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Q & A: N.Y.C. Civic Activist Promotes Benefits of Smaller Schools

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Not only do smaller schools provide a better education for children in America's cities, but they are also more affordable over the long term, a new series of three reports contends.

The reports seek to refute the argument that larger buildings are more economical because they maximize usage of school facilities and resources.

In fact, the reports maintain, larger schools are actually more expensive because they require a disproportionately large management structure. In addition, because larger schools experience more violent incidents, they have higher security budgets.

Citing a body of research that has found that children who attend larger schools tend to perform less well academically than their counterparts in smaller schools, the studies conclude that larger schools also incur higher social costs.

The reports were issued recently by the Public Education Association, an independent civic group that seeks to improve New York City schools, and the Architectural League of New York, a organization of architects concerned with advancing the physical development of the city.

Jeanne Silver Frankl, the executive director of the P.E.A., discussed the reports' findings with Staff Writer Meg Sommerfeld.

Q. What was your objective in publishing these reports?

A. Over the last 10 years, [the P.E.A.] has been making a special effort to understand and attack the problem of high school failure. And we came to this issue of small schools after exploring various approaches to dropout prevention, concluding that none of them can work as long as schools are as alienating as they are today in big cities.

Our objective was to stimulate a rethinking of the practice of perpetuating and creating large schools in the inner city. It seems ironic to us that the children who live in the most anonymous, harsh environments frequently go to the largest, harshest, anonymous schools, when exactly the opposite should be the case.

In small communities, or even medium-sized communities, young people go to schools that are much more personal in character.

Increasingly, after years of advocacy and experimentation, I think people understand that, but there's a sense that there's nothing that can be done about that; there's a presumption that larger schools are more effective than small schools. And all these three reports ... tended to overturn that presumption, which is not borne by the evidence.

Q. What makes larger schools less effective?

A. Well, I think it's the difficulty that people have in making connections [with other people] in larger schools.

Research shows that the most important influence bearing on whether a young person succeeds in school or not is his or her relationships with peers. It's very hard for kids to develop good solid relationships with peers when places are very big, very scary.

Also, the capacity of adults to help them is very limited in a very large school.

Interestingly enough, more attention has been paid until recently to class size. We think the school size is even more important than class size, because in a small school, everybody knows everybody, and the staff can collaborate in working out what is best for the youngster.

A small school is also much more nurturing to the adults because it makes their collegial interaction much easier. And they feel better when they know all the young people.

Q. And why are larger schools less economical than smaller schools?

A. larger schools require a much more substantial managerial and support apparatus per capita than the smaller schools.

The assumption has been that you would need the same kind of bureaucratic structure if a school got smaller. In fact, although you do need a head of school, you need less middle management, less security, less deans, less guidance, because teachers are enabled to perform more of those functions as part of their daily life.

Q. Your reports suggest that, in smaller schools, teachers may take on some of the roles performed currently by various assistant principals. Could you elaborate on this?

A. The assistant principal for curriculum was the primary function that we thought could be distributed between the principal and the teachers in a smaller school.

In general, the law and contracts require that the formal evaluator function be performed by an administrator, but teachers can play a role in evaluating their peers, either as delegates, with the principal making the final decision, or laws and contracts could be changed to give peers more of a role in evaluation.

In a smaller school that's more collaboratively managed ... evaluation becomes a mutual process of school improvement and professional development, rather than a rating process.

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