School Climate & Safety

Research on Chicago High Schools Finds Benefits in Smaller Size

By Debra Viadero — July 12, 2000 3 min read
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After studying the 150 small public schools that have sprouted up in Chicago since 1990, a group of researchers at Bank Street College of Education has concluded that smaller is better.

For More Information

Read the report, “Small Schools: Great Strides” online, from Bank Street. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

In a comprehensive report released last month, the researchers contend that the children in schools with fewer students come to class more often, drop out less frequently, encounter less violence in school, and get better grades than those in the district’s larger schools.

“We think there is an effect that comes simply from being in a smaller community,” said Patricia A. Wasley, the lead author of the study and the dean of the New York City-based college. “When teachers, regardless of what they’re teaching, know the names of all the children in the school, that makes a big difference.”

The report, underwritten by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, adds to a steadily growing body of research supporting the benefits of smaller schools."The evidence is really building up,” said Norm Fruchter, a New York University researcher who co-wrote a study last year that found New York City’s small high schools more cost-effective than larger ones. “Would it be nice to have some studies from other places?” he added. “Yes. Is this convincing? I think it is.”

For their study, the Bank Street researchers defined small schools as those with fewer than 350 students. By comparison, the average size of K-12 schools nationwide is 741 students.

With support from community groups, outside business partners, and Chicago school administrators, the city’s newer small schools have, for the most part, opened in its most impoverished neighborhoods. And, rather than “creaming” the best students, these educational enclaves attract students with slightly below-average academic records, according to the researchers.

The schools range from schools-within-schools to free-standing facilities in refurbished warehouses to “multiplexes” of several schools that share space in one building.

Nuanced Findings

The Bank Street researchers drew on survey data and statistical analysis as well as classroom observations. Their results, while generally positive, were as complex as their methodology.

For instance, while students in smaller high schools outperformed the school system as a whole and, in some cases, their host schools, on reading and mathematics tests in 1999, elementary pupils in schools with fewer students still scored below the system average last year.

Because the city’s elementary schools “are substantially improving in general, it may take the elementary small schools more time to build an instructional program to compete effectively with other elementary schools,” the researchers write. Besides Ms. Wasley, the team is made up of Michelle Fine, Matt Gladden, Nicole E. Holland, Sherry P. King, Esther Mosak, and Linda C. Powell.

But the high performance of students in small high schools was noteworthy, the researchers say, because those schools’ dropout numbers were declining at the same time.

Teachers in all the small schools studied overwhelmingly rated their schools higher than other Chicago teachers did for openness to change, sense of professional community, and the extent to which teachers, parents, and administrators trust one another.

On the downside, the researchers found that these newer schools were fragile. Several closed within their first two years of operation.

“Losing one teacher who is pivotal makes a school much more vulnerable than a larger school where that teacher is one of seven or eight English teachers,” Ms. Wasley observed. “And if a principal is replaced by one who feels demoted because of moving to a smaller school, that’s problematic, too.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Research on Chicago High Schools Finds Benefits in Smaller Size

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