School & District Management Opinion

Nine Friction Points in Moving to Smaller School Units

By Larry Myatt — April 05, 2005 12 min read
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Despite calls for ‘reform,’ most high schools continue to function as comfortable environments for adults, displaying few tangible changes in operations.

Over the past few years, the movement toward smaller school units has accelerated. Public and foundation resources, as well as copious amounts of technical assistance, have been brought to bear on comprehensive high schools in an effort to provide greater personalization, increase adult accountability for the achievement of all students, and create better links among schools, families, community organizations, and institutions of higher education. The previously held notion that strong relationships and academic challenge are somehow irreconcilable has given way. Closely watched initiatives in a number of large cities, such as those funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have supported recommendations from a diverse set of organizations that we transform big high schools into smaller learning communities.

Many of these large-to-smaller initiatives have been under way for several years. Yet in many locales, results have been few despite substantial investment in what is often called “conversion” work. People still demand to know where they can go to “see it done well.” Given the complicated organization of high schools—built on years of state and federal policies and legislation, academic statutes and regulations, contractual negotiations, funding formulas, certification requirements, and self-serving college-admissions policies—attempting to change one or two of the working parts quickly results in frustration and cynicism. Despite calls for “reform,” most high schools continue to function as comfortable environments for adults, displaying few tangible changes in operations, values, priorities, professional culture, and, most important, teaching methods and student engagement.

For some urban systems, however, responding to this limited payback on investment has meant the creation of new “start-up” small schools, replacing “conversion” efforts. There is widespread agreement that results in these start-up schools are generally more promising. But given the sheer number of large high schools, it’s likely that work on small learning communities will continue side by side with building these new small schools.

Through my work in Boston and with educators in other cities and multistate networks, I have consistently heard people tell similar stories about the places in the process where their efforts to convert large high schools have bogged down. Perhaps by focusing on these “friction points,” we can establish research-and-development initiatives that offer a range of possible solutions and alternatives—ideas that are as complex as the problems themselves:

Facilitating Teacher Talk

As schools are broken down into smaller units, teachers will be asked to make more complicated decisions—about course offerings, student placement, professional development, mutual support, and other areas that represent a new universe of concerns for them. These have traditionally been the domain of administrators. Organizational research is clear on the fact that increased staff involvement and responsibility in smaller settings is critical to improvement. But not only do teachers have limited experience in these areas, they also are often uncomfortable and inexperienced in talking to one another about them. Difficulties in working collaboratively to address thorny instructional, operational, and political issues may be exacerbated when teachers attempt to do this new and different work in highly unionized environments.

Teachers not only need “permission” but also support in convening meetings, setting agendas, making decisions by consensus, developing formal and informal protocols for analyzing problems or looking at student work, and interacting with collaborators outside the school. This is particularly true in the early stages of small-learning-community development. The ideas of “capacity coaching” and “critical-friends work” have grown in importance and been developed at deeper levels in districts where large sums of money spent on literacy and other instructional initiatives have gained little traction. But this remains an area of critical need as we hand over control of these small learning environments to classroom teachers.

Challenging the Cultural Glue

Even though many large schools may have become unsafe or underperforming environments, and now struggle to maintain the vestiges of their intellectual mission, they still represent a stronghold of identity in their communities. Aunts and uncles attended these schools. The 1994 state class-B football championship happened there, along with fantastic productions of “Oklahoma!” and “The Wiz.” The All-City Dance Troupe performed, and the debate team triumphed; the school choir went to Europe, the band to the Rose Bowl. All of these “extracurriculars” are living symbols in the hearts and minds of families, community members, and city leaders. These activities matter. The cohesive force they embody is powerful. Abandoning them in the name of smaller school units makes little sense.

We must make a priority of exploring new and different ways in which schools are no longer viewed simply as ‘buildings’

We must instead make a priority of exploring new and different ways in which schools are no longer viewed simply as “buildings,” and staff members and their collaborators outside the school join forces to sustain the programs that make for special experiences, strong relationships, and supports for achievement and lofty dreams. Tackling this issue upfront allows for deeper conversations about what is important in our schools, and what can be let go to make greater progress.

Horizontal Structures, Short-Lived Relationships

The good news is that big-school personnel have figured out that relationships do matter. And with the best of intentions, many have gone about mobilizing energetic and caring teachers to form entities such as 9th grade academies, repeater/remedial clusters, and junior and senior institutes. The flaw in this strategy is that it unwittingly duplicates what they sought to avoid through more personalized learning environments: truncated, often superficial relationships.

The energy and goodwill expended in helping students grow into the more sophisticated and challenging high school environment is often squandered when we repeatedly introduce them to new and unconnected sequences of teachers, schedules, subject matter, and fellow students. Borrowing from elementary school practice and from the wisdom enjoyed by athletic coaches and ballet teachers, schools such as Boston’s Fenway High School and Arts Academy, among others, have learned one key lesson: Changes in structure that accommodate teacher-student “looping” can quickly become the engine for high achievement.

Reprogramming Our Special Populations

Supporting limited-English-speakers and students with special needs has often meant having a substantially separate platform for service delivery. Moving to smaller school units cannot be the means through which we continue, or further entrench, this practice by segregating these special populations in small learning communities “of their very own.”

Much of the current practice in special education, and the cognitive theory that supports it, is decades old. Moving beyond the rhetoric of inclusion to actually build capacity among mainstream teachers—clearly defining the details of state-of-the-art inclusion programs and commensurate professional development, and engaging higher education institutions to train new practitioners on site—is critical to supporting this change in belief systems and services.

