Education Chat

Making Big Schools Smaller

Our guests talked about the benefits of converting large schools into smaller learning communities.

October 30, 2007

Making Big Schools Smaller

Lewis Cohen
, the executive director of the Coalition of Essential Schools; and Stacy Spector, the principal of the Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment, one of three autonomous small schools converted from a large, comprehensive high school in SeaTac, Wash.

Michele McNeil (Moderator):

Good afternoon, and welcome to our online chat about how large schools can be converted into smaller learning communities. My name is Michele McNeil and I’ll be your moderator. We have two experts who will answer your questions: Lewis Cohen, who is the executive director of the Coalition of Essential Schools, and Stacy Spector, who is the principal of the Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment, one of three autonomous small schools converted from a large, comprehensive high school in SeaTac, Wash. We have a lot of great questions already, so let’s get the discussion started.

Question from Reed Markham, Associate Professor, Daytona Beach College:

What are the pros and cons of vertical house plans, ninth grade house plans, special curriculum schools, and charter schools?

Lewis Cohen:

In evaluating any of these particular approaches it is important to keep in mind the purpose of making schools smaller. First and foremost it is about changing the nature of the interactions in school to create more effective learning and teaching. A manageable scale allows for more meaningful connections between staff and students, amongst students and amongst staff. This in turn allows for better identification of student strengths and challenges and the tailoring of instruction to meet those needs. If you accept that restructuring is a worthwhile endeavor there are merits to all of these approaches. At CES we would argue that ideally, restructuring should lead to small autonomous schools. This approach is more likely to create a sense of place for students and staff to identify with and to support a common pedagogical approach, an outcome not unlike the best charters. In small learning communities students often “cross-over” into other learning communities for electives and even core courses, increasing the number of relationships and watering down the effects of personalization. Ninth grade houses start the process of developing a new culture that is valuable for the high school transition but adding these students into the larger school community in tenth grade misses the opportunity to fully realize the benefits of a transformed school culture or the long term connections between small school staff and students. One other noteworthy pitfall is the potential of specialized curriculum schools to result in ability grouping by virtue of the themes selected.

Question from Meg, Coordinator of Curriculum, Assessment, & Instruction, SW/WC Service Cooperative:

For high schools just beginning this process of moving towards SLCs or schools within a school, what are the cornerstone programs or reform efforts to start with?

Stacy Spector:

I believe that the start of any conversion to SLCs or small schools is to develop a common and shared vision around improving instruction. If we don’t begin from the premise that we must fundamentally improve the quality of teaching practice to meet the needs of all students, then such reform efforts are doomed to failure.

Question from Tom Shaff, Adjunct Instructor, St.Mary’s University of Minnesota:

It sounds great. What quantitative and qualitative outcomes are claimed? What methods are used to evaluate outcomes? What conditions make it difficult to interpret results? In short, where is the experimental research demonstrating effectiveness? And if experimental methods are not used, what other methods or meta-analyses show effect sizes of outcomes across many less rigorous studies? With what confidence can a district expect to see similar results when no two cases are much alike even within the same district? Are certain students affected more or less by scale, for example, special ed versus gifted? Cite specific studies.

Lewis Cohen:

Because the conversion movement is a relatively new initiative most of the research to date has focused on how to convert to smaller learning communities as opposed to the efficacy of such efforts. The Gates Foundation engaged AIR to produce a study on conversions that compared conversion schools with demographically similar large schools in the same district using various measures of student achievement as well as student and teacher surveys. This study found promising initial results in English/language arts but not in mathematics. The study also showed greater student engagement and more intellectually rigorous assignments in the conversion schools. CES is conducting a similar study of conversion schools we are working in, with a report to be published next year. Our preliminary results found superior results particularly for students of color, and more rigorous assignments in the conversion schools. While each conversion experience is unique we believe that districts can expect improved outcomes if the focus is on personalization and authentic intellectual work.

Question from Dr. Charlene Jordan, Senior Director of School Redesign, NYC:

Who is representing the leadership voice of large high schools that have successfully restructured into small learning communities? While results have certainly been mixed, this type of restructuring provides enormous potential for thousands of students in large urban areas - the conversation needs to represent all views.

