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School & District Management

The Breakup: Suburbs Try Smaller High Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — May 02, 2001 17 min read
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With its football games, average test scores, and angst-filled social world, Glen Este High School might well symbolize America’s suburban high school, remarkable chiefly for how typical it is.

The folks who run Glen Este and Amelia, the other sprawling, brick high school in this middle-class district 20 miles east of Cincinnati, know that many embattled urban principals would envy their 85 percent graduation rate and covet even those middling test scores. But district leaders here believe average isn’t good enough; they want better.

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Their schools may not be academically failing and violence-torn, but here, amid the gently rolling woods and farmland, they are fighting their very own battle.

“There is too much acceptance of mediocrity,” said Michael L. Ward, the tall, soft-spoken superintendent of the West Clermont Local School District, which has 9,100 students. “We’re losing too many young people, and not just the ones who don’t graduate.”

To stem that loss, West Clermont has chosen a path of profound change: restructuring both its high schools into a half-dozen or more smaller schools. In taking that road, it joins an increasing number of schools across the country that have downsized to fight poor achievement, student alienation, and other school ailments.

The decision to downsize traces its roots to two years ago. As Ohio pressed its districts to improve, West Clermont turned a critical eye on itself and didn’t like what it saw. Its test scores on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition are strictly average. Fifteen of every 100 freshmen don’t make it to graduation. And 85 percent of its high school students feel they are not treated respectfully by their peers, according to a district poll.

Those numbers compelled West Clermont—a district that by most people’s standards is hardly in dire straits—to strive for better.

Its new vision is that by fall 2002, each of the high schools will be divided into three to five “themed” schools of fewer than 450 students. The district’s 2,300 high school students will choose which of those smaller schools to attend. Smaller, more personalized learning environments, the thinking goes, will improve not only the schools’ achievement but also their climate.

Small as a Weapon

Large, troubled urban high schools, in particular, have used the small-school strategy for more than a decade to combat scholastic failure and the anonymity that can fuel disengagement, high dropout rates, and violence. At least 300 of the downsized schools have opened in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia in the past 15 years alone.

Many of those efforts have been powered by community groups such as the New York City-based Center for Collaborative Education and philanthropies such as the Annenberg Foundation of St. Davids, Pa., and the Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia.

Even as questions linger about the cost and effectiveness of small schools, the approach is winning new adherents in the suburbs, as high schools of all stripes struggle to make themselves engaging, productive places for teenagers. Creating more-personal educational settings is getting renewed consideration, too, for its potential to reduce the threat of student violence, especially in the wake of a series of shootings at big suburban schools. The small-school idea is not entirely new; at least as far back as the 1950s, there are scattered examples of public high schools deliberately maintaining a small scale to maximize the benefits of more intimate learning environments. More recently, an increasing number of suburban schools have been trying the small- school approach.

But West Clermont is unusual in moving to redesign all its high schools according to that model.

“West Clermont may be the first suburban district that’s considered fine—a good, quintessentially American district—to really ask the question, ‘Are these schools serving the needs of all children?’ ” said Tony Wagner, a co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard University’s graduate school of education and an adviser to the district. “It ain’t broke, but they are engaged in serious conversation about educating all students to high standards, and to do that, we need to completely rethink high schools.”

The small-school concept is sparking an upsurge of interest among sponsors. Several pivotal reports on how to improve high schools have called for smaller schools. And the U.S. Department of Education’s Smaller Learning Communities program, begun last year as a $45-million grant program for schools wishing to downsize, saw its budget nearly triple this year, to $125 million.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the richest in the country, is leading the philanthropic drive for small schools; it’s committed more than $200 million to starting new ones nationwide or restructuring large high schools into smaller schools-within-a-school. The Gates Foundation, based in Seattle, also teamed with the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the New York City-based Open Society Institute to form a new consortium last December. Together, they pledged $30 million to create more small schools.

The work in West Clermont is supported by a $7.9 million Gates grant to the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. The center administers the grant, with $800,000 earmarked for redesigning the Ohio district’s two high schools, and more for similar work in Cincinnati and St. Paul, Minn. West Clermont obtained an additional $800,000 matching grant from a local company, Precision Corning Lens.

In downsizing, however, high schools would seem to be bucking economic, social, and demographic trends. They’re getting bigger, fueled by population growth, school consolidation, and a belief that larger high schools are superior for their economies of scale and curriculum choice.

Education Department statistics show that in 1952, a mere 7 percent of U.S. high schools enrolled 1,000 or more students; by 1998, 25 percent did. By that same year, 59 percent of the country’s high school students attended schools of 1,000 students or more.

Experience and research suggest that in “going small,” West Clermont has reason to be hopeful. Groups of teachers and administrators have seen the theory in action: They’ve visited South Grand Prairie High School, in suburban Dallas, which has seen its attendance and test scores climb and its dropout rate decrease since it divided its 2,500 students into five career academies four years ago.

They also spent time at Wyandotte High in Kansas City, Kan., a beleaguered urban school that has seen suspensions drop, the number of failing freshmen decline, graduation and attendance rates rise, and standardized-test scores soar in the three years since it divided its 1,250 students into eight “communities.”

