School & District Management

High Schools Nationwide Paring Down

By Caroline Hendrie — June 16, 2004 13 min read
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As a strategy for reforming secondary education in America, small schools have gotten big.

Prodded by an outpouring of philanthropic and federal largess, school districts and even some states are downsizing public high schools to combat high dropout rates and low levels of student achievement, especially in big- city school systems. For longtime proponents of small schools, the upswell in support for their ideas is making for heady times.

See Also...

See an accompanying table, “Major Gates Foundation Grants to Support Small High Schools.”

Read a related story from this issue, “Personal Touches.”

Despite the concept’s unprecedented popularity, however, evidence is mounting that “scaling up” scaled-down schooling is extraordinarily complex. A sometimes confusing array of approaches is unfolding under the banner of small high schools, contributing to concerns that much of the flurry of activity may be destined for disappointing results.

“It’s very, very difficult to do this well,” said Tom Vander Ark, who heads the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s mammoth initiative to create small high schools. “Small is not a panacea. It’s a platform that helps you do the things you need to do to help kids succeed.”

Whether that platform becomes a springboard to higher student achievement on a broad scale and for a sustained period remains an open question. Even in places where small schools have won strong support, educators are being hard pressed to take what has been essentially a succession of experiments and move them to the mainstream.

“Whenever you have a reform that has been successful in some places and then it’s scaled up quickly, with a lot of people who only understand it superficially, there’s a lot of danger that some people will do it poorly and that the idea will go down in flames,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University who is an expert in small-school design.

‘Culture Change’

Well aware of that risk, advocates of scaled-down schooling have been working overtime to put supports in place for educators to combat a host of emerging challenges. At the same time, they are scrambling to put their ideas into practice before the interest and money run out.

“We’re talking about a culture change, not just an institution change,” said Deborah Meier, the progressive educator and author who has founded small public schools in New York City and Boston. “The trick is how to sustain interest in a reform that requires a generation to complete.”

For the moment, that interest is running high.

During the past few years, calls have intensified for reinventing what many education leaders see as an outmoded institution: comprehensive high schools that do a better job of sorting students into academic tracks than of educating all students to the levels needed in today’s knowledge-driven economy.

Pressure to act on those calls has mounted as new demands for higher graduation rates and test-score gains have kicked in, thanks to the federal No Child Left Behind Act and state accountability systems. School safety concerns, heightened by the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, have contributed to a sense that the contemporary high school is in crisis.

Against this backdrop, more educators are buying into the notion that less may be more. Private foundations and the federal government are offering aid to spur the downsizing of public high schools. Across the country, educators are taking the bait.

In the 1.1 million- student New York City school system, city leaders have launched a major initiative to phase out the lowest-performing high schools and replace them with small schools. Poised to open 60 more small schools this year on top of the 42 that opened last fall, officials see those new schools as central to a broader push to ratchet up performance systemwide.

Statewide efforts are taking root from Maine and Rhode Island to Oregon and Washington state. Some districts, such as Houston, Kansas City, Kan., and Sacramento, Calif., have committed to districtwide strategies of small high schools and learning communities. In many others, including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, San Diego, and Oakland, Calif., district leaders are in the midst of major efforts to start new small high schools and restructure existing ones.

Influx of Funding

In some places, early indications are that efforts to rapidly scale up smaller, more personalized learning environments are meeting with success. In others, though, ambitions for widespread change seem to be outstripping results. And that reality has some small-school proponents asking themselves questions:

Is the movement growing too fast? Are people jumping on the small-schools bandwagon for the wrong reasons? Was it wise to pour so many resources into scaling up small schools before a consensus emerged on how to do it right?

Two major funders, often working with local and regional foundations, have been helping to spread the small-schools approach over the past four years at the national level: the federal government’s Smaller Learning Communities Program and the Seattle-based Gates Foundation.

