Education Chat

The Small Schools Debate

Education Week's Assistant Managing Editor Caroline Hendrie and Associate Editor Debra Viadero—both of whom have been covering the school-size issue for years—take your questions on this hot topic.

The Small Schools Debate
June 21, 2006
Guests: Education Week Assistant Managing Editor Caroline Hendrie and Associate Editor Debra Viadero.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s chat about the benefits and drawbacks of establishing smaller schools. This is clearly an important topic for our readers as shown by the large volume of questions waiting to be answered. So let’s get the discussion started ...

Question from Bob Frangione, Substitute Teacher:
What are the characteristics that define a “small school”? How do small schools differ from individual, autonomous classrooms in a larger institution?

Debra Viadero:
The definitition of what is “small” varies. Early in the century, when James B. Conant called for the creation of large, comprehensive high schools, he was talking about schools of 400 students. That would be small by today’s standards. Most modern-day reformers define small schools as those in the 100-student-to-400-student range. The current small-schools movement, though, is also about more than size. I would say some hallmarks of the new approach would be the creation of more personalized learning environments and making sure that every student has some sort of one-to-one mentoring relationship with an adult. These environments would differ from an autonomous classroom in a larger institution in that it would include a core group of teachers working together to plan lessons and share information on students.

Question from Jack Walden, Bd. of Education, Oracle Elementary:
What is the absolute recommended minimum number of students to build and start a new high school?

Debra Viadero:
I’ve never seen any experts recommend a minimum number of students. There was, however, a very influential study published in the 1990s by Valerie Lee of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It found that the optimal high school size was 600 to 900 students. That’s much larger, of course, than many of the small high schools that are being created across the country today.

Question from Linda Comer, RVP, The Leona Group:
As you covered the issue of school size, have you factored in the success of charter high schools whic are generally smaller in size? What has been your conclusion on these schools?

Caroline Hendrie:
Many similarities exist between small schools run by regular school districts and many charter schools, no doubt about it. In many cases, the chief “innovation” of the charter school has been to be smaller and more personalized compared with the other high school options available in a community. For some urban areas with large high schools that have become veritable “dropout factories,” for example, creating charter high schools that group all students together in a college-preparatory program and hold them to high standards is in fact breaking the mold, even if the pedagogical approach pursued in the charter schools is not particularly groundbreaking.

Question from John Bowen, Principal, Coconut Creek High:
I restructured Coconut Creek High (Broward County Florida) into five Small Learning Communities each distinct, separate, and autonomous within one school year with complete teacher/staff ownership. The students, staff, and parents support the move completely, but with the exception of certain personnel, the district itself has become the barrier due to the “fear of change” and the accountibility that come with change. How does a school community convince the district to support change and not be risk averse?

Caroline Hendrie:
It’s good to hear from someone who has been out in the trenches directly involved in the push to scale up scaled-down schooling. Your question about district buy-in is an important one. Those involved in this work are increasingly coming to believe that central-office support, or lack thereof, can play a critical role in whether small schools and/or small learning communities thrive. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for instance, has shifted its strategy in recent years from focusing mostly on individual schools to devoting more attention and resources to developing district capacity in this area. The most prominent examples of the foundation’s work in trying to foster district-level changes to support smaller schools are New York City and Chicago, for example. Also, leaders of the foundation say that their experience has shown that public demand for change is an important factor in generating the momentum for successful small schools initiatives. You are probably aware of some of the public-awareness efforts going on this area. One prominent one is the Stand Up campaign launched this spring. The focus is not just small schools per se, but the Gates Foundation is spearheading this effort with an eye toward fostering far greater awareness of the high school dropout problem and the possible avenues for attacking it, which they would say include schools that take a more personalized approach to engaging students in academically challenging coursework. The thought is that greater public appetite for change can help foster the conditions that make districts themselves more open to change.

Comment from Dianne McKenzie TL, Hong Kong:
Having worked in a smallish secondary school (400) and my children attending this same school there are problems with small secondary schools - one of the main ones are choices of subjects, and the wider base of activities that are available to the students.

With a smaller school there are less staff - reducing the number of specialities and outside interests, reducing the number of choices. Sometimes staff are asked to teach a subject they do not have training in, leading to a lower standard of teaching and learning.

With smaller schools there is less money to provide more facilities such as woodwork, metal work and food technology classrooms, the arts and practical subjects seem to be overlooked while academic subjects are given a main focus - therefore not providing opportunities for students who are not as academically inclined.