Lewis Cohen:

If I understand you correctly, you’ve put your finger on an important problem; namely, the lack of attention being paid to practitioners and their direct experiences with school reform. I am pleased that this chat features Stacey Spector who is in the leadership of just such a school and also that Education Week featured the former principal of Stacey’s school (pre-conversion) just last week with an opinion piece on the conversion process. CES see as its mission highlighting voices like these in our publications and research.

Michele McNeil (Moderator):

You can read that opinion piece Lewis was referring to at

Question from Joe Petrosino, EdD Vo Tech:

Small and professional learning communities do, in my opinion,do improve the teaching and learning process. How can we get all the stakeholders e.g. the school leaders and faculty to trust that small schools will work?

Stacy Spector:

I beleive that the more we open up our dorrs to be a true “community school” that pepole will see evidence that small schools are working to meet the needs of students and cose the achievement gap. We invite parents, community members, other district staff, and anyone with questions and concerns to come and visit our school. The first thing I say to them is not to ask me “What is this all about?” but instead to observe students, listen to the thoughtful things they have to say, and to engage students in a conversation about what works and what might not work about small schools. Our students know what they need and are not afraid to share this with others so that they are heard.

Question from Ernest Zamora, Independent Consultant:

How small (300-350 students?) should small be per the research? And does the research support assigning students to small learning communities (SLCs) of choice and keeping them in the same SLC the entirety of their school experience?

Lewis Cohen:

We advocate for schools of 400 or less. This is small enough to maintain a coherent academic program. The key issue for us is the number of student contacts per staff member. Based on Ted Sizer’s work, we believe that a teacher should have responsibility for no more than 80 students in order to promote true personalization. Since the premise is that students learn more working with teachers who know them well, it is vital to keep students in the same learning community for as long as possible.

Question from Jean Kendall, Principal, Munsey Park School:

We are a large school of 884 K-6 students. What are some implementations/strategies to keep and develop our “small school feeling” in our large school?

Stacy Spector:

I believe that personalization of relationships between adults and students is one of the most essential principles of developing a “small school” or “small learning community” where students are known well. A strong Advisory program built upon addressing academic, social, and emotional needs of students is a core component of our school’s success in developing a culture of learning. We are also intentional about providing differnent time and opportunity for students to share their thinking and voice in ways that contributes to developing our small school culture. We use chalk talks on our hallway bulletin boards about issues meaningful to students. We also use Critical Friend Group protocols to look at students work, share problems of practice, and solve dilemas impacting our ability to serve students’ needs. I encourage people to read Deborah Meier’s inspiring book, “The Power of Their Ideas” for more ideas and for more inspiration.

Question from Alec Lee, Director, Aim High:

What are your thoughts on being part of a district initiative (breaking up a large district school or schools) v. being a charter (either conversion or start-up). How critical is flexibility and autonomy? Can districts provide the necessary autonomies to be successful? What are the obstacles?

Lewis Cohen:

This is a challenging question. On the one hand we have identified autonomy as a critical element for successful small schools. If you create the conditions for schools to know their students well but then don’t give these schools the authority to act on that knowledge, the benefits of personalization are minimal. Thus, a charter school has the distinct advantage of not being bound by the districts policies and practices. And consequently it is easier, though not guaranteed, for a charter school to implement decisions that better serve its students, which is rightfully the priority of the staff of any and every school. On the other hand, as someone concerned with the larger picture I believe that the goal should be to serve all students well. Conversions that are within districts can be a powerful source of change within those districts. These conversions can help districts to see and meet the particular needs of individual schools, personalization for schools if you will, as opposed to use top down one size fits all bureaucratic formulas whether for staffing, curriculum or purchasing. Getting a district to overcome the bureaucratic imperatives of their central office is probably the most important barrier to surmount. There are districts that have made progress in this regard but this is the next challenge to address if conversion is to become a key element in systemic reform. In addition, negotiating with bargaining units to have flexibility in working conditions and hiring is also a significant challenge. Boston and now Local District 4 in Los Angeles have made significant progress in this regard.

Question from S.Olsen,M.Ed. Doctoral Student, Retired Teacher:

Would teachers be involved in the decisions impacting making larger schools into smaller communities? Would parents be involved in decisions? If this were a middle or high school, what about students, would they have a voice in this? I’ve worked in very large elementary schools (3,000) and schools with a school (elementary). I’ve found that when teachers and students were involved it made a difference in communication.

