, the school district administration and the union) could also be creative and permit innovation. Both the union that proposed them and the superintendent who supported the idea hoped that the Pilot Schools would become sources of ideas and inspiration throughout the city.
In a number of ways, the Pilots appear to be thriving. Many, however, believe that their independence within the system continues to be a constant struggle. One also hears complaints in the central offices that these schools are not sharing their experiences. The schools, in response, assert that they are quite willing to share, but the district has not created the occasions and structures for doing so.

District-Initiated Schools-Within-Schools

One of New York City's 32 community school districts (all of which control their own elementary and middle schools) represents another downsizing pattern. In Community School District 3 some years ago, a supportive superintendent created a staff position—Director of Alternative Schools—that reported to the superintendent and assigned that director to generated small, themed schools-within-schools at the middle school level. This task involved identifying prospective teacher directors, enabling them to get started, linking them to strong community support, and helping them negotiate supportive conditions with the principals of the schools in which they were located. The arrangement spread over the ensuing years to all middle schools.
With the strong support of the district's central office, the arrangement worked satisfactorily in most middle schools. Some principals, however, resisted the concept and limited the autonomy of the schools-within-schools significantly. Cooperation of the principals has been contingent upon the superintendent's support for the schools-within-schools and has shifted with a change of superintendents.

School Board Adoption with Minimal Support

Chicago represents yet another downsizing model. There, the school board formally blessed and encouraged small schools, but, at least until recently, the schools found no strong champion at central headquarters. Their liaison at the central office, the director of the Office of Special Initiatives, oversaw an array of special projects and had no staff or budget.
Fortunately, an unusually strong alliance in support of small schools—linking the business, professional, and academic communities—has somewhat offset their lack of authority and voice within the system. In recent months, the staff counsel of one of the key organizations, the Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, has become director of the system's new Office of Small Schools.

Principal-Inspired Schools-Within-Schools

Another pattern consists of schools-within-schools created at the school level, rather than at the district level, and at the instigation of the principal. In Kapaa Elementary School on Hawaii's island of Kauai, a new principal of an elementary school enrolling 1,500 students sought to reduce the oversized school to more humane dimensions by inviting and encouraging self-selecting groups of teachers to design their own separate school-within-a-school.
Over a four- or five-year period, and with the proffering of incentives, the school was gradually converted into eight schools-within-a-schools, each with its own teacher leader. These units received particularly strong support within the school but very little support from the system outside it.


A final downsizing pattern, which has probably been most prevalent until quite recently, is the grassroots model, in which a group of teachers or of parents and teachers decides to try to launch a school-within-a-school and seeks the principal's authorization to do so. The group must then negotiate each arrangement and prerogative with the principal.
Of the seven patterns described here, this pattern is probably the weakest and most unstable because the unit exists at the pleasure of the principal. Any change in that office can terminate it. Portland, Oregon, currently has five schools-within-schools or “focus schools” in this position. They are seeking a firmer and more favorable footing within that district.

Inadequacy of “Policy by Exception”

As the seven models described suggest, a school district's table of organization—or its rules, regulations, and procedures—were written for different types of institutions and do not always fit the needs of the new small schools or schools-within-schools. Judith Rizzo, Deputy Chancellor of New York City Schools, expresses the challenge: Small schools cannot flourish on the margins of the system; they need to be an integral part of it. Nor can the system flourish if it can accommodate only one organizational model, if it discourages change, or if it inhibits innovation, whether by design or by a failure to adapt. (2000, p. 148)
Despite the bold stance on the part of school districts in New York and elsewhere, the typical school system's approach to dealing with difficulties posed by rules that don't fit has been to create what Darling-Hammond, Ancess, McGregor, and Zuckerman label “policy by exception” (2000). Instead of seeking new and different policies to govern the new schools, districts have tended simply to settle for waivers and exemptions to existing policy. This harms the small schools in several respects.
First, waivers are often granted or withheld arbitrarily and capriciously. They generally represent case-by-case decisions reached by administrators whose primary responsibility is to monitor conformity—and who thus are often understandably unwilling to declare conformity unnecessary.
Second, the need to request repeated exemptions puts the small schools at a significant disadvantage. They almost inevitably come to be perceived within the system as “precious” institutions that, a bit like spoiled children, constantly demand special attention and consideration.
Third, “policy by exception” may overcome mandates and taboos but will probably not generate the positive support on which successful reform efforts depend. Except in those rare locales where resources are plentiful, providing exemptions from regulations is a far cry from providing extra resources.