I have taken one of my children out of the small secondary school and placed them in huge boarding school (1500 students) - the difference is chalk and cheese with regard to opportunities, expectations and overall culture. In my experience large secondary schools offer more for those who need more choices to achieve.

Question from Sarah, Teacher:
Having taught in a small school environment for one year, I found that I had less planning time and more non-instructional duties than within a large school. I did not find that my working conditions had improved at all. Since the school district was determined to make the small school concept work, I was unable to address these issues with anyone. I eventually had to leave the school and find a position elsewhere. What policies should be in place in small schools to address teacher working conditions and to ensure that faculty and staff are not overwhelmed?

Caroline Hendrie:
Hi, Sarah. In my opinion, the issue of teacher overwork or burnout is a very important one confronting those who are trying to scale up the small schools movement. This goes from small schools within school districts and independently run charter schools alike. A good number of small schools, at least start-ups, seem to be relying on young, super-committed teachers who are able to devote an exceptionally large number of hours to their jobs. We know that as teachers get a few years into their careers they often become more skilled at the craft but also take on more responsibilities, such as children of their own. So the sustainability of models that rely on extraordinary staff commitment is a question mark. That said, the situation you describe suggests that appropriate attention to this issue by school- and district-level leaders may have been lacking in your case. I also think that some of the struggles with staff overwork may ease as new schools get off the ground and people aren’t trying to invent an entirely new institution even as they run their classrooms day in and day out. So this problem may ease as time goes by.

Comment from Dr. Herman G. Norman, Principal ,East Wake High School:
As a principal of a large comprehensive high school that is currently converting to four small autonomous high schools on one campus I can assure you that there is a major difference between the small school we have begun and what is left of EWHS as a whole. The change is not about the size of the school however. Size just makes the changing of the culture of the new school more managable. The real change has occurred in the relationships between student/teacher and teachers with their peers. Each student in our new small school has at least one adult that serves as their advisor and advocate. These student do not get lost and fall through the cracks as I observed with a large high school. Teachers have faculty meetings around a table where they must look each other in the eye. We talk about accountability. In this setting there is no place to hide. Peer pressure fosters accountability. Both students and teachers have ownership with this school. It has changed the role of the teacher from a “chalk and talk” model to a more Socratic co-explorer with the student. Has it been easy? Not at all. Do we still have a distance to go? You bet. Would we do it again? We are opening three more schools within the next two years. That should answer this question. Are small schools the complete answer? Not if you do not change the culture of the school. Foster relationships, demand a more rigorous curriculum, be prepared to show relevance between what is taught in each course and what will be needed to be successful in the post secondary experience. Teach to a theme and do not just offer a buffet of non-related courses. Redesign schools with this philosophy and you will see the academic growth we have experienced in our first small school The East Wake School of Health Science.

Question from Leanna Stiefel, Professor of Economics, Wagner School and IESP, New York University:
I have been interested in the costs of small schools for many years and I am continuing research on this topic. I don’t see costs mentioned very often as a dimension of the assessment of small schools and I wonder if that is because the common databases used to study the effect of school size are national ones that include few school cost variables. Or is there some other reason?

Debra Viadero:
That’s a good question. Your study showing the cost-effectiveness of small schools in New York City is really the only one that I’m familar with, though I suspect there must be more. I think you are right, though, in suggesting that the reason may be because most of the research draws on the databases that the federal government maintains---databases that don’t contain much information at all on costs.

Question from Paul J. Smith, Ed.D., Facilitator, Accelerated Learning Center, Little Rock School District:
Several years ago the Carnegie Foundation was helping school districts/communities with large high schools to fund the making of small high schools. Are they still doing that?

Caroline Hendrie:
Thanks for your question, Paul. The answer to your question is yes. Back in 2000, the Carnegie Corporation of New York launched its Schools for a New Society initiative. A big thrust of that effort is to support major changes in districts’ approach to high schools. Seven cities have gotten major grants under that program: Boston; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Providence, R.I.; Sacramento, Calif.; San Diego; Worcester, Mass.; and Houston. You can get more information about the effort at Meanwhile, Carnegie has also been a very important funder of the effort to create many new small schools within the New York City school system. Part of that ongoing, public-private effort is something called the New Century High Schools Initiative, launched in 2000 by Carnegie, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Open Society Institute. The initiative is being coordinated by New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit organization with a history of fostering the creation of small schools in New York City. You can get loads of information on that here: The Carnegie Corporation provides other types of direct and indirect support to efforts to improve schools, of course. Close to home, for example, Education Week recently received a grant from the foundation to support our coverage of district-level school improvement efforts. Anyway, I hope that gives you a start!