Stacy Spector:

I beleive that it is inexusable not to engage students in this process in real and authentic ways. Conversions should always be about placing what is best for students at the center of every decision, even if it is not easy or convenient for adults to do so. I believe that every adult in the building and in the community is responsible for the teaching of our students. Therefore, teachers, counselors, custodians, office and support staff, paraprofessionals, etc. all need to be actively engaged in these conversations. Each of them, as well as students, and family and community members, brings expertise and unique and specicic insight to the dialogue and planning.

Question from Justin Browne, Law Student, UMd Law:

What are frequent barriers to implementation and how have successful entities overcome these?

Lewis Cohen:

We argue forcefully that not going far enough is a big problem. While they are benefits to approaches such as ninth grade house or small learning communities, I contend that such approaches often dilute the benefits of smallness. Separate autonomous schools allow for a clarity of purpose and mission, pedagogical focus, and sense of place and identity that simply cannot be achieved when students are not just members of their small learning community but also take classes across houses in other learning communities. Conversion efforts are also likely to fail if they are seen as stand alone experiments instead of part of a larger district vision of school improvement. To realize the benefits of knowing students well, site staff must have the autonomy and flexibility to adjust their program to the needs of the specific students they serve. This requires autonomy over budgets, curriculum, staffing and facilities. Districts are not generally set up to treat different schools differently so they too must be committed to changing practice to support these new types of schools. There is much more to say on this topic and I recommend a book we at CES has produced, “Choosing Small: The Essential Guide to Successful High School Conversion” that helps teams anticipate the barriers and plan for successful conversion. But two key points I would make are, first don’t embark on this work without adequate planning time. This involves creating clarity on why change is necessary, involving all stakeholders especially student and parents, in developing your mission, and getting district level commitments and processes in place before the conversion takes place. Secondly, high schools have a special place in the heart of many people in the community. They often attended these schools and expect them to continue unchanged. Therefore, it is imperative that community organizing and education take place so that there is broad based support for these difficult changes.

Question from David Gamberg, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, Patchogue-Medford School District:

What essential steps should a school with a rich history (over 128 years)take to provide a transistion from a large school (2,900 students)to an SLC that will not compromise the long established values held by the community?

Stacy Spector:

It iss essential that when converting from a comprehensive school into a small one, we do not need to throw the baby out with the bath water. There very well might be shared practices in place that are serving the needs of some students. The question really needs to be: In what ways are we serving ALL students? When working from this premise, the conversation is less about holding on to old traditions and programs and more about developing new rituals and practices that meet each student at his or her place of need and moves their learning forward. In order for this to occur, the very best principals and teacher leaders need to be in place so that the ways of “doing school” are fundamentally changed to focus on the work of student thinking and understanding, rather than on task completion and student compliance.

Question from John Elfrank-Dana, UFT Chapter Leader/ Teacher, Murry Bergtraum High School:

How can the small school experience be produced in a large high school after it’s dvided into “smaller” learning communities, when: 1. the building population remains the same (at about 130% capacity), 2. the school budget is reduced, and 3. your student population has a greater percentage of high-need students (special ed, and ELL) than most small schools. 4. class sizes remain at 34 students? Where does the “smaller” come into play?

Stacy Spector:

This question directly addresses every need and concern that my school faces on a daily basis. “Smaller” comes in to play by making sure each student connects with multiple adults throughout their time w/us that know them well and are their advocates and staunchest supporters and mentors. As a group we have met these challenges head-on and overcome many of them by acting upon the following: we developed a clear and compelling theory of action that placed improved instructional practice as the basis for which all other work and decisions would follow. From this shared vision and core set of beliefs we developed structures and practices that are always relentlessly and intentionally conencted to improved teaching and learning.We eliminated extraneous practices and expenditures that did not support a focus on improved pedagogy, we ensured that we provided regular and on-going ways for teachers to work together on shared practices and approaches that have proven to increase student acheivement, we ensured that time and learning opportunities for students are structured to result in their application and transference to a variety of contexts, we use a backward planning design to scaffold and differentiate learning for all students, including students with special needs and those acquiring english as a second language, we are transparent in modeling the thinking adn process we engage in as adults learners that are also applicable to student learning, we utilize CES’ 10 Common Principles, consistent habits of heart and mind, common approaches such as a balanced literacy model, and we constantly assess and monitor learning as matched to identified outrcomes so that we can adjust and modify our instruction in flexible and managemable ways to meet the varied needs of students. It isn’t always easy or convenient; often it is messy but the pint is we are always working to make sure that what we do meets the needs of students first. Our kids are at the core of everything we say and everything we do.

