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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Education Opinion

Response: The Value of ‘Small Learning Communities’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 01, 2015 11 min read
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This week’s question is:

What are ‘Small Learning Communities’ (dividing large campuses into special interest small schools) and how do they work?

Having worked for the past ten years in a school that is divided into “Small Learning Communities,” I can’t imagine teaching in any other kind of environment. I’ll leave it to Ted Appel, the extraordinary principal of our school, to explain how it works in today’s first response. Educators ReLeah Cossett, PJ Caposey and Tom Hoerr also contribute their commentaries today sharing different perspectives on what a “small learning community” might look like. Plus, you can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Ted and ReLeah on this topic at my BAM! Radio Show.

I’ve collected additional materials at The Best Resources For Learning About Small Learning Communities.

Response From Ted Appel

Ted Appel is the principal of Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California:

In 2001, the Sacramento City Unified School district launched an initiative for high school reform. The initiative. which was supported by a grant from the Carnegie Foundation, resulted in Luther Burbank High School reorganizing its 2000 students and approximately 100 teachers from a centrally organized and administrated program into eight small learning communities. Each small learning community consists approximately 250 students who take all their core classes (English, Math, Social Science and some science) with teachers assigned to the small learning community. Each SLC has a dedicated counselor assigned to it. There is a career path theme to each small learning community such as Law and Social Justice or Health and Medical Sciences. Electives are aligned to the career path theme.

The most fundamental aspect of the small learning community is the opportunity for teachers to believe they have an opportunity to have an impact on the success of the students in their community and the belief that their actions make a significant contribution to the community. In my view, the most significant motivator you can give a teacher is the opportunity to make a difference. Because teachers work collaboratively with other teachers and counselors , and because they can engage with their students beyond one period a day for one semester or year, they believe their ongoing work can have that impact. They establish relationships that reflect a concern for their students beyond the short period of time the student may be in their class. This, in turn, changes the way the students think about their teachers.

Additionally, SLCs provide teachers with more varied opportunities to lead and be part of the school community. Each small learning community creates an assortment of roles and responsibilities for teachers. These include facilitation of SLC meetings, chairing a career day or awards celebration and monitoring parent contacts. Giving teachers roles and responsibilities for the betterment of their community connects teachers to the overall community success.

Finally, small learning communities make teachers and students less anonymous. In a large school some teachers and many students believe they can exist unnoticed. For both, this can mean feeling like you can get away with doing less than your best. It is much more difficult to pass unnoticed when you collaborate with colleagues on regular basis and each student knows that each teacher knows all of their other teachers. This breakdown of anonymity is the first step toward accountability.

Response From ReLeah Cossett

ReLeah Cossett Lent is an educational consultant, speaker, and author of numerous articles and books, including Literacy Learning Communities, Overcoming Textbook Fatigue, and, most recently, Common Core CPR:

Small learning communities can effectively change the impersonal nature of large schools, but their success depends upon the unique population of students as well as the interests and expertise of the faculty. Many schools seeking the advantages of “schools within schools"--lower drop-out rates, higher achievement, reduced isolationism (for teachers as well as students), and a surge in engagement-- create academy-type programs related to particular themes such as technology, law, music, international studies or fine arts. Though academy students must accrue appropriate credits, the coursework is more closely related to the theme of the academy, and often courses are multi-year, allowing participants to delve more deeply into topics than they might in traditional classes. The process for applying to such programs may be a learning experience in itself. Students sometimes undergo a rigorous interview along with the presentation of a portfolio that includes sample work, letters of application, and teacher recommendations.

The smaller community concept is at the heart of many well known “school within school” programs, for example the International Baccalaureate program which targets high-achieving students and provides an international context for learning. Similarly, STEM programs offer an academic focus, specifically on science, technology, engineering and math. Ninth-grade academies are popular all across the nation and are sometimes physically removed from the rest of the high school population. The most successful learning communities have their own budget, faculty, administrators, and governance, making it a true school within a school.

Strong support networks and personalized attention are generally hallmarks of any smaller community, components of learning that are especially important if there is little support at home. Students often develop lasting relationships not only with other students, but with teachers and community partners. In one school, for example, the local bar association created a law library at the school and offered internships during the summer for students in the law academy. If project-based, interdisciplinary learning is a component of study, as it often is, students have increased opportunities to apply what they’ve learned and prepare for college and career in authentic ways.

Teachers seem to flourish in smaller communities as well since they often are free to try new approaches and work more closely with their colleagues in planning curriculum and sharing tasks.