Question from Rose Snyder, Professional Development:
Has there been any attempt to correlate post graduate success either in institutions of higher learning or career specialized schools based on whether the student expereinced a small learning community or a large high school?

Debra Viadero:
The best-known example of that kind of work would probably have to be the longitudinal evaluations of the small schools that Deborah Meier started in New York City decades ago. More recently, MDRC, a New York City-based think tank, tracked students graduating from career academies four years after they left high school and found that they were earning more money than peers with the same sorts of background characteristics who had gone the regular high school route. In another recent study, Barbara Schneider of Michigan State University, looked at national data on students in small and large schools to see how the experience affected their post-high scool plans. She was looking at things like: how many colleges they had applied to and whether they were accepted, whether they were looking to attend four- or two-year schools, their high school math achievement, etc. Unlike the two other studies I mentioned, her findings suggest that larger schools may be a more optimal environment for certain types of kids---primarily less affluent, urban kids.

Question from Deb Koehler, parent of high school students:
Would a smaller high school be able to offer the wide variety of award-winning extra-curricular activities that a large high school can offer? i.e. marching band, athletics, orchestra, fine arts programs Would they have the budget to continue those programs?

Debra Viadero:
Probably not. Some small schools have been pretty clever, though, about finding ways to maintain at least some of these services. Robert E. Lee High School in Houston got rid of its football team and replaced it with a soccer team. Most of the students were from Central and South America and preferred to play soccer, anyway. Instead of a marching band, the school hired a mariachi band to play at the homecoming soccer game. Other schools have negotiated agreements so that their students could continue to play competitive sports at other high schools in their districts. Reformers also suggest schools can collaborate with outside performing arts groups to keep those activities alive for students. The point you make, though, is a good one. Organized sports and other activities, are important and often open the door to college scholarships for students who might not otherwise consider college as an option for them.

Question from Karen Fernandez, teacher, Manual High School, Denver, CO:
I am (or, more correctly, I was) a teacher at Manual High School in Denver, a small schools “experiment” that has been deemed a failure and closed. (Both Ms. Hendrie and Ms. Viadero have covered the Manual situation.) Although our demographics--90%+ poverty and 100% minority, with high numbers of English Language learners--were challenging, I feel that what really sealed our doom was a lack of autonomy from district mandates, many of them driven by NCLB mandates. We simply had no time or resources to devote to our unique mission as a small school. How can small schools with low-performing student populations succeed as autonomous institutions when so many variables are mandated by the high-stakes accountability measures in NCLB?

Caroline Hendrie:
Thanks for your question, Karen. I hope things are working out for you in the wake of Manual’s closure. For those of you who haven’t followed the situation there, I would recommend an article we recently published on the subject, “Failed Breakup of High School in Denver Offering Lessons,” by reporter Catherine Gewertz. But back to your question. You’ve alluded to a whole cluster of issues surrounding autonomy and accountability that many of the small schools I’m familar with are struggling with. While this is certainly not universally the case, small schools can chafe under district-level rules, some of them NCLB-related, some of them not. Among the issues I’ve heard a lot about when visiting schools is question of staffing autonomy. If a small school is subject to district hiring rules, for instance, the school leader may not have the discretion to assemble his or her own staff. That can loom large for a school leader who is trying to bring together a staff with a common vision that may depart markedly from what has been business as usual in the district at large. Flexibility to set their own hours is another major sticking point. A case in point is in Boston, where the district and the teachers’ union until recently were engage in a long-running dispute over the extra hours that teachers in the district’s innovative, small “pilot schools” were working. (We’ve written a number of articles on that in the past year, which I commend to you.) Another issue of course, is curricular autonomy at a time of test-driven accountability. Small schools that take an unconventional approach can be an uncomfortable fit in a district that is focused on meeting the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act. That can be both from the standpoints of meeting targets for test scores and of complying with the federal law’s mandate for having teachers considered highly qualified in their fields. You also mention time and resources as being a problem at Manual. I think that it’s generally agreed in the wake of the problems there that insufficient planning time was a significant obstacle. I know that many wise heads are taking a close look at the Manual situation with an eye toward doing better in the future.

