School & District Management Opinion

The Not-So-Inevitable Failure of High School Conversions

By Stephen Fink & Max Silverman — October 23, 2007 5 min read
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The promise of converting comprehensive high schools into small schools that better serve their students has gone largely unfulfilled, and funders are now questioning the wisdom of this strategy. At the risk of taking the podium in an empty auditorium, we’d like to tell why we think it is possible to make good on that promise.

While conversions of large, impersonal high schools have always been seen as a way to create more personalization for students and adults, another equally important goal has been largely neglected: improving the quality of teaching. As Rick Lear of the Small Schools Project often advises, the conversion process must be seen as what gets you to the beginning of the work, rather than an end in and of itself.

The beginning of the work is learning how to improve the quality of teaching in every content area and for every student. We argue that long-term investments focused equally on instructional practice and personalization will be more sustainable and more flexible than large, short-term investments in new school-replication or managed-curriculum models.

To further illuminate, let us examine the lack of success to date. We believe it can be traced to the following missteps and misconceptions:

• Unproductive planning. In the spirit of building ownership and buy-in, conversion processes often drag on for more than three years. Participants talk about structure, theme, how much of the old school organization to change, how many systems of privilege to maintain, and so on, and they exhibit only vague understanding of instructional frameworks and curriculum themes. Missing from the discussions are these central questions: How will we improve instruction? What do we mean by personalization?

Small schools on conversion campuses are too fragile for district leaders to take a wait-and-see approach.

• Failure to hire exceptional instructional leaders to head the newly created small schools. The same leaders who struggled to run the comprehensive high school are often expected to somehow do a better job in a small school.

• A lack of instructional knowledge, skill, and vision at the district and school leadership level. This may preclude substantive instructional-improvement work, which will preordain the conversion process’s focus on factors other than what is required to improve the quality of teaching practice.

• The avoidance of community unrest. To appease various groups, issues revolving around ability-grouping, advanced-placement opportunities, band, school spirit, or athletics may take precedence over strong efforts to improve instruction and enhance personalization.

• Failure to staff schools with the appropriate mix of teachers who can get all students ready for college, career, and citizenship.

• Failure to dismiss teachers who are not successful in teaching students.

With skepticism mounting over the pileup of ineffective conversions, educators are drawn to the attraction of start-ups and replications. In essence, starting new schools allows districts to avoid the hard work of school change.

But there is hope in the form of specific conversion strategies that increase the likelihood of small schools’ success. Here are the salient features:

Instructional Leadership. District leaders must take the time to recruit and hire the very best instructional leaders for their schools on conversion campuses. The complexities of starting new schools with staff from the old high school will require leaders with a clear understanding of instructional needs, so that better outcomes for students typically well below grade level in reading, writing, and math can be ensured. These leaders also will need to understand the importance of teacher collaboration. Small schools create an ideal structure for teachers to know their colleagues and hold one another accountable. Leaders will have to be adept at leveraging these adult relationships. Moreover, the work of building positive school cultures, new traditions, and different ways of managing are too much to ask of leaders not already steeped in an understanding of how they are going to move staff members to new levels of capability.

District Role. In addition to providing adequate resources, the district office must play a role in developing the leadership skills of small-school principals. Small schools on conversion campuses are too fragile for district leaders to take a wait-and-see approach. They must have a clear understanding of each principal’s strengths and weaknesses, with clear plans for how they will support each leader.

District leaders must take the time to recruit and hire the very best instructional leaders for their schools on conversion campuses.

Appropriate Staffing. Districts must be willing to staff conversion schools in the same way they would new small schools. They must allow principals and leadership teams to target staffing allocations on student needs, with a goal of getting all students prepared for life after high school. In most cases, this will mean retaining and hiring staff members credentialed in and able to teach core content areas, particularly literacy and math. In most conversion scenarios, this approach may lead to laying off teachers who lack the appropriate credentials. Principals and hiring teams need discretion in selecting staff members they believe can best meet their vision, mission, and the needs of their students.

Deep Personal Relationships. The success of small schools so far has been based on the personal relationships built between staff and students, students and other students, and staff members and their peers. These relationships can only be fostered in environments that are intentionally structured to support them. Here are some factors that may get in the way:

• A lack of independence between small schools;

• Teachers who remain in campuswide academic departments;

• Teachers and/or students who “cross over” to other schools;

• Maintaining common bell schedules; and

• All-campus events that hinder the growth of unique school cultures and personalization.

It is not too late to change the prospects for high school conversions. By focusing on the components of successful conversions, schools and districts can move rapidly to create the structures that will allow instructional improvement to flourish and personalization to grow.

A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2007 edition of Education Week


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