For the West Clermont staff members, those trips and others to small high schools have brought to life the expanding body of research on which district leaders base their convictions. Studies of various schools, ranging in size from 400 to 900 students, show that students in smaller schools attend class more, drop out less, participate in more extracurricular activities, and experience closer bonds with teachers and a stronger sense of belonging than their peers in larger schools.

The effect of school size on achievement is less clear; some studies show that students—especially students from low-income families—in small schools achieve better grades or get higher test scores, while others show no difference or mixed results. One study found that students from wealthier families actually did better in larger high schools.

In many places, securing space for new, free-standing small schools is impossible, so they have been created by revamping existing buildings into multiple environments. Research on such schools-within-a-school is less extensive and less conclusive, but suggests they can deliver many of the same benefits, provided each small school has sufficient autonomy.

Questions about the affordability of small schools have led to studies suggesting a positive answer. At least one study showed that small schools save taxpayers money because they require fewer layers of administration. A 1998 study found that small schools in New York City were more cost-effective because more of their students graduated on time.

How Small?

Researchers disagree on what number constitutes “small,” but some say that schools with fewer than 400 students might have difficulty providing a comprehensive enough curriculum, and that those with more than 900 might not produce the benefits of “smallness.”

But experts are quick to point out that smallness alone will not produce academic improvement without teaching and curriculum that engage students and truly hold them all to high standards.

“ ‘Small’ is simply a vehicle for doing other rigorous, accountable work,” said Michelle Fine, a professor of psychology at the City University of New York. She served as a consultant on the launch of scores of small schools in Philadelphia in the early 1990s and was a co-author of a study last year that found many positive outcomes in small schools in Chicago, another city that has invested heavily in the concept.

“Small, in and of itself, can be as silly as big,” Ms. Fine said. “It will produce a sense of belonging almost immediately, but hugging is not the same as algebra. Rigor and care must be braided together, or we run the risk of creating small, nurturing environments that aren’t schools.”

Smaller schools, unable to offer the “shopping mall” curriculum of large, comprehensive high schools, must often create curricula more tightly focused on the things they consider most important for their students to know. While some worry about too narrow a focus, advocates believe such a change, done right, can produce higher expectations and more challenging coursework. That process, though, demands teachers who can truly teach all their students to high standards and work in a more democratic structure to design a curriculum, experts say.

Ironically, that shift can expose the insufficiencies of teachers’ training by demonstrating that far too few know how to challenge all their students sufficiently, or tailor their instruction to meet teenagers’ varying needs, Ms. Fine says. Rigorous, ongoing professional development that is built into a teacher’s day is therefore an essential element of creating successful small schools, she and other experts say.

Sue Showers, a longtime educator of teachers who was hired as the project director for the West Clermont redesign, with a focus on staff development, rejects the word “training” to describe her endeavor there. She and her 10-teacher advisory group hope not only to show teachers how to improve their instruction—through coaching, demonstration, workshops, and discussion—but also to transform their culture into one in which teachers mentor one another in continuing, open discussion and reflection.

Autonomy and Input

A critical lesson from the past decade of small-school creation is that such schools need autonomy to succeed. Tom Vander Ark, the executive director of education for the Gates Foundation, maintains that to personalize learning, small schools need charter school-like freedom to govern their own budgets, curricula, and staffing. Centralized district systems and school boards can undermine that independence by keeping control over everything from textbooks to school schedules.

“You’ve got to give them the money, and let them figure it out,” Mr. Vander Ark said. “Large, comprehensive high schools will often do window-dressing reform. Not going far enough is the typical problem.”

A key aspect of that autonomy is a less hierarchical approach to decisionmaking, in which teachers are partners with the administration in all major decisions, enabling them to design the instruction they believe is best for their particular group of students.

“ ‘Small’ facilitates the kind of empowerment that enables teachers to teach better: to learn from each other, to connect with students better,” said Mike Klonsky, a co-director of the Small Schools Workshop, a group of educators and researchers based at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “That won’t happen at a faculty meeting with 96 teachers. But it can when 14 teachers sit around a table weekly, or daily, and plan.”

A powerful force at odds with small-school autonomy is the mounting pressure for academic accountability, proponents of small schools say. As states attempt to standardize what students learn and how they must demonstrate it, small schools must grapple with how to meet those standards and still maintain their own unique approaches to teaching and curriculum.

Many advocates of small schools argue for allowing the use of performance- or portfolio-based student assessments, not just standardized tests.

“The push toward accountability leading toward standardization is a freight train on a collision course with this notion [of small, autonomous schools],” said Valerie E. Lee, a professor of education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a leading researcher on small schools. “The two are completely incompatible.”

On the Road to Change

Superintendent Ward and other leaders in West Clermont carry all these lessons and concerns in their heads as they begin their effort to create better high schools for their students.

Deliberately avoiding a top-down imposition of the small-school idea, district officials undertook a public-engagement campaign, financed largely by a $125,000, two-year grant from the Cincinnati-based KnowledgeWorks Foundation. Mr. Ward and his second-in-command, Mary Ellen Steele-Pierce, and other administrators held focus groups with parents, students, teachers, and community members; spoke about the idea at town meetings, and wrote about it in district newsletters and the local newspaper. They organized a design team of parents, staff, students, and community members.