Question from Miles Myers, Senior Researcher, ISCA, Los Angeles:
Do the editors-guests have any data on the courses available in small schools? That is, how do small schools staff Advanced Placement across a wide range of disciplines? How do small schools staff three or four choices of foreign language instruction? Teachers report that in Los Angeles the small schools effort had made impossible these course options. Do the editors agree?

Debra Viadero:
Hi, Miles. I’m not familiar with the situation in Los Angeles. In other cities, though, I know that educators have had to make some tough choices with regard to the range of available course offerings. The dilemma is this: Do you restrict students’ course choices or do you allow them to take AP classes or foreign languages outside of their small academies or learning communities and risk diluting the “family-like” feel of the community? I would love to see some national data on this issue myself and I suspect the ongoing evaluation of the Gates Foundation’s $1-billion high school reform effort might be a good place to look for it.

Question from Lanette White, Teacher, L.A.U.S.D.:
Do the Gates have plans to develop schools in Los Angeles? We presently have a lot of charter schools sprouting up in this city. Is this a result of their efforts? Finally, how can a “highly qualified” teacher become involved, besides doing his/her job in the district?

Caroline Hendrie:
Hi, Lanette. I’m not an expert on what the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is doing to support high school reform in Los Angeles, so I may omit things. But I do know that the foundation has provided support for a variety of efforts there. Back in October 2004, the district’s board of education agreed to a policy calling for the district to scale down all its secondary schools into smaller units of 350 to 500 students. At that time, they had received a small planning grant from the Gates Foundation ($900,000, I believe), in addition to some funding from the federal Smaller Learning Communities grant program administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Besides those modest investments, the Gates Foundation has been a significant backer of small schools organizations working within LA Unified or nearby districts. Those include several prominent charter management organizations (nonprofit groups that run networks of charter schools. Among them are High Tech High School, Aspire Public Schools, and Green Dot Public Schools. Also, last fall, LA Unified announced that it would work with three national organizations to restructure four existing large high schools under a grant of nearly $7.5 million from the Gates Foundation. That said, the scope of the foundation’s investments in reform efforts directly involving LA Unified is significantly smaller than in New York and Chicago, for example. As to your question on how a teacher can get involved, it might be interesting to contact the district’s Office of School Redesign. The office phone number is (213) 241-5104 and its homepage is I’m told that the administrator in charge of the office now is Assistant Superintendent Shelley Weston. That might get you started.

Question from richard weiss, science teacher, NYC Department of Ed:
Are small schools better for preventing kids from falling “between the cracks”.

Debra Viadero:
There is lots of anecdotal evidence---and some statistical research---to suggest that this may be the case in many small schools. For instance, Patricia Wasley and colleagues did a study a few years ago looking at 143 small schools that had been launched in Chicago in the 1990s. In the schools she studied, which had an average enrollment of about 400 students, the dropout rates were about one-third lower than they were in the city’s larger high schools. On the face of it, it makes sense that students will persist longer in a school where it’s easier for adults to keep track of them. I’ve also talked with students in small schools who tell me that their teachers call them at home when they’re absent. That’s got to help. On the other hand, though, you have schools like Manual High School in Denver. This school subdivided into three schools in 2001 and then closed four years later because of poor student achievement. Only 20 percent of the students who started out at the school in 9th grade ended up graduating from there four years later.

Comment from Emily Hedrick, Communications Officer, KnowledgeWorks Foundation:
To comment on the last question: KnowledgeWorks Foundation has two publications on the cost effectiveness of small schools. “Dollars & Sense: The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools” Dollars & Sense summarizes research on the educational and social benefits of small schools and the negative effects of large schools on students, teachers, and members of the community, as well as the “diseconomies of scale” inherent in large schools. In addition, Dollars & Sense answers two fundamental questions: can small schools be built cost effectively, and has anyone done so? Using data drawn from 489 schools submitted to design competitions in 1990-2001, Dollars and Sense answers both questions with a resounding yes, demonstrating that small schools are not prohibitively expensive. Investing tax dollars in small schools does make sense.


“Dollars & Sense II: Lessons From Good, Cost-Effective Small Schools” Good small schools are affordable and sustainable, and most important: they make sense. Thirty years of education research, summarized by Dollars and Sense: The Cost-Effectiveness of Small Schools shows that small schools graduate a higher percentage of students, have lower rates of violence and disciplinary problems, and send more students on to postsecondary education than larger schools. Now Dollars & Sense II deepens the evidence that good small schools are more affordable and successful even when compared to larger schools in the same district.* In addition, Dollars & Sense II reports analysis of data from over 3000 school construction projects, and practical strategies for cost-effectiveness that have been field-tested by schools.

