In 1974, Deborah Meier started the modern small-schools movement in America by opening Central Park Elementary School in the East Harlem section of New York City. Since then, the movement has grown, and more recently the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has poured millions of dollars into establishing 1,500 small high schools across the country.
Advocates of small school size argue that having fewer students in a school creates a more familiar environment, where students don’t “fall through the cracks.” Children have smaller learning communities, and teachers and administrators are more likely to be able to identify all students in the hallways by name. As a result, students do better academically, they are less likely to drop out of school, and their parents are more involved in the education process.
An additional benefit of small schools is their ability to foster racial integration, a goal of American schools since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision more than 50 years ago. Large, anonymous high schools with diverse enrollments have a harder time integrating students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds than do smaller high schools, where students have more chances to develop close relationships with peers unlike them.
It’s not enough for kids to attend the same schools. They also need the structural incentives to make use of that integration.
In my research involving students at two diverse high schools—one in London, one in New York City—I found a much higher degree of racial integration in the smaller London school. The London school enrolls 1,100 students in seven grades, while the New York school enrolls more than 3,000 in just four grades. The London students share most of their classes with the same homeroom group for five years, in contrast to the New Yorkers, for whom each period during the school day brings a whole new set of classroom peers. Classes for the New Yorkers change not only every September, but also in February, when the second semester starts. In London, when homeroom classes break up for tracked and elective classes, with fewer than 200 students per grade, students are likely to encounter peers they have met in other electives or during lunchtime. Both school structures are typical for their respective cities, and, in fact, for big cities generally in the United States and Britain.
The five years that London youths spend with homeroom groups give them ample opportunity to develop close friendships, and even romantic relationships, across the racial divide. And they take advantage of it. One 14-year-old explained it well when he told me, “Sometimes people do gang together with skin color, but that’s only in Year 7 [6th grade], when people are just getting to know each other. In this school, you quickly learn to become friends with all nationalities. Or you begin to go into the group which has very few friends.” Because their peers and even the homeroom teacher did not change for five years, students were forced to develop relationships within the classroom, across racial and ethnic lines.
The New Yorkers in my study, on the other hand, never had the opportunity to “become friends with all nationalities.” And because of the massive school enrollment, it was likely that classes would not have any overlap, from period to period or from semester to semester. When they did make friends, New Yorkers couldn’t expect to have the same lunch period as their friends—the school was forced to have six different lunch periods to accommodate its students, and to relieve classroom space (some students in fact had no lunch period at all). They also couldn’t count on walking to school or back home again with friends, since students started and finished at four different times.
Long a goal of the civil rights movement, school integration today means much more than blacks and whites attending the same schools.
How did New Yorkers cope? Some immigrant Indian students told me that when they entered the school, other Indians approached them and befriended them, perhaps in an attempt to show them the ropes and help them adjust to the anonymous social setting they were entering. It was understood that one’s co-ethnics would be friends, however temporarily, in classes and during lunchtime. Racial identification substitutes for interpersonal relationships when kids lack the time to see past skin color and to get to know each other as individuals.
As a result, New York students in my study were more than twice as likely as Londoners to mention racial groups when I asked them what the social groups at their school were. One 9th grade Indian-American student told me simply, “Punjabi people hang out with Punjabi, blacks with blacks, Spanish with Spanish.”
Across the pond, students said that their social groups stemmed from homeroom classes, which were made up of random mixes of students in terms of race and academic skills. Not only were their peers consistent, but even the homeroom teacher stayed with them through the years. Teachers served as family liaisons and “advisers” to students in their homeroom classes, punishing naughty students and maintaining close contact with families.
All of this affects romance as well. New Yorkers were 50 percent more likely to tell me they prefer to date within their own groups—be it race, nationality, or religion—than their London counterparts, many of whom in fact preferred mixed-race looks most of all. One working-class English boy told me: “I just got something for mixed-race girls. … If I had my ideal girl, you know—Alicia Keys.”
New Yorkers lamented the racial segregation in their school, and a quarter of them told me that even though most kids in their school hung out in same-race groups, they themselves preferred not to. One young woman in New York City, herself of mixed heritage, told me, “In this school, a lot of Puerto Ricans hang out with each other. A lot of Italians hang out with each other. And a lot of African-Americans hang out with each other. And it’s like, it’s crazy because everybody should just hang out with everybody, that’s how I feel. Everybody should just branch out. Even though you don’t know the person, get to know everybody.” Would that she and her peers had the opportunity to do so.
Long a goal of the civil rights movement, school integration today means much more than blacks and whites attending the same schools. It includes Hispanics of various origins, black immigrants and their children, and Asian children from diverse backgrounds. Fortunately, today some urban neighborhoods, by virtue of population changes, have found themselves with student populations so diverse that no racial group can claim majority status. This integration should do much to promote intercultural understanding and greater racial tolerance. However, without the right structures and policies in place, living side by side may not be enough to foster true integration.
Likewise, it’s not enough for kids to attend the same schools. They also need the structural incentives to make use of that integration. They need ample opportunity to interact with students of different backgrounds, consistently and over a period of time, and to see peers of other races in the hallway as familiar faces, rather than as anonymous stereotypes in a sea of thousands. One step toward this worthy goal of true integration is the fostering of small schools. Here’s to the new small schools.
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Two Schools, Worlds Apart