Question from Ginger Witty, Counselor, Tupelo High School:

What is the student population of each of the 3 new high schools and what was the population of the original high school in SeaTac, Wash.?

Stacy Spector:

Our population has not changed since we converted. Students are assigned to each school based upon a balance by overall total enrollment. We beleive that each small school can serve students well so we do not determine placement based upon race, grades, or standardized tests. We still serve a large population of socio-economically disadvanted students. Over 64% receive a free or reduced lunch. The majority of our students are students of color (Native American, Latino, African American, of African descent, and Asian and or Pacific Islander. Many students do not have English as their primary language.Our students speak Tagalag, Spanish, ASL, Mandarin Chinese, French, tribal dialects of Somalia and Etria, Farsi, Hebrew, Arabic, and several other lanaguages that bring a rich diversity of culture to our community. I also serve a large population (about 30%)of students with special needs. I have a large deaf and hard of hearing population (DHH)as well as students with 504 or IEP’s (LRC), as well as a wonderful group of students (ILC)who are profoundly physically or cognitively challenged.

Question from Eugene Falik, Admin. Code Enforcement, City SD of NY:

Where can I find evidence that small schools have better results (how are results defined?) than large schools AFTER CONTROLING for class size?

Lewis Cohen:

Kathleen Cotton’s New Small Learning Communities: Findings From Recent Literature available online at is one of the best sources of small schools research. She cites Howley, C.; Strange, M.; and Bickel, R. “Research about School Size and School Performance in Impoverished Communities” as one such study showing that school size has a more beneficial effect on achievement than class size.

Question from Susan Tanabe, Instructor, South Salem HS:

How do we create small schools without limiting opportunities? I understand the benefits of small schools for the struggling student, however what methods work best to serve both that struggling student and the succeeding student who desires a variety of learning opportunities?

Stacy Spector:

I work from a notion that all students have the desire to learn, and that all have hopes and dreams of knowing passion and success in their daily lives. Therefore, I believe a small school by philosphy and by design has the most potential to serve both the student whose learning needs to accelerate to demonstrate basic competency and the student whose learning needs to be accelerated to demonstrate advanced mastery. By focusing on ‘depth over breadth’ a small school can best ensure that students have the time and opportunities to demonstrate proficiency in ways beyond those assessed through standardized tests. We use exhibitions of student elarning, culminating projects and presentations, adn student led conferences as opportunities for students to use their minds well and apply and transfer learning from one context to another.

Question from Dr. Arhtur L. Williams, Principal Huron High School:

Please respond to the following statement, " The size of the school doesn’t matter, what really matters is what and how the people in the school are organized to care and support the students.”

Stacy Spector:

I don’t neccessarily agree that it is in how schools are organized for learning that gets the best results. To me this is still just structure. I beleive that what matters is that structure and organization should serve the purpose of the work. Our schools is organized and structured to improve instrucitonal practice that directly results in improved student learning. When this remains our focus then time, opportunity and structures find a way to organize around this guiding prciniple.

Question from marchelle raynor, Boston School Committee:

Thank you gentlemen for this conversation. I know that small has the capapcity to be beneficial in terms of building relationships and working from strengths, however how do you screen for staff that can really make the investment and use this tio advance students? what are some of the criteria you have used to be successful?

Lewis Cohen:

This is a very important question. The type of teaching that can take maximum advantage of small learning communities is not, generally, the type teaching that our teachers have been prepared for. Our experience is that we have to invest in building the capacity of the people we have rather than focusing primarily on finding the right people. This means that small learning communities must have control over their professional development to tailor it to the specific needs of their staff and the needs of the students they serve. Having said that, it is important at a minimum, for small learning communities to have the ability to select staff on the basis of a shared commitment to the schools pedagogy. Your experience in Boston, with the pilot schools is a real model in this regard.

Question from Nathan Lemmon Educational Consultant in Mass:

If we assume that breaking large high schools into smaller learning communities makes for educational success, is it measured more by standards and testing or by some other, more difficult-to-measure criteria like independence, happiness, ability-to-earn etc?