Since 2000, the foundation started by the Microsoft founder and his wife has pumped nearly $650 million into efforts to establish small high schools that embody a set of attributes it believes are conducive to high achievement. (See chart below.) The foundation stresses that small size is necessary, but not sufficient, to create such schools, and that structural innovations must be accompanied by instructional ones. To serve students well, foundation officials say, small high schools must offer what they call the new “three R’s": rigor, relevance, and relationships.

Headed by Mr. Vander Ark, the Gates initiative has fostered the start-up of a potpourri of small schools as well as the conversion of large high schools into complexes of compact campuses. The foundation has poured millions of dollars into small-schools efforts in two dozen large cities, as well as into statewide initiatives in a half-dozen states. It has also financed more than two dozen organizations that are working on building networks of schools based on existing models at a regional or even national level.

By its calculations, the foundation has so far helped support the start-up of more than 740 new small high schools— typically defined as no larger than 400 students—and the redesign of 460 existing large high schools.

“Our goal is not to create more small schools, although that has certainly been an outcome of our early grantmaking,” said Mr. Vander Ark. “Our goal is to help more students graduate with the skills they need for work and citizenship.”

While the Gates initiative has garnered widespread attention, the U.S. Department of Education has been quietly running a Clinton-era program that the Bush administration has consistently urged Congress to eliminate, so far without success.

With funding that climbed from $45 million annually in fiscal 2000 to $174 million this fiscal year, the Smaller Learning Communities Program has doled out 542 grants worth nearly $275 million to hundreds of districts since 2000. The program is now reviewing applications for its fourth grant cycle, which is expected to yield another 140 one-year planning grants and 144 three-year awards for implementation. The grants are targeted to high schools with at least 1,000 students.

Projects that qualify for the federal grants can fall far short of breaking up large campuses into independent or semiautonomous schools, usually the minimum degree of restructuring that is required under the Gates Foundation’s grants for existing schools. Opening career academies, assigning students to advisory groups, and even revamping the schedule to allow for longer class periods are among the changes that can qualify.

Given the expansive criteria, some critics see the federal program as contributing to a fuzzy sense of just what the small-schools movement is or should be about. Mr. Vander Ark, for one, thinks the Bush administration is right to question the program’s effectiveness.

“Schools need very clear guidance, quality outside assistance, sufficient multiyear resources, and a support network to draw on,” he said. “The federal Small Learning Communities Program’s insufficient in all four of those areas.”

Still, the program has defenders, including Michael Klonsky, a co-director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Mr. Klonsky, who provides technical assistance to many schools that have received the federal grants, said the program’s lack of stringent criteria is preferable to the approach taken by some private funders who, in his view, seek to micromanage the change process when they “dictate a certain model—a certain degree of autonomy, a certain governance structure.”

“At least the [Department of Education] grant is a public grant,” he said. “It’s not like 12 rich people sitting in a room and saying, ‘This is how we do it in our business … and if anybody gets in our way, we’ll fire them.’ ”

Staying Power Questioned

Mr. Klonsky is among a group of small-schools proponents who are concerned that the boom in the approach’s popularity is driven primarily by the availability of funding, particularly from the Gates Foundation.

“You really have to ask yourself whether these big districts would be doing this without the Gates money coming in,” said Jon Schroeder, the coordinator of Education Evolving, a nonprofit organization based in St. Paul, Minn., that promotes new forms of schooling. “It remains to be seen how genuine this is, and whether it’s really something that’s emerging from the system itself … or whether it’s funder-driven and just sort of the ‘in’ thing to do.”

Whatever the impetus, it’s clear that policymakers are taking the small-schools idea seriously. A recent report synthesizing the themes to emerge from seven national conferences last fall on redesigning secondary education concludes that “the concept of smaller, more personalized high school learning environments has moved from the sidelines of high school reform to center stage.”

But the report by the National High School Alliance, a partnership of more than 40 national organizations interested in high school redesign, also argues that education leaders have yet to devote enough attention to the many practical problems “of bringing innovation to scale.”

