Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Learning From the Mavericks: Lessons for Districts From Small Urban High Schools

By Regis Anne Shields & Karen Hawley Miles — August 05, 2008 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Creating new small high schools out of large failing ones continues to be a popular strategy for tackling high dropout rates and low performance in urban high schools. But, too often, districts create high-cost mini-versions of their large failing high schools because they do not have a vision of how small schools might “do school” in new ways, or how they would have to change their own practice and systems to support them.

Case studies of resource use in nine leading-edge small urban high schools can offer lessons for districts that are not satisfied with just a few examples of outstanding schools, but want to create entire systems of them.

We studied a set of widely recognized small urban schools—all with enrollments of 500 or fewer students—that represent a range of instructional, organizational, and governance models. These “Leading Edge Schools” serve student populations similar to their districts’, but outperform most local large high schools. Our sample included two state charter schools, four in-district charter schools, and three district-run schools located in Boston; Chicago; San Diego; Oakland, Calif.; and Worcester, Mass.

Here are four of the most salient lessons gleaned from our findings:

• There’s no one way, but there is a strategic way to organize schools.

Schools can best create high-performing organizations — or strategic designs — when they have the flexibility to organize resources along with guidance and support on best practices.

Rather than accept traditional schedules, staffing ratios, and job descriptions, Leading Edge Schools deliberately organize people, time, and money to support their instructional models and meet their students’ needs. Operating largely with public funds, they make tough resource trade-offs to prioritize teaching quality, core academic time, and individual student attention. Though these schools look very different from one another, they share a set of common practices that distinguish them from typical large urban high schools.

Principals carefully select teaching-staff members to fit their specific school needs, for example. Students spend an average of 20 percent more time in school each year—and 233 more days over four years—on core academics than their peers in traditional high schools do. And teachers devote an average of five times more hours to collaboration and professional development than local districts require.

• Strategic school design depends on resource-savvy principals.

The principals of Leading Edge Schools are savvy resource managers. They understand that deftly crafting resources to align with their instructional models and ever-changing student and teacher needs is key to their schools’ success. Not all principals bring these same skills to the job. To create strategic-resource schools at scale, schools leaders need help in figuring out and implementing new approaches. This suggests a new paradigm for supervising and supporting schools—especially as they are outlining their improvement plans, budgets, and staffing needs each year.

In this new paradigm, supervision would be less about enforcing a specific use of resources, and much more about enabling schools to more effectively match hiring, staff assignment, student grouping, and schedules to their particular challenges. This will require training for both principals and school supervisors in strategic resource use. It will also require districts to create templates for school designs that work within their funding levels at different school sizes and student populations. Though the Leading Edge Schools create their strategic designs from the ground up, there is no need for all schools to begin with a blank slate.

• Small high schools will require a workforce shift to include more-flexible teachers of core academic subjects.

Small size creates its own set of opportunities and constraints. Leading Edge Schools capitalize on smallness to create vibrant professional learning communities. But small size limits resources in two ways. First, the smallest schools—those with under 250 students—spend a significantly larger portion of their budgets on leadership and pupil support than larger schools do, leaving less money for teachers. In addition, the smaller staff size makes it harder to hire full-time teachers to play highly specialized roles teaching electives and advanced subjects or serving students with special needs.

Leading Edge Schools have three conditions that enable them to create their strategic designs. First, they are able to select core academic teachers with the expertise and desire to play the range of roles their small-school designs require. In eight out of nine Leading Edge Schools, 84 percent or more of all classroom teachers are “core academic” teachers. In contrast, at the typical high school, 60 percent or fewer of the teaching-staff members play these roles. Second, Leading Edge Schools can define teaching roles, allowing core academic teachers to play multiple roles and using community partners to expand course offerings and services. Third, they have the flexibility to define their own limited set of course offerings to maximize academic courses.

These conditions have implications for district practices around recruiting, staffing, course requirements, and partnerships. Schools will need far more math, science, history, and English teachers and fewer who teach only electives. Further, systems must find more cost-effective ways to deliver noncore subjects, including partnerships and part-time teachers.

• Union contracts and administrative practices need to change.

Given that the common practices described above often require significant flexibility to depart from teachers’ union contract provisions and administrative policies, it is not surprising that most of the Leading Edge Schools are charter or in-district charter schools. The lesson for school systems is that teachers are not interchangeable parts, and that teacher and student schedules cannot be universally or rigidly defined. Supporting schools will mean changing district policies and union contracts that control hiring, staffing, and scheduling.

The important idea here is that it’s not about creating flexibility for the sake of freedom. The goal of allowing more school leader discretion is to enable more effective school designs and empower leaders to make adjustments that balance limited and always-changing resources in ways that fit constantly changing student needs. Not all urban principals have the high level of expertise and experience that Leading Edge principals do, and they will require training, support, and, potentially, templates of organizational models.

As the Leading Edge Schools show, creating high-performing, successful small high schools is about so much more than size. Schools can best create high-performing organizations—or strategic designs—when they have the flexibility to organize resources along with guidance and support on best practices. They need resource-savvy leaders, who have the flexibility to hire whomoever they need, and to organize their available student time and teachers effectively.

While the Leading Edge Schools are all small urban high schools, these lessons for practice apply to schools of all sizes and types—making small school reform a powerful lever of system change.

A version of this article appeared in the August 13, 2008 edition of Education Week

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Q&A School Libraries and Controversial Books: Tips From the Front Lines
A top school librarian explains how districts can prepare for possible challenges to student reading materials and build trust with parents.
6 min read
Image of library shelves of books.
mikdam/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion ‘This Is Not What We Signed Up For’: A Principal’s Plea for More Support
School leaders are playing the role of health-care experts, social workers, mask enforcers, and more. It’s taking a serious toll.
Kristen St. Germain
3 min read
Illustration of a professional woman walking a tightrope.
Laura Baker/Education Week and uzenzen/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Letter to the Editor Educators Must Look to History When They Advocate for Changes
Educators and policymakers must be aware of the history of ideas when making changes in education, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.
iStock/Getty
School & District Management Letter to the Editor Reconsidering Causes of Principal Burnout
The state and federal governments are asking us to implement policies that often go against our beliefs, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.
iStock/Getty