Lewis Cohen:

Thank you for asking this important question. We strongly believe that we are using measurements designed for the schools we have instead of the schools we need. Nonetheless, standards and testing are the currency of the land and available research has judged small schools to outperform their traditional counterparts in this regard, though the data for conversion small schools is limited. In addition, however, we are looking at other measures. CES in particular is interested not only in college going rates but college success rates. Our New York affiliate center has been engaged in a longitudinal study showing small school graduates are faring better in college. And our Minnesota affiliate center has a study looking at hope, happiness and resiliency among graduates of its small schools. Summaries of these studies are available on our website at

Question from anonymous parent:

In my community, the powers that be are looking at making the high school with disproportionately more high risk students bigger so that it is equal in size to the more affluent school. What else could a community consider to enhance the experience of disadvantaged high school students?

Stacy Spector:

If, as a nation, we are going to truly close the academic achievement gap, then I believe a community needs to look at issues of equity to ensure that the needs of every student are being met. Leaders must be prepared to address issues of disproportionate distribtuion of access, opportunity, time, staffing and resources. I would question if decision are made research based, data driven, practice proven, and value added or if they are made based upon outdated notions that equal translates to equitable. When the focus remains on deep personalization and improved instructional practice that results in increased student performance, then I think communities are best positioned to make difficult deicions in the best interests of students adn not of adults.

Question from Lorraine Forte, Deputy Editor, Catalyst Chicago:

I’d like to know of any research that directly and conclusively points to the academic benefits of small schools vs. large. Also, what’s the biggest mistake schools and districts make when converting to small schools?

Lewis Cohen:

Again I want to refer you to Kathleen Cotton’s survey of the available research to be found here: . To give you the gist of this report here’s Cotton quoting small schools researcher Mary Anne Raywid who says the superiority of small schools has been established “with a clarity and at a level of confidence rare in the annals of education research” On the second part of your question I would argue that focus on structure over instruction is the biggest mistake schools make and that districts that think they can change schools without changing the way the district operates are unlikely to realize their goals.

Question from Sandy Kennedy, Curriculum & Instruction, Preble County Educational Service Center:

I would agree that taking the largest schools and breaking them into smaller learning communities is a good idea, but I do not believe it will lead us in the direction we need to go to substatially improve student academic outcomes. Don’t you believe that a complete rethinking of education and culture in our country is the only way to tackle the complexities of American students and their education?

Stacy Spector:

I believe that addressing the varied needs of ALL students entrusted to us for their care by their families and by society is the defining issue of our day. It is essential to the continuance of our democracy that we learn how to best educate and prepare our students to be thinkers and problem solvers, not just to enter the realm of college, career, and citizenship, but to be humane to one another in a complex and increasingly intimate world. I am charged with growing the knowledge, expertise and capacity of my staff to meet the many and complex needs of every student in our school. In order for this to be accomplished I must acknowledge the realities of the world in which we live and preapre learning and experiences for our students that I can control. We have them for 6 hours and 35 minutes a day. It’s my moral obligation to do no less than to expect each student to acheive. Providing them the opportunities, resources, and supports to do so is not just my profession, it’s my life’s work.

Question from Michael Ragon, Principal, Seaford High School:

How does one ensure the success of the progam when in one building there can be principals with different educational philosophies and attitudes towards the handling of dicipline problems?

Lewis Cohen:

To the extent possible you need to create a distinct space, ideally contiguous for each school, so that visitors to your interconnected schools will feel like they have left one school and entered another. In addition it is important to establish a building wide decision making structure so that the principals or others have a place to make shared agreements about the space. To quote our book on this subject, this body needs “to create common expectations around hallway noise level, skipping classes, attendance and tardiness because those issues affect the climate, sense of space, and the ability to shape relationships at every school.” The challenge is to create ways to hold each other accountable for these common expectations.

Question from Richard Rozakis, Principal, North Shore HS, Glen Head, NY:

Can small schools within schools be truly heterogeneous and non-tracked? How do you account for students with special needs and talented and gifted students within the setting?