Among the most pressing of those systemic challenges is finding enough principals and teachers with a deep understanding of the complex features of successful small schools. Researchers studying the Gates Foundation initiative have found, for example, that many small schools are struggling to put into place strong curricula and instructional practices, in part because their “detracked” classrooms include youngsters of widely varying skill levels.

“To really use this money wisely, we really need people who understand why small is better,” said Bill Klann, who teaches 11th grade humanities at the 340-student Vanguard High School in New York. “It can’t be because it’s a fad. It can’t be because there’s money. It can’t be because there’s less kids to get to know in a small school. It must be to significantly change how people interact and how learning takes place.”

Retrofitting old buildings and securing new ones at a time of overcrowding and tight budgets pose other serious roadblocks in many places. Altering district practices to support small schools is a heavy lift. Ensuring that successful small schools will thrive after their founders and funders move on is yet another problem, particularly because of the hard time many small schools have in making ends meet on per-pupil funding allocations in some states.

Beyond those and other systemic challenges is the often-fierce resistance that arises from teachers and administrators, and sometimes from students and parents, when districts set out to convert big high schools into smaller units or separate schools.

Amid such difficulties, a split has emerged between those who see value in creating smaller learning communities within jumbo schools, and those who see such efforts as largely pointless.

“There’s a big debate in the reform community on whether it’s even worth the effort to try to convert large high schools as they are, or whether the only useful strategy is to go to new, small, completely autonomous schools,” Ms. Darling-Hammond said. “Those are very different approaches to the change process that seem in many cases to be producing very different results.”

To date, no one has conducted a major comparative study on the benefits of converting existing schools versus starting new ones, she said.

Even anecdotally, examples are scarce of large high schools that have seen dramatic learning gains after restructuring into smaller learning communities or schools-within-schools, Ms. Darling-Hammond said. That has led some veteran small-schools proponents to conclude that the approach may be misguided.

“Too many people are saying, in Wizard of Oz fashion, to a bunch of teachers, ‘You are now School A, you are School B,’ ” said Ms. Meier. “The odds are it won’t work. I think it’s a waste of energy.”

Bush administration officials, for their part, regard the smaller-learning- communities approach skeptically. When it comes to raising student achievement, said Susan Sclafani, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, whose office oversees the Smaller Learning Communities Program, the technique of “taking a large school and turning it into small learning communities … has almost no research behind it.”

Yet other veterans see breaking down big schools as a critical element in the scaling-up equation. Questions about which approach is better are at best premature, some say.

One Best Way?

“I don’t think one way is easier or better. I think there are trade-offs,” said Joe Nathan, a University of Minnesota-Twin Cities professor who is helping both to start new schools and restructure large ones under a grant from the Gates Foundation.

Although he’s seen efforts to break up big schools go bad, Mr. Klonsky says they can succeed, provided that the impulse for reform comes from those most affected. For that reason, he regards much of the debate among elite observers over the best way to downsize as beside the point.

“I don’t think all these great ideas about small schools, including my own, are sustainable without community engagement,” he said. “It’s got to be rooted in people’s prior experience and concrete conditions.”

In Los Angeles, where top school officials are drawing up plans for smaller learning communities, Superintendent Roy Romer has yet to publicly weigh in on the debate over how downsizing should proceed. But as he reviews five-year plans for high school restructuring drafted by the heads of the system’s 11 subdistricts, admonitions about community engagement are being taken to heart.

“It has to start at the school, and it has to involve the school community, because if Superintendent Romer said, ‘OK everybody, we have to do this,’ it wouldn’t work,” said Rosa Maria Hernandez, the director for small learning communities in Local District F, a subdistrict of the 775,000-student school district. With help from a federal grant, the subdistrict is planning the redesign of three large high schools, including one with more than 5,000 students.

As debate continues over whether and how to scale up scaled-down schooling, Mr. Vander Ark of the Gates Foundation urges decisionmakers to keep their eyes on the big picture.

“What we’re doing today is a disaster, particularly for low- income and minority kids,” he said. “We need to come to grips with that.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2004 edition of Education Week as High Schools Nationwide Paring Down


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