As might be expected, there seem to be few downsides to this “smaller” approach to learning, one that values individuals, relationships, autonomy, and shared interests.

Response From Tom Hoerr

Thomas R. Hoerr has been the head of New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, since 1981. Tom founded, directed, and taught in the Washington University Nonprofit Management Program. He is the author of Fostering Grit: How do I prepare my students for the real world? (ASCD, 2013), The Art of School Leadership (ASCD, 2005), and Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School(ASCD, 2000):

We learn best under the same conditions as do our students. We learn best when the content is developmentally appropriate, relevant, and engaging. And we flourish when we are part of a smaller group so that we can be part of a team, learning with and from one another. That last phrase, “learning with and from one another,” is Roland Barth’s definition of “collegiality” (from his book, Improving Schools from Within). As a school leader, a major task of mine is to create a culture where collegiality is the norm so that our teachers are learners and their students will benefit.

Small learning communities increase the likelihood that collegiality will develop and flourish. Particularly in a large school, it can be difficult to create a feeling of team and a pattern of teamwork among faculty members, and it is hard to develop a sense of trust among everyone. Small work groups, though, more readily become learning communities in which the members get to know, rely upon, and trust one another. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos uses the “two pizza rule” for limiting the size of his work teams: If two pizzas aren’t enough for a meal, the group is too large.

By dividing a faculty into learning groups, we not only gain benefits in collegiality and teamwork, we are also able to simultaneously pursue several thrusts on student achievement. One group could look at how to differentiate instruction, another might investigate how to incorporate non-cognitive skills into the curriculum, and still another at what teachers and principals can do to foster grit, for example. By narrowing the focus for each of these learning communities, they are more likely to succeed in understanding the issue, becoming knowledgeable about needs and resources, and in developing strategies. Depending upon the length of time that these communities operate, periodic reports and updates should take place so that everyone understands what’s happening in each group. It’s important that the work of smaller learning communities be coordinated so that their efforts are in sync and synergy can occur. Ultimately, the learning communities share their findings and recommendations with the school’s administration and the larger faculty.

A small learning community might last for a semester, an entire year, or it might work with a shorter time frame. Regardless, we should be sure that the members are engaged and that their efforts are meaningful.

Response From PJ Caposey

PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator specializing in school culture and evaluation. He is Superintendent of the Meridian (Illinois) School District and a member of the ASCD Emerging Leader class of 2013:

Small Learning Communities can work!! They can serve students wonderfully, increase student achievement, and according to some studies increase student achievement and even enrollment in to post-secondary institutions.

Large learning communities can work!! They can serve students wonderfully and increase student achievement. In fact, according to US News and World Report, the top non-selective enrollment school in my home state of Illinois serves 4,031 students.

So, what gives??

The Gates Foundation champions the success of the Small Learning Community model with more influence by the than any other institution and is often met with critique and opposition. The Gates Foundation in and of itself is polarizing, and this subject too attracts its share of critics, including educational superpower Diane Ravitch. This debate has proven two things - there is plenty of research to support either the ‘in favor’ or the ‘opposed’ perspective and the other qualities the Gates Foundation has deemed essential for a school to be high performing are pretty dead on. It is difficult to argue that schools should not have a common purpose, high expectations, use technology as a learning tool, focus on performance, allow time for collaboration, and have a personalized focus for each student. So - minimally, everyone should be able to agree on some of the core beliefs behind the Small Learning Community movement.

I too have my personal bias - seeing that I have spent the last 6 years of my life serving Districts that house high schools of 600 students or fewer. Do I think small schools and small learning communities potentially provide an experience a large, traditional school cannot - absolutely. I also believe that in the small learning community the following things are what really make the difference - not the enrollment number of the school:

  • People - The quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. I am not the first to say it, but there is nothing that could possibly make me believe in that statement more. As a school leader, give me great teachers and we can do great things - period.
  • Purpose - Leadership provides direction and vision. A school without a clear focus and/or too many foci will not achieve great results. The ability to set out upon a course and stay true without deviation (even when new, shiny initiatives present) is what makes schools great.
  • Personalization - Anybody who does not believe that socio-emotional issues impact learning at a nearly unquantifiable rate at the secondary levels simply has not taught in one. The personalization of an education is not just about the things that manifest in to test scores - it is about serving the whole child.
  • Resources - Functioning well as a small learning community takes appropriate resources. Being small, poor, and unable to provide the resources necessary to serve kids appropriately solves no problems. The bottom line is that there are haves and have-nots in education - too frequently the have-nots are the schools serving kids who need the most resources.

Thanks to Ted, ReLeah, PJ and Tom for their contributions!

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