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Students: Small Schools Challenging

By Lynn Olson — April 23, 2003 3 min read
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A Nation at Risk‘s recommendations never mentioned school size. But since the release of the influential report in 1983, a growing body of evidence has suggested that small schools offer a number of advantages, particularly for minority students and those from low-income families.

Studies conducted over the past 10 to 15 years have found that in smaller schools, students come to class more often, drop out less, earn better grades, take part more often in extracurricular activities, feel safer, and show fewer behavior problems.

The latest salvo in that research comes from a survey of nearly 4,000 students in large and small, urban and suburban high schools in the New York metro area, conducted by Michelle M. Fine, a professor of social psychology and urban education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and her students.

For Education Week‘s reporting on the 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, Ms. Fine and her colleagues—Janice Bloom, April Burns, Lori Chajet, Monique Guishard, Tiffany Perkins-Munn, Yasser Payne, Kersha Smith, and Maria Elena Torre—analyzed data from their study. They also conducted a focus group of high school students in a Mid-Atlantic suburb.

Compared with their peers in larger settings, the analysis shows, students in small “detracked” high schools—schools that don’t group students into general, college-prep, or other academic categories—are far more likely to view their teachers as responsive and caring, to feel challenged in their courses, and to report that their schools treat students fairly regardless of race or income.

On many of those measures, integrated suburban schools also were doing a much better job with black and Latino students than large, urban high schools, according to the survey.

Small Size, Big Pluses

Those findings are particularly encouraging, said Ms. Fine, because other research suggests that although all students benefit from positive, encouraging relationships with teachers, minority students and low achievers may be particularly sensitive to teachers’ support.

“A number of empirical articles document a strong positive association between engagement and achievement for African-American and Latino poor and working-class students,” she said, “and a far less compelling association for white and more elite students.”

“Poor and working-class students need to be engaged if they are to achieve,” she added, “so engagement is a critical variable in any talk of shrinking academic gaps.”

Among the survey’s findings:

  • More than seven in 10 students in small schools agreed with the statement that “if I mess up, educators in my school give me a second chance,” compared with fewer than half the students in other schools surveyed.
  • More than six in 10 students in small schools agreed that “my teachers really know and understand me,” compared with fewer than a third in other schools.
  • More than eight in 10 students in small schools agreed that “teachers care about students in my school,” compared with fewer than six in 10 students in other schools.
  • Nearly eight in 10 students in small schools agreed with the statement that “my teachers teach well so that students understand the material,” compared with fewer than six in 10 surveyed elsewhere.

Similarly, while 56 percent of students in large schools agreed that “everybody at my school has an equal chance of getting into the hardest classes,” that was true for 71 percent of students in small schools.

And 26 percent of students in large schools agreed that “my school is not as good as it should be in providing equal educational opportunities for students of color,” but only 10 percent of students in small schools concurred.

Students in small schools also were more likely to agree with the statement “I am very challenged in my courses.”

Candice de Jesus, a student at East Side Community High School, a 309-student school in New York City, remembers visiting an Advanced Placement mathematics class in a large, comprehensive high school in a relatively affluent suburb. Both schools are part of the Regional Minority Achievement Consortium, a coalition of the districts that supported Ms. Fine’s survey as part of their efforts to address achievement gaps tied to race and ethnicity.

Two Latino girls were in the class, Ms. de Jesus recalls, “and they didn’t know anybody in that class. They just knew each other.”

“So we kind of appreciated our school more,” she said in retrospect. “They’re more individual. We’re more working together and stuff.”

“In these small, detracked schools, educators assume their primary job is to educate all of their students toward rigor,” said Ms. Fine.

Moreover, she noted, student motivation in small schools doesn’t necessarily depend on the level of parental education, as it usually does in large schools.

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