Stacy Spector:

At ACE we do not have tracked classes. We believe that all of our classes are taught at rigorous levels and in such a manner as to preppare all students to have choice in their post secondary life- be it college, career and citizenship. To this end we use an inclusion, co-teaching model to provide the neccessary supports, differentiaion and scaffolds neccessary to support each student at their place of need and move them forward.For some students this might be an extended literacy or math block, a double dose of content, one on one and small group mentoring from student learning ambassadors, participation in before and after school programs, or an intensive coaching cycle. We view our work through the lens that if we are addressing adn meeting the needs of our most struggling learners that we are also most likely meeting the needs of all students. As we assess and montitor learning, where we fidn this is not ahppening, we have the flexibilty of being small to make the neccessary mid course corrections needed so that we can meet their needs.

Question from Roger Jackson, VP/COO, The Educational Advancement Alliance, Inc.:

What help or hinderance do Teacher’s Unions pose to the creation of small learning communities?

Lewis Cohen:

Changes to hiring practices, working conditions and seniority pose challenges for unions. However, the proliferation of these initiatives has demonstrated that unions are able to support these efforts. CES has enjoyed an excellent working relationship with many unions in pursuing this work and in some of the most exciting developments such as Los Angeles’ new Belmont Zone of Choice, unions have been at the forefront of promoting the necessary changes.

Question from Tayari Kuanda, Teacher, Apple Valley High:

How can teachers collaborate for this type of set up?

Stacy Spector:

Teachers need to visit schools where this work is happneing. They need to read research and articles by people like Theodore Sizer and Deborah Meier who have found success in small schools adn the principles that guide them. They need to make time together to exlpore their core beleifs and values about student learning.They need to access resources like the Coalition of Essential Schools web site that has additional resources and exemplars to guide the work. They need to beleive that small schools are for and about students and that their collaboration always needs to be focused upon this belief.

Question from Josh Varon, Staff Attorney, Education Law Center:

How does funding impact the Small Schools Initiative? It seems to me that the places in which these schools are most needed, are also the places that are the hardest pressed to be able to afford them.

Lewis Cohen:

First, I believe our social investment in education is inexcusably low when you see what other priorities are generously funded. Having said that, the places that need these approaches the most are currently spending funds without acceptable results. Small schools are certainly easier to initiate with additional funding streams but they have been created in places without these funding streams. What is involved is the will to abandon things that aren’t effective and rethink ones priorities. This may mean challenging various sacred cows such as the range of electives or extra curricular activities offered, or more ideally finding new ways to access these experiences for students. The point is we need to consider fundamentally different ways of doing things if we are going to address problems like are unacceptable drop out rate in urban schools.

Question from Frank J. Hagen, Adjunct Professor, Wilmington University (Retired Principal):

There has been significant discussion regarding the benefits of dividing a large high school into a series of smaller schools. What are the major pitfalls which a schho/district must avoid when moving in th direction? What are the short-term benefits? What are the long-range benefits? Are there any economies of scale when moving from a large school to a number of small schools?

Stacy Spector:

Steve Fink, Executive Director of the Center for Educational Leadership, University of Washington, and Max Silverman, Executive Director of Secondary Learning for Highline School Dsitrict answer this question best in a recent article. Major pitfalls include, but are not limited to: the conversion process drags on for more than three years, failure to hire exceptional instructional leaders, a lack of instructional knowledge, skill, adn vision at the district and site level, the avoidance of community unrest, failure to staff schools with the apporpriate mix of teachers who can get all students ready for college, career and citizenship, and failure to dismiss staff who are not successful teaching students. Short and long term goals are best reached when these pitfalls are addressed. Economy of scale depends are several factors: beleif in equitable staffing, allocating money and resources to areas of greatest need, and being clear about how resources are accessed and utilized to support improved instrucitonal practice. Economy of scale means understanding that samlls chools can’t do it all. We need to identify what is most important to us and focus on that. Smart, strategic, and intentional attention needs to be paid to building the capacity of adults to meet the needs of students.

Question from Peggy Palma, teacher, Youngstown City Schools:

Our small schools within the large schools experiment is floundering. Perhaps further segregating kids already segregating themselves by race and gang is a bad idea. Has it really worked in other poor areas? Is the failure because we sometimes schedule students into other “schools”?

Lewis Cohen:

We think student choice is important to establish student ownership and buy-in to for new small schools. However, it is also necessary to develop a student assignment process that prevents academic, racial, gender, language or other segregation. There is a well documented history of the success of these efforts particularly for poor students and students of color. I think you are on to something when you acknowledge that you don’t really maintain the integrity of your schools and allow students to cross over. When students are known well and have a caring, knowledgeable adult who is invested in their success great things can happen. Cross over makes it more difficult to foster these kinds of relationships.