Not doing these things may mean choosing between segregating these populations further or becoming bogged down in instructional and programmatic models with little tensile strength. Recommitting to a dialogue about strengthening service delivery, with help from technology and arts infusion, and disseminating cogent national research, are long overdue in this costly yet moribund domain.

Reconsidering the Guidance Model

As high schools get smaller and opt to take greater responsibility for the social and emotional lives of their students, there is growing concern about the ability of the traditional “guidance counselor” model to hold up under the load. I recently sat for over an hour outside a high school counselor’s office. While one high-performing student and her parent absorbed more than a full hour of the counselor’s time discussing possible colleges, eight other students came, knocked, and left in varying states of frustration.

As small schools opt to take greater responsibility for the social and emotional lives of their students, there is growing concern about the ability of the traditional ‘guidance counselor’ model to hold up under the load.

Many counselors prefer, and are trained, to focus mainly on students’ choices for life after school. Clearly, the needs of today’s students are greater and more complicated than ever. The model of one student being interviewed in an office by a solitary guidance person, while hundreds of others wait a turn for one of their twice-yearly, 20-minute life-after-high-school sessions cannot hold up, particularly in the urban environment.

Promising developments have occurred in schools such as Boston’s “pilot” schools and New York City’s New Visions schools, where highly trained teacher/advisers have successfully picked up more and more of the life-after-high-school workload, and guidance personnel are giving way to investment in student-support counseling teams with training and experience in mental-health settings as well as career and college planning. These professionals can serve individual students, provide triage and group counseling, and are skilled at linking families with neighborhood service providers.

Prisoners of the Infrastructure

Schools built before, and especially during, the era of James B. Conant’s 1959 report on the American high school are configured in ways that support both a centralized and a comprehensive approach to service delivery—the History and Language wing, the Main Office complex, the large central Auditorium, the Science Corridor. Special equipment, fixtures, and architecture were designed to support particular areas of the curriculum, driven by a separate and compartmentalized approach to the disciplines. It’s tricky for school leaders to be faithful to instructional priorities when forced to negotiate the schedules for the science classrooms, technology labs, or the 900-seat auditorium for their 300 students.

Boston’s South Boston Education Complex, supported by funds from the Gates Foundation and now home to three small high schools, was rescued from that struggle when a savvy central-office administrator caught the architect’s refurbishing plans in the nick of time. The district opted instead for drop-down wiring and plumbing for science labs, office infrastructures, and technology platforms for each of the three schools, helping each to become master of its own instructional destiny. As cities replace or retrofit their aging school buildings, this kind of preplanning for smaller school units must become a priority.

Too Much Curriculum, Too Little Time

One of the most frequent complaints of small-schools leaders has to do with the difficulty of offering the traditional breadth of courses that has, for a century, reflected our linear (curriculum as sequential and cumulative) and compartmentalized (history separate from literature, for example) thinking about the disciplines and student learning. “How can I offer nine levels of math with a math faculty of four?” is a frequent complaint. Lists of content standards continue to swell. Although significant advances have been made across the country as people reconsider and update curriculum approaches, now, ironically, the high-stakes-testing movement has breathed new life into the old curriculum paradigm under the guise of “accountability.”

Responding neither to brain research nor common sense, the broad and anachronistic sweep of high school courses defies the ability of small faculties to stretch to fit the old mold. Small schools provoke complicated questions about which functions of the old “department head” job might remain valid, how to support teachers’ instructional needs, and how best to capitalize on the potential of the 360-degree perspective provided when core-subject teachers work in unison to address their students’ intellectual and social needs.

Cohort Thinking vs. Human Nature

Despite our knowledge and our ready acceptance of the developmental span that exists for youngsters in the pre-K-to-3rd-grade range, we somehow forget that the developmental continuum at the high school level is sure to be far more complicated— perhaps profoundly so, when factoring in the many variables surrounding income, environment, prior schooling, and so on.

If we don’t win the hearts and minds of the people involved, things will stay as they are.

Contrary to our plans for students’ steady and uniform passage through our school program, it is more likely that we will encounter striking social/ emotional and cognitive differences that defy the stark uniformity of age-alike cohort thinking, lock-step curriculum-pacing guides, and promotion standards. Terms we tacitly accept as starting points, such as “grade level,” in truth have little meaning. Revisiting the ways we organize curriculum; accounting for students’ styles, needs, strengths, and challenges; and altering our promotion policies and deployment of resources to respond to a vastly complicated continuum of adolescent needs are steps that few schools and districts have taken on in deliberate ways.

Public Engagement Cannot Be an Add-On

One lesson we have learned for certain in small-learning-community conversion work is that, if we don’t win the hearts and minds of the people involved, things will stay as they are. Too often we hear tales of people in key positions in central offices, schools, or community organizations who remain unaware of, or uninvolved in, the details and timelines of restructuring efforts. Instead of taking the time to make sense of the initiative, many too quickly become resisters or bystanders at critical phases of the work. There is also a history of asking families, particularly those in urban communities, to embrace the latest plan affecting their neighborhood schools only during its latter stages, rather than asking them to be partners early on.

Students report scant involvement in the process and little timely information about changes to their school life, often finding out the true significance of changes made to their schools when they arrive for opening day. Adults at these schools, captives of the control-and-compliance orientation required to manage large groups of students in big buildings, are understandably uneasy when listening to adolescent perspectives. Reformers struggle to capture and use “student voice,” often leaving it as an add-on, rather than a starting place.

The school renewal process must be transparent, authentic, and involve stakeholders at every level. This will necessarily force the work to proceed at a slower pace and will challenge educators to work differently from how they have worked in the past. But if we truly expect our plans to be more than designs on paper, we must commit ourselves to an extended discussion of how they will affect all those concerned.


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