School & District Management

Urban Network Touts Virtues Of Small High Schools

November 08, 2000 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In its largest gathering to date, the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform drew 300 educators, parents, students, and school activists here for its first national conference on urban high schools.

Anne C. Hallett, the executive director of the Chicago-based national network of school improvement groups, credited the timely theme of the Oct. 26-28 conference for a better-than-expected turnout.

Anne C. Hallett

“High schools are obviously way overdue for attention,” Ms. Hallett said. “This meeting is about encouraging the very nascent high school reform effort going on in this country.”

But the large audience, which represented an impressive cross-section of the urban school landscape, also reflected the group’s continuing growth.

When it began in 1993, the Cross City Campaign had affiliates in Chicago, Denver, and Philadelphia. Today, it has 10 full-time employees and has expanded to Baltimore, Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle. Ms. Hallett hopes Houston and Oakland, Calif., will be added soon.

The group also has a broader mission. Originally founded to champion community control of schools, it now covers a range of school issues, including accountability, parent organizing, and school climate.

The conference, for example, addressed racism, a need for smaller schools, minority achievement, and turning around large failing schools.

In the future, look for the Cross City Campaign to study ways to end academic tracking, improve teacher training, organize parents, and raise the quality of school data that communities receive.

And expect a varied array of participants. “Our theory of change is that insiders from school districts and outsiders, like parents, must be involved,” Ms. Hallett said. “That’s one thing people like about our meetings.”

While the meeting may have been large by Cross City Campaign standards, one of the most common themes was small—small schools, that is.

In formal presentations and informal discussions, conference-goers expressed strong support for breaking up large, impersonal high schools and replacing them with smaller, more student-centered sites. Small schools could be in their own buildings or take the form of carefully designed schools-within- schools.

“I’m tired of hearing that small schools are not a systemic change,” Michelle Fine, a psychology professor and education researcher at the City University of New York Graduate Center, said in a speech here. “It is if big cities help them, rather than crush them.”

She argued that small schools must be given autonomy when they begin, and not later as a reward for improvement. Another mistake, she added, is being too incremental about making conversions to small schools.

“You cut too many deals if you try to make everybody happy,” Ms. Fine warned.

Joyce Coppin, the superintendent of Brooklyn high schools in New York City, talked about her experience in redesigning large urban high schools— some with more than 3,000 students. “The small-school model works,” she declared.

But when a district carves up a large school into schools-within- schools, she added, each new school needs its own space and administration. As for the perfect size, 800 to 900 students are not only manageable, but provide for diverse staffing and academic programming, Ms. Coppin argued.

“At 200 or 300, it’s almost impossible to provide a high-school-type program,” she cautioned.

The subject of high school freshmen also received a lot of attention here.

While not everyone agreed, many educators at the meeting argued that the best way to address the high dropout rates and low levels of academic preparation that plague 9th graders is to create separate schools for them. At the least, they need separate and distinct learning settings within schools, advocates of such an approach said.

Kathleen Freilino, the principal of the 1,250-student James F. Rhodes High School in Cleveland, said the creation of a 9th grade academy at her school had led to dramatic improvement.

Ms. Freilino, who took over the school in the 1996-97 school year, said just 88 of the 698 students in that year’s freshman class graduated four years later. The school’s 9th graders also had one of the city’s highest suspension rates.

Today, 9th graders take classes in the first story of the three-story building, away from the upperclassmen. Class periods have been extended to four 90-minute classes a day, thus cutting down on disruptions and allowing more time for core subjects, Ms. Freilino said.

A “recovery program” was instituted to help Rhodes High 9th graders reach grade level, and an evening program serves students who were at risk of dropping out. And 9th grade teachers are no longer responsible for other grades. With obvious enthusiasm, Ms. Freilino noted the changes since such measures have taken effect. For starters, she said, the school’s annual suspension rate fell from 1,100 four years ago to 300 last year. The 9th grade recovery program has since been eliminated because it is no longer needed, and only about 40 of the 9th graders out of a class of around 360 were held back last year.

Most of them are expected to catch up by the end of this year.

—Robert C. Johnston

A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2000 edition of Education Week as Urban Network Touts Virtues Of Small High Schools


Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Pandemic-Seasoned Principals Share Hard-Earned Leadership Lessons
The COVID crisis has tested principals’ resolve to an unprecedented degree, but many have gleaned valuable takeaways from the experience.
6 min read
Boat on the water with three people inside. Leader pointing  forward. In the water around them are coronavirus pathogens.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management This Intensive Internship Helps Principals Get Ready For the Job
A two-year program in Columbus City Schools gives aspiring principals the chance to dive deep into the job before actually taking the reins.
10 min read
Sarah Foster, principal of North Linden Elementary School, talks with Katina Perry in Columbus, Ohio on November 30, 2021. Columbus City Schools has a program that lets principal “test out” the principal role, before actually fully taking it on. Through the program, they work in a school for two years under a mentor principal and fill in as principal at different schools during that time.
Katina Perry, right, principal of Fairmoor Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, meets with Sarah Foster, principal of North Linden Elementary School and Perry's mentor in a school leader internship program.
Maddie McGarvey for Education Week
School & District Management Q&A School Libraries and Controversial Books: Tips From the Front Lines
A top school librarian explains how districts can prepare for possible challenges to student reading materials and build trust with parents.
6 min read
Image of library shelves of books.
School & District Management Opinion ‘This Is Not What We Signed Up For’: A Principal’s Plea for More Support
School leaders are playing the role of health-care experts, social workers, mask enforcers, and more. It’s taking a serious toll.
Kristen St. Germain
3 min read
Illustration of a professional woman walking a tightrope.
Laura Baker/Education Week and uzenzen/iStock/Getty