Assessment Opinion

Is the Small Schools Movement Really Dead?

By Guest Blogger — April 22, 2014 4 min read
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Today, author and advocate Mike Klonsky joins Deborah Meier on Bridging Differences. The two will co-blog for a to-be-determined length of time.

Dear Deb,

Mike Klonsky
Let me start out by saying, I was right back then and you were wrong.

There, having got that out of the way, let me add how strangely wonderful it is to be your blogging partner at Bridging Differences. I also wanted to wish you a happy 83rd birthday. The late great author/poet Gabriel García Márquez said: “It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.”

I don’t know about all that. I think (hope) we both are still pursuing our dreams and growing old anyway. It sure beats the alternative. Don’t you think?

When you invited me, my first thought was, what differences could you and I possibly have to bridge? I even joked about renaming the blog, Burning Bridges or Looking For Differences. But I’ve signed on anyway, at least for a while, remembering how much you and I love to argue about everything under the sun.

And what I’ve taken from you as an educator is, that’s how real learning and transformation takes place, not served up on a platter, but more like a wrestling match. You’ve also made a pretty good case at Bridging Differences about how important healthy arguments and debates are for making democracy work.

So I suggest we just jump in with both feet, throw out some ideas about current and past issues, and let the chips burn and bridges fall where they may.

For starters, maybe we can do a back-and-forth on the early small-schools movement. What became of it since you founded Central Park East Elementary School 40 years ago? Can it really be 40 years? And how did we let this dynamic movement of educators and community activists morph into a top-down, corporate-style web of privately operated charter schools? Susan Klonsky and I tried to answer that question in a book we wrote a few years back, called Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society (shameless plug).

I remember back in the early ‘90s, bringing dozens of Chicago teachers, principals, and parents to New York City to visit Central Park East to see first-hand what Sy Fleigel would later call the “Miracle in East Harlem.”

I responded in a review of your book, The Power of Their Ideas, that what we all saw at CPES was no “miracle” at all. Rather, CPESS and the hundreds of small, teacher-led, and mostly democratically run schools that followed in its wake were earthly creations, the product of hard work and powerful ideas coming not from heaven, but from public school (union members) teachers, parents, and community members.

Our teachers returned home duly impressed with what they saw and heard, with their heads spinning and imaginations pumping. CPESS was the spark that lit up the democratic schools movement in Chicago. But as I recall, not everyone was so taken with it. While most loved the personalization, the sense of autonomy, engagement, and safety that small schools brought, the late DuSable High School Principal Charles Mingo told me in the debriefing session that, “calling the teacher Bob, and wearing a baseball cap in school, may be OK in New York, but we’re not doing that in Chicago.”

Mr. Mingo is still remembered on Chicago’s South Side, not only as a career educator, but as a fighter for civil rights in Chicago. His approach to school leadership was rooted in the notion that school was part of the fabric of community and that school change to be effective had to be closely tied up with community values and larger societal change. He also trusted teachers and gave them the autonomy they needed to be successful.

His (our) attempt to create smaller learning communities was washed out by a tidal wave of “accountability,” testing madness, and profiteering in sync with the tearing down of the community’s public and low-income housing stock and the displacement of tens of thousands of African-Americans from the South Side of Chicago. It was just a matter of time before DuSable, once the flagship high school in Chicago’s black community, was shut down by schools CEO Arne Duncan and handed over to private charter operators. Along with that came the tearing down of neighboring public housing and the displacement of thousands of African-American families.

In the decade that followed dozens of schools were closed and some 200,000 black people left Chicago.

The lesson I take from all this is that no substantial change is sustainable without deep and enduring support and participation from the community. It’s as much a community-organizing effort as a pedagogical matter. I counter-pose that to the efforts by top-down corporate reformers and their philanthropic sponsors to drive “reform” from the top down in a way that destabilizes and further demoralizes minority and high-poverty communities.

So the question remains: Is the small schools movement that you began 40 years ago really dead and buried, along with so many of the progressive, powerful ideas about education that went along with it? Or will it re-emerge is some new form that’s more in tune with current conditions? You can guess from the way I posed the question, where I lean.

What do you think?


Michael Klonsky teaches in the College of Education at DePaul University. He is the co-founder and director of the Small Schools Workshop and is a co-author of Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society. He blogs daily at Mike Klonsky’s SmallTalk Blog, at //michaelklonsky.blogspot.com/. You can follow him on Twitter at://twitter.com/mikeklonsky.

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