Question from Dhameera Ahmad, Principal, Oakland Unified School District:

How are support services addresssed with such small budgets? We are under 200 and find our budget not able to address any support services.

Stacy Spector:

We address budgets by funding the priorities that most enable us to remain focused on our instrucitonal core and th eimprovement of teaching practice. We expend mort budgets to support embedded coaching, studio residencies, and professional collaboration. We also spend lots of money to support rich classroom libraries so that students are always surrounded by texts.

Question from Scott Folsom, Parent Leader Los Angeles; Board of Manager, California State PTA:

We are awash in many flavors of reform. As we decentralize school districts, empower parents and principals, raise standards, align and standardize curriculum and instruction, improve graduation rates, reform middle school -- and test, measure, assess and test some more - how do we also implement small schools in large urban districts where we set expectations high and can’t raise the budget? There is a public perception that smaller schools means smaller class sizes - yet that is neither the intent nor the outcome. Are we prioritizing small schools over smaller classrooms? Are ninth grade houses better? Single gender houses? Grade level houses? Are K-6 Elementaries better? K-8? 7-9 Junior Highs? 6-8 Middles? Three or four year High Schools? Should college admission requirements and high school graduation requirements be the same? Should high school exit exams assess high school accomplishments - or middle school? Should SLC’s be themed by subject and interest - or is Gryffindor and Slytherin better? Passporting anyone? What is the connection between the SLC and the larger school? We all want to separate these questions and answer them individually …but in reality they need to be answered together.

Lewis Cohen:

This is the big question isn’t it? Our Essential schools movement began from the premise that the comprehensive high school was by the nature of its design incapable of meeting the needs of all of its students. This notion rejects the very idea of reform for reform implies fixing what is broken where what we wish to consider is how to replace that which is obsolete. Having arrived at this point it is then our duty to begin anew from the question “what is it that our students need to know and be able to do and how do we help them achieve this?” Having begun to answer this question with the simple idea that the purpose of schools is help students learn to use their minds well, we have identified small learning environments as the best vehicle for achieving this goal. That’s because we are looking at students as individuals with different needs and ways of learning and we think you need an approach that is flexible and responsive to each student whether low or high achieving by traditional measure. This philosophical stance does not lend itself to a one-size-fits-all best approach but instead requires multiple approaches for different circumstances and different local contexts. And this approach in turn calls for a whole new set of measures that are more aligned with the outcomes we need to be pursuing.

Question from Dr. Samuel Billups, Retired Principal, Baltimore, MD:

What are your recommendations for transforming large high schools into smaller learning communities (within the large school buildings in most urban cities) and still retaining the discipline and supervision required for effective teaching and learning. This is in recognition that the communities will be required to utilize some shared facilities ( cafeteria, physical education,auditorium library, etc.). This question is intended to address the best utilization of large high school facilities in most urban cities.

Stacy Spector:

At the campus ACE shares with two other small schools we are always looking to best utilize space. We share the cafeteria (sometimes our lunches are seperate, somethimes they overlap) the library media center, and a central building where new students come in order to be assigned to one of the three small schools. As principals we communicate constantly to ensure an equitable distribution of space and facilities. We meet regularly to discuss the best ways to use space to serve th eneeds of kids. For us, this emant buying couches and chairs to utilize hallway nooks and crannies as meeting space. It meant transforming the traditional “teacher’s lounge” into a space where both students, staff, and visitors use as conversation space. It is important that space is negotiated based upon what best supports student learning.

Question from Bob Frangione, Teacher:

What lessons can already small schools learn from the efforts to scale down larger schools?

Lewis Cohen:

There is much for these schools to learn. As I have said, smallness in and of itself, does not constitute the change we are advocating. There are many historically small schools that don’t behave differently from other traditional schools and don’t get any better results. The process of determining how best to use smallness to improve schools has many lessons for already small schools. How to use smallness to promote a coherent educational program, a shared pedagogical stance, and teacher collaboration are just a few of the valuable lessons to draw on. Managing the change process and involving all stakeholders in decision making are things that successful conversion do well and that those who are small but who haven’t taken advantage of their smallness can learn from as well.

