School & District Management

Small Schools Hard To Start, Report Finds

By Caroline Hendrie — April 23, 2003 7 min read
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A new evaluation of a national grant program to create smaller, more personalized high schools concludes that the initiative is yielding some promising early results. But it also finds that getting the new high schools off the ground is proving harder than expected.

Jointly conducted by two prominent research organizations, the study charts the progress of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s effort to support the launch of hundreds of new, small high schools and convert hundreds of large high schools into smaller units. To date, the foundation has committed $400 million to the program.

“The road to significant, lasting high school reform is both long and bumpy,” says the study, which was scheduled to be released in Chicago this week at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. “School staff need to prioritize the issues they will address, and funders and supporters need to be patient backers if this groundbreaking innovation is to succeed.”

“High Time for High School Reform: Early Findings From the National School District and Network Grants Program” will be available online from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In the second of a series of annual evaluations commissioned by the Seattle-based Gates Foundation, the researchers say the start-up schools they examined had fostered learning climates and professional environments that were more positive than those in the large high schools in the study that were preparing for conversions.

Yet they found that those environments were harder to establish than the schools’ founders had anticipated, and that the new schools were having trouble capitalizing on their more personalized settings to introduce student-centered teaching practices.

The researchers also conclude that it’s too early to tell whether one of two basic approaches—starting new schools from scratch or breaking up existing ones—will ultimately prove more successful.

One reason is that it is typically taking longer to restructure existing schools than to launch new ones, and most of the high schools included in the study were still in the early stages of conversion.

The study was conducted by the American Institutes for Research, located in Washington, and SRI International, based in Menlo Park, Calif.

“It does seem clear that in terms of getting a fast start, the new-school strategy has advantages,” said Barbara Means, one of two principal investigators for the study and the director of the center for technology in learning at SRI. “But there may be some advantages that we’re not seeing yet to the conversions, because it’s too early to see them.”

‘A Better Bet’

If such advantages do show up, they will come as a surprise to Tom Vander Ark, the executive director of the Gates Foundation’s education initiatives. The philanthropy has made grants to a range of nonprofit groups that work to develop small, personalized high schools, particularly in urban areas. Schools sponsored by 12 such grantee organizations were included in the study.

“We’ve sponsored over 350 new schools and over 1,000 existing schools, and when I look at those two different investments, I think the probability of high performance is much higher in the new-school category than the redesign category,” Mr. Vander Ark said in an interview last week. “I think they’re a better bet.”

Based on that perception, he said, the foundation has begun ensuring that organizations receiving grants complement any efforts to transform existing schools with a push to start new ones.

“It doesn’t mean they’re easy,” Mr. Vander Ark said of new schools. “It’s backbreaking work for several years to get a good school up and running.”

The leaders of the Avalon School, in St. Paul, Minn., one of the new schools in the study, know just what Mr. Vander Ark means.

As they near the end of their school’s second year of operation, they can chuckle about their struggles to assemble a staff, find space, and recruit students— all while holding down other full-time jobs. But it didn’t seem so funny at the time.

“We look back on it now and ask, ‘How did we ever do it?’ ” said Andrea R. Martin, the lead teacher at the 123-student charter high school.

The study relies mainly on data collected last spring through site visits, interviews, and surveys of principals, teachers, and students.

It focuses on the first year of operation of eight small schools of choice in urban areas, comparing their experiences with those of seven large high schools that were breaking up into smaller units, as well as those of five model small schools that had been up and running for several years.

Only those model high schools are identified in the report; the others were given pseudonyms. The model schools were: High Tech High School, in San Diego; Leadership High School, in San Francisco; the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, or “the Met,” in Providence, R.I.; Minnesota New Country School, in Henderson, Minn.; and New Technology High School, in Napa, Calif.

Among the new small schools, the study found that all “had taken great strides toward creating a positive, caring climate.” Students reported that their teachers held them to higher expectations than had been the case in their previous schools, and that faculty members knew and cared about them more. Yet educators reported being surprised by how hard it was to bring about such climates.

“Incoming students’ negative prior schooling experiences, a high incidence of special needs among these student groups, and lack of readiness for the autonomies that these schooling models offered students all led to the need for focused efforts to establish a positive and orderly school climate,” the report says.

Many successful small public schools of choice, such as charter and magnet schools, pride themselves on personalizing instruction, through such techniques as emphasizing in-depth projects. But the researchers found that in the start-up schools they studied, “these instructional practices were more the exception than the rule.”

“Many teachers told us that they lacked models and ready-to-use curricula for project-based learning and that their students came to school lacking the basic knowledge and skills that this instructional approach requires,” the report says. So the teachers ended up “introducing more structure and direction for incoming students than they had originally planned,” it adds.

At the teacher-run Avalon School, Ms. Martin said, educators struggled to set up rules that balanced a desire to let students work independently with a need to keep them on task.

“The things you were thinking about don’t necessarily work when the students walk in the door,” she said. “By the middle of the year, we realized we had really done some things wrong.”

Pressed for Time

Staff members in the start- up schools studied generally had forged collegial working environments, the evaluation says, yet often felt pressed for planning time as they faced a maze of “structural, logistical, instructional, and recruitment tasks.”

Lining up resources was also a significant challenge for the new high schools, the study found. Money was tight, in part because of small enrollment, and adequate facilities were hard to secure.

Among the existing high schools scrutinized in the study, most were in urban areas and served high percentages of students from poor families. Only one had completed the process of breaking up into smaller units, while one had made the transition only for the 9th grade, and five were still planning for their conversions.

Conversions were generally planned over a two-year period, a longer turnaround than for start- ups, the researchers found.

In both start-ups and conversions, educators said they got little reprieve from their regular duties. “For many, the need to plan new small schools or school conversions while working full time in an existing school has been extremely stressful,” the report says.

To ease that pressure, the authors recommend that grants to schools include more “funded planning time.”

Teachers in conversion schools had less input in charting the changes than did their counterparts in schools being built from scratch, according to the study. That situation contributed to only “tenuous support” from staff members at the conversion schools, in part because most teachers in those schools were not on the teams planning the shake-ups.

“As a result, many of the teachers we spoke with felt disenfranchised by the conversion process,” the researchers write.

At North High School in Worcester, Mass., one of the converting high schools included in the study, Principal Elizabeth M. Drake said she has taken pains to keep her entire staff up to date on the process. The 1,200-student school is reorganizing into three, theme-based “small learning communities.”

Ms. Drake said the shift has not proved as painful as other changes at the school, especially the move to a block-scheduling system in the mid-1990s.

“There are going to be some struggles when you start to institute change,” she said. “We’ve already made some changes, so it made this change easier.”

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