“It’s crucial that we create ownership and not just buy-in,” said Mr. Ward, a veteran administrator with a courtly manner. “This has to be sustained beyond us.”

Mr. Ward and Ms. Steele- Pierce held hours of working sessions with local school board members, knowing that the board’s willingness to approve new curriculum designs and other changes will be pivotal to the project’s success. They rearranged their schedules to spend every Wednesday in the schools, talking with—and listening to—teachers and students.

“It’s all about relationships,” Ms. Steele-Pierce said. “You change one person at a time.”

Mr. Ward even took to the pulpit of a local church one Sunday in an attempt to reach community members who might not be active in the schools, but whose backing he believes is important in building a strong base of support. And at a back-to-school pep rally last August, Mr. Ward saluted teachers for their hard work and shared his hopes for the future. They concluded by rising to their feet and singing the gospel- flavored song of faith, “I Believe I Can Fly.”

In remaking the high schools, district leaders want not only to inspire teachers, but also to put them in the driver’s seat. And they’ve given them the keys: The teachers are designing the little schools. They are gathering in small groups, around kitchen tables and in living rooms, sketching out a new future. Between six and 10 winning proposals will be chosen this summer.

“It’s a cool time, because we’re able to create a school we dream about,” said Kim Orleman, who teaches nutrition and wellness at Amelia High and is working on one proposal for an arts-based program and another for an open-classroom school organized around long-term, hands-on projects. Other teachers’ proposals, still in the draft stage, include schools built around math, science, and technology; health and fitness; fine arts; the humanities; and “environmental and experimental sciences.”

But even teachers who are fully on board have their worries. Glen Este High social studies teacher Katie Hauer says she worries about what subject she will be teaching and at which school. But she sees the planning process itself as beneficial.

“At times it’s frustrating and scary,” she said, “but it has people talking about what’s best for students.”

The West Clermont Education Association, a National Education Association affiliate that represents 400 teachers and counselors, is not opposed to the plan. But its president, Jim Rudy, while counting himself among the advocates, remains watchful about a range of unresolved questions, including how the district will handle teachers who do not wish to teach in either redesigned school or those asked to transfer from one school to another.

Teachers’ other concerns, he says, include possible loss of seniority and a skepticism that they will truly get the powerful decisionmaking role in the new schools that they have been promised.

Todd Gee, a Glen Este chemistry teacher, worries that in a smaller school with fewer course offerings, he might have to teach biology and other sciences, adding significantly to his preparation time. He is also concerned that in adopting one high standard for all, as district leaders have envisioned, honors and advanced-placement offerings might be eliminated.

“I see a lot of potential—and a lot of potential problems, too,” Mr. Gee said. “But the hardest thing is the uncertainty. I wish I could spend one day in this school three years in the future and know if it had worked out well. Then I’d relax and stop worrying.”

Parents, too, run the gamut in reaction to the plan. Todd Stoffel is so enthusiastic about the idea that he has stopped considering private middle schools for his 1st and 4th graders. Beth Parker, whose daughter is in 7th grade, believes that the change will improve school for the vast middle group of students who are neither struggling nor excelling.

Worries Linger

Other parents have a long list of concerns and open questions. At public-feedback sessions, they worried aloud about the disruption that could result if children from one family chose to attend different schools. They asked how the long-standing rivalry between the two high schools would be managed; which students would play on which athletic teams? They asked if each school would occupy its own area of the building.

Mr. Ward is the first to acknowledge that he doesn’t know all the answers yet. Doing this work, the superintendent says, requires him and his community to bear with such uncertainties for an uncomfortably long period.

But listening to teachers, who yearn to do better for their students, and the students themselves—like the chronically struggling teenage boy who asked him, plaintively, “Why don’t kids like us ever get the good teachers?"— has only strengthened his resolve.

“The process has transformed us,” Mr. Ward said. “I’m absolutely passionate about doing the right thing, no matter what barriers get in the way.”

Glen Este Principal Mark Peters worries about those barriers, about whether entrenched ways of doing things will hamstring the fresh approach to teaching and school structure necessary to the project’s success. Is he worried the plan might fail? No, he says. He’s only worried about not getting enough rein to run as far as it takes to make it work.

But despite the fears and uncertainties, Mr. Peters and scores of others here who have made “small” a mission have been catalyzed by the very process of redesigning. Allowing themselves to dream and seeing the vision as it slowly emerges has touched something inside them and made it impossible to turn back.

Jon Souders, a Glen Este biology teacher, is frustrated by how little he can truly know and engage the 100 to 120 students who troop through his six- period days. Skeptical at first about the small-school plan, he’s now driven by the possibility that he can know his students well enough to foster truly meaningful learning experiences with them.

“I can’t go back to doing what I used to do,” Mr. Souders said. “I’ve seen the way it can be.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2001 edition of Education Week as The Breakup: Suburbs Try Smaller High Schools


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