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Education Opinion

Small Schools at a Crossroads

By Anthony Cody — October 17, 2008 3 min read

One of the most intriguing initiatives in urban school reform, taking large schools and shrinking them to create more humane and flexible ones, is at a crossroads, and education leaders in Oakland have some tough decisions to make.

Six years ago the Oakland Unified School District was in a financial crisis, and was forced to borrow $100 million from the state. Teachers agreed to take a four percent pay cut, and a state administrator was appointed to run things. The District also faced declining enrollment. Every year we had several thousand fewer students – and our funding is directly tied to the number of students we teach. The District also faced chronic academic problems, with many schools way below state average on their test scores.

The District had already embarked on a path led by the “small schools movement,” and the state-appointed administrator supported this direction. With leadership from the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, and millions of dollars from the Broad and Gates Foundations, each year new small schools were launched. The District went from about 90 schools to more than 140 in just the past eight years.

Many of these small schools have been academically successful where the schools that preceded them were not. Some have implemented project-based learning, and all have worked to personalize the learning environment. At the secondary level, the small middle and high schools have increased graduation rates.

Unfortunately, small schools are inherently more expensive to run than larger schools, for obvious reasons. And the dollars that once flowed from foundations are now elsewhere – small schools have lost their allure. It should be noted that other areas, such as Portland and Seattle, where the Gates Foundation likewise supported the creation of new small schools, are undergoing similar challenges. According to this June article in the Seattle Times, “Gates Foundation leaders also have grown impatient at the uneven results when big schools break into small ones. This fall, Gates probably will switch the focus of its grants for fixing high schools to target teaching and raise teacher quality, says Vicki Phillips, who directs Gates’ education initiatives.”

In Oakland, our District still owes the state $84 million, and enrollment has continued to decline. The District has gone from 54,024 students down to 38,852 during this time. As a result, the District is researching school closures as a means of saving money to repay the debt and to make sure the schools that remain open have adequate resources.

So now the District is embarking on the painful process of examining which schools should be closed, and which should remain open. Widely respected education policy expert Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford University, is working on a report, and shared preliminary results last week. Community meetings have begun to discuss the criteria that should be used in deciding which schools ought to be closed. This article in the East Bay Express describes the controversy.

School closures are highly disruptive and painful, so the decisions must be made very carefully. The process allows us to focus on some questions we should be thinking about anyway.

What are the critical variables in the success of a school? Here are some of the variables at play in our schools:

Size
Age
Design
Ethnic composition
Economic status
Teacher experience
Teacher leadership
Administrative leadership
Community involvement

It will be interesting to read Linda Darling-Hammond’s report and see how these various factors play out in the evaluation of the effectiveness of these schools. I will share her results when they become available.

In the meantime, what do you think? What are the critical variables in the success of a school? Are there intangibles not on this list? What about student performance? What measures would you use?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.