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Advocates Seek To Make Small Schools the Rule, Not the Exception

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PHILADELPHIA--Educators, foundation executives, and community activists from around the nation gathered here this month to celebrate the advantages of small high schools and discuss how to make them the norm, rather than the exception, in American education.

School districts have traditionally found ways to allow dissident teachers and principals to create a limited number of small, alternative schools. But a growing number of educators are now calling for a comprehensive effort to establish small schools to replace the anonymous, factory-style high schools that are failing too many students.

"This movement is ambitious enough to believe that all secondary schools should be restructured into smaller, more humane communities,'' said Robert B. Schwartz, the program director for education for the Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the sponsors of the conference.

The meeting was organized by the Philadelphia Schools Collaborative, which is leading an effort here to divide the city's 22 comprehensive high schools into smaller "charters'' of 200 to 400 students run by teams of teachers. (See Education Week, Nov. 18, 1992.)

Small schools also are high on the agenda in New York City, where 50 new, small high schools are expected to open next school year.

The conference also drew participants from Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, and Providence, R.I., who either have created small schools or are interested in doing so.

While many people view small schools as an antidote to impersonal and sometimes violent urban high schools, rural educators also are interested in preserving their small schools, noted Michelle Fine, a senior consultant to the collaborative.

"This is not simply an urban phenomenon,'' Ms. Fine said. "Questions of consolidation are as troubling as large urban schools.''

'Bureaucratic Rationality'

The goal of the meeting was to enable small-school advocates to compare their experiences and share ways of getting around the obstacles to creating small schools and connecting them to their communities.

Several of the 60 attendees were involved with the New Visions schools in New York--16 theme-oriented small schools designed in cooperation with labor unions, community groups, churches, colleges and universities, and other organizations.

The conference also drew a number of community activists, including representatives of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, who said they are pushing to create small schools in low-income communities.

Advocates of small schools must challenge a number of ingrained beliefs, Ms. Fine suggested, including that big schools are cheaper, that schools should be "teacher proof,'' and that teachers do not want to make decisions about their schools.

"We are all fighting bureaucratic rationality being better than educational rationality,'' she said.

But other issues are more divisive, she noted. They include whether to view legislation authorizing creation of autonomous, publicly funded "charter schools'' as a threat to public education or as an opportunity to create small schools, whether creating neighborhood-based schools conflicts with desegregation, and whether small schools will result in fewer course offerings.

In cities, the central question is, How much autonomy small schools should have and how the central office must change to support them.

But the issues are different in rural areas. There, schools have always controlled their curricula, hiring, and budgets, noted Dennis Littky, the principal of Thayer High School in Winchester, N.H.

"Just because it's small doesn't mean it's good,'' he cautioned. "What's good about a small school is that you get to know the kids, but you have to know them in a certain way.''

Need for Autonomy

Wherever they are located, small schools are an "absolute prerequisite'' for meeting the goal of educating all students well, maintained Deborah Meier, the co-director of New York's Central Park East Secondary School.

Most importantly, she said, small schools provide an opportunity for teachers to work together and to develop the "habits of mind'' that educators want children to acquire.

"It is not guaranteed to happen in a small school,'' she said, "but it is guaranteed that it will not happen in a large one.''

To be effective, Ms. Meier argued, small schools must have sufficient autonomy to use their size to advantage. That means controlling their staffing, curricula, assessments, and schedules, she said.

"They need far more power than schools in the past have ever had,'' Ms. Meier said.

To gain it, however, advocates will have to battle what Ms. Meier called the "interchangeable-part mindset'' that prevails in most large districts.

Role of Unions

The role of teachers' unions in the campaign for smaller schools was a topic of some debate.

Unions can "allow this to happen,'' said Mark Weiss, the principal of one of the New Visions schools.

"But I don't see the teachers' union being the one to make the partnerships that result in a successful school,'' he said. "It's a large, formal organization.''

Norm Fruchter, the education-program adviser for the Aaron Diamond Foundation, which is supporting some of the New York schools, noted that the union could help identify groups of teachers who wanted to create a small school.

"With a different union, that's the role the union would play,'' he said.

Participants also discussed cases in which small-schools efforts have had to contend with union resistance.

In Philadelphia, for example, the charters are not actually separate schools. They have "permeable boundaries'' that allow students and teachers to move among them, Ms. Fine explained, which can threaten the sense of community and stability that the charters are trying to forge.

The district has issued a request for proposals inviting teachers and parents to devise plans for making some charters autonomous. But the idea has run into opposition from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which fears that teachers' contractual seniority and transfer rights would be threatened.

In San Francisco, teachers at the International Studies Academy are proposing to become a charter school under a 1992 California law.

The legislation was opposed by the state's teachers' unions, which argued that it did not contain enough protections for teachers.

The San Francisco school's charter proposal notes that achieving stability in staffing will be critical to its success. In its 10-year history, the school has had 12 principals and "very little stability in teaching assignments,'' the proposal says.

Before concluding their meeting, participants agreed to gather again to share information about creating small schools, such as examples of state and district policies and teaching contracts that would aid them.

They will communicate through the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, a network of big-city educators who favor decentralization.

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