Policy-Related Challenges of Schools-Within-Schools

The policy environment of schools-within-schools typically depends on principals. The major policy difficulties with this arrangement stem first from instability. In many, if not most schools, a thriving program may die when a principal supportive of the schools-within-schools organizational structure is replaced by an indifferent or even hostile principal.
The second major policy difficulty faced by schools-within-schools stems from control issues. Most principals expect to be the central authority, decision maker, and monitor in their schools. The schools-within-schools structure challenges such centralized control. To fulfill the goal of cultivating schools that can succeed with a broad range of students, this structure invites diversity, making the control and oversight of the resulting differentiated units more difficult and awkward.
The third major source of policy difficulties among schools-within-schools centers on principals' sense of responsibility for keeping the school a cohesive unit. The Effective Schools movement of the 1970s and 1980s emphasized the principal's responsibility to nurture a unified purpose or mission throughout the entire school. As it plays out in daily school life, this premise can conflict intensely with the notion of separate and distinctive schools-within-schools. Some schools, for instance, may struggle with the matter of one behavior and discipline code versus several; of one graduation ceremony versus several; and of which takes precedence, the demands of orchestra or athletic teams or the school-within-a-school schedule.
High schools often face a fourth major source of policy-related difficulty, stemming from the role and prerogatives of department chairpersons. The traditional high school structure is horizontally divided into subject areas and grade levels. The schools-within-schools structure recommends a vertical structure instead, organizing teachers of diverse subjects and grade levels into a unit. Thus, if high schools simply add schools-within-schools while retaining department chairpersons and their prerogatives, they should expect ongoing tension between the old order and the new. For instance, if department chairpersons retain their old power regarding something as simple as the calling of meetings, they can conflict with teachers' obligations within the new units.

Policy-Related Challenges of Small Schools

The policy environments of small schools differ somewhat from those of schools-within-schools. They are, in the first place, more remote and less immediate. But they can be as constricting.
For instance, one New York City regulation required all city high schools to schedule their students by computer—negating the individualization that many small schools see as their central raison d'être. Yet it proved impossible to convince those monitoring the scheduling process to exempt anyone from it—provoking all sorts of evasive and extra-legal tactics among faculties sufficiently committed to their mission of tailoring education programs to individuals.
In another case, a district policy requiring all students to be in classrooms for five full days each week cancelled the small school practice of placing students in volunteer positions in the community for half a day each week, in the dual interests of making the benefits of service learning available to them and of providing extended teacher interaction time.

Policies Need to Support, Not Restrict, Innovation

As these illustrations suggest, policy environments and structures sometimes impose difficulties on small schools and schools-within-schools by barring what the schools see as important or even central to their mission—or by mandating practices that directly contradict the small schools' goals. In fact, to the extent that the small school units do actually represent new and innovative institutions, these policies are quite likely to happen.
The tests now being imposed by the accountability and standards movements provide an example. A number of the more creative schools have carefully devised rigorous performance standards that their students must meet as an alternative to testing. A number of these institutions consider alternative forms of assessment to be a major part of their innovation and integral to their design. But in those states where standards have become tantamount to standardization when it comes to assessment, it may prove increasingly difficult to sustain much curricular or even pedagogical innovation of any sort.
For school downsizing to fulfill its promise of creating more effective learning environments to meet contemporary education challenges, we will need to examine policies and structures from the state level all the way down to the school level. When structures and policies act as barriers to innovation, we must modify them if we want small schools to flourish.
In addition to a willingness to challenge outmoded organizations and practices, school downsizing depends on active support by school leadership. As the seven different organization patterns described here suggest, small schools and schools-within-schools can be established in many ways within a school district or an individual school.
A superintendent can go a long way toward creating supportive conditions by altering policy or by altering the table of organization. Schools-within-schools can also survive comfortably with only the principal's support. With neither, however, it may be rough going, despite rhetoric about the virtues of smallness from the top or resolutions in favor of downsizing.

Darling-Hammond, L., Ancess, J., McGregor, K., & Zuckerman, D. (2000). Inching toward reform in New York City: The Coalition Campus Schools project. In E. Clinchy (Ed.), Creating new schools: How small schools are changing American education (pp. 163–180). New York: Teachers College Press.

Rizzo, J. A. (2000). School reform: A system's approach. In E. Clinchy (Ed.), Creating new schools: How small schools are changing American education (pp. 133–149). New York: Teachers College Press.

Mary Anne Raywid has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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