Question from Jackie Henry, School Improvement Facilitator LAUSD:

Teachers believe that the conversion process is on their backs and therfore want more autonomy, while site administrators feel threaened and unprepared for their new roles. How do we create balance that benefits students?

Stacy Spector:

I believe that most adminsitrators, just like most teachers, wish for the autonomy needed to go about this owrk in real and meaningful ways. I think each person is responsible for helping to identify the new and unique roles that each person plays in the conversion process. The secretaries from our large highschool met and created a new role for themselves in our small school based upon what they new to be the needs of students in a small school. I thinkit is a great example fo all adults in the system tkaing responsibility for change that serves the needs of students.

Question from Beth-Ann Tek, Evaluation Associate, Brown University:

In a school reform environment drowning in NCLB, and SLC grants funded by the federal DOE that require evaluations that tie outcomes directly to increased student achievement after only three years, do you believe that SLCs can substantially impact student achievement that quickly? How long do you think it should take a large high school to fully implement SLCs (planning & action)?

Lewis Cohen:

The simple answer is no. Change is a process that takes time. The comprehensive high school is a hundred year old institution. If we really use SLCs to fundamentally reinvent schooling not everything that is tried is going to work. further, the capacity to deliver new forms of instruction will need to be developed over time. Lastly, if we really start matriculating students who previously dropped out we can expect short term declines in traditional achievement measures. A large high school needs a minimum of one year of planning, preceded by a lengthy conversation on the necessity of change. Implementation needs at least four years to take hold.

Question from JuanitaHollingsworth-Johnson, ECE Consultant:

I believe that the persons responsible for learning in school environments are key to how much and what happens with learning engagements. If smaller schools or conversion of larger schools to smaller schools are ways to improving students’ learning, what changes are being made in leadership training? How do we change mindsets of those who remain in these environments after the conversions?

Stacy Spector:

I beleive that as leaders we must be clear about the complexities of developing small schools where the learning of students must be accelerated so that each of them can demonstrate proficinecy (when many might join us significantly below grade level) as thinkers and problem solvers.We need to know and be able to lead the instruction neccessary to change predicatbale outcomes for students. We also need to be clear about the hard work expected to engage in to meet the needs of students. Adults need to be both willing and able to engage in this process. Leadership training needs to better address how to leverage the knowledge and capitol of effective staff to build the capacity of everyone in the building to hold one another accountable to student learning.

Question from Deanna Enos, teacher/author Nobody Left Behind One Child’s Story About Testing:

Do smaller schools loose their public school status and become corporate schools with a particular agenda. Smaller public schools, in my opinion a always preferable, but we need a public school system in insure that all children have equal opportunities.

Lewis Cohen:

The Coalition of Essential Schools and its affiliated centers have been helping to establish small schools for more than twenty years. All of these small schools are public schools, which of course includes public charter schools. I personally was involved with the development of small schools in Oakland, California where 43 of that district’s schools are new small schools. While for profit school operators have recently become involved in launching small schools there is nothing inherent in this approach to school development that is incompatible with the operation of public school districts.

Question from Roger Jackson, VP/COO, The Educational Advancement Alliance, Inc.:

Research shows that small class size produces the biggest gains in academic achievement, especially in the primary grades. Why hasn’t smaller class size in High School been a bigger part of the small learning communities conversation?

Stacy Spector:

I don’t think and agree that research is definitive about small class size demonstrating the bigest gains in student acheivement. I would posit that it is strong personalized relationships and improved instructional practice thatis both rigorous and relevent to students’ lives that research bears out to have the largest positive impact on student acheivment.

Question from Marilee Halpin, instructor, Northern Illinois University:

The real problem with these ideas is that they look good on paper but the minute an administration change takes place everything is scrapped and the staff becomes jaded. How can we adjust for pure teams that will make most of our models workable?

Lewis Cohen:

I think this is a real danger. In places where the initiative has withstood leadership transitions, there has often been a strong ownership of the work by the larger community. The community is a powerful force for maintaining the continuity of the change process.

Question from Meg Cramer, Human Factors Engineer:

Is there an email for contacting you with follow up questions or additional info requests?

Lewis Cohen:

Michele McNeil (Moderator):

That’s all the time we have today. Thank you for all of the great questions, and to our guests, Lewis Cohen and Stacy Spector, for their insightful answers. A transcript will be available shortly at

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