These may be helpful to you.

Question from Mary Johnson, teacher, Winfield School District 34, Illinois:
Winfield is a small district that enjoys the characteristics you described of a small learning environment. When I started in this district 7 years ago, it had the feel of a “demonstration” school. We are now plagued with high health care costs and we are top heavy with administration costs. How will the schools you are proposing, deal with these issues? (Illinois is dealing with superintendent salaries that are out of control.)

Debra Viadero:
In some of the small schools and schools-within-schools that I’ve visited, teachers have actually taken on a lot of administrative and guidance duties, such as course scheduling and student advising. Whether or not this practice cuts down on costs, I can’t say for sure. These schools still have principals, though the principals in the smallest of these small schools might also teach a class or two. And these districts still have superintendents. My guess is that health-care costs would rise, regardless of school size. There is one New York City study, however, that suggests small schools are just as cost-effective as larger ones.

Question from Kathryn L Quinn, Spanish teacher, Greenville Senior High School, Greenville City Schools, Greenville,OH:
Smaller high schools means more schools per school district, which entails more administrators, more custodians, more secretaries, more fuel bills, more electric bills, more support staff, etc., etc. Do you not feel, in today’s economic crisis for our schools and their funding, that you are turning a blind eye toward reality and once again putting a small band-aid on a very large wound? Do you not feel that one large consolidated building, with one set of support and administrative staff, yet allowing smaller class sizes by having a large number of teachers who will now have the opportunity to confer and consult with all of the other teachers in their department, share ideas and supplies, offer consistency in instruction and benefit from each other’s experience and expertise, would be a more academically and economically sound solution?

Caroline Hendrie:
Interesting set of questions. The question of the cost-effectiveness of small schools is a recurring one in this field. Skeptics cite many of the arguments you have raised. Some studies however, dispute that small schools cost more. And advocates have long pointed to the higher graduation rates typically posted by small schools to argue that such schools are actually cost less per graduate than larger comprehensive high schools with higher dropout rates. You raise the question of whether the proliferation of small schools will lead to a attendant proliferation of support staff. Some districts are trying to deal with this possibility by restructuring their central offices to enable small schools to access support services that they want without requiring the schools to use all of them. Some charter management organizations are trying to provide their schools with centralized back-office support while preserving individual schools’ autonomy in many other areas. As for your suggestion that one large, consolidated building is superior to small schools, it seems to me that most high schools in this country still conform to that large school model. We have an alarming dropout problem in this country, especially for African-American and Hispanic students, which is a major reason that more people are advocating that different types of smaller schools be part of a portfolio of options available to students and their families. Many kids (and teachers) may thrive in larger schools and be able to benefit from the kind of environment you describe. But those settings are clearly not working for everybody; hence, the push to make other options available to families beyond those who are able to choose private school for their kids.

Question from John Mooney, Teacher, Pace High School:
Is it realistic to pool extracurricular resources between several small schools to offer students more after school extras (sports, clubs).

Caroline Hendrie:
It seems so to me. But I know this is a touchy issue in some places, particularly in situations where a large existing school is being divided into smaller schools or units. Sometimes as new schools within a single building are seeking to establish their individual identities, there is an inclination to avoid doing too much together for fear of defeating the purpose of the smaller learning community. Some observers believe that a disservice has been done to kids in some of those instances when, for instance, championship sports teams or bands have been allowed to wither away after the conversion of a big school to a collection of smaller ones. And clearly, the fear of having that happen is a big obstacle that proponoents of small schools must address when seeking to develop community buy-in for their reform. All that said, there can be some big benefits for kids by the breakup of mega high schools. Participation rates can go way up if gazillions of kids are not competing for a tiny number of slots on the soccer team, for example. Moreover, I know that the issue of extracurriculars is not going unrecognized by small school reformers. Collaborations of the kind you mention are taking place. After all, extracurricular activities are widely recognized as an important element in building a supportive, engaging school communities. Sports, drama, music, chess, robotics, Model U.N., community service, and all manner of other extracurricular activities are often extremely worthwhile in and of themselves. And as we know, some students are passionate about their extracurricular pursuits and skillful educators can sometimes harnass that passion in the service of academic achievement. So I would say that small schools should try to pool their resources to offer those “extras” where possible. And if they can’t, they need to help students access other community resources so they can pursue or discover passions beyond their classroom walls.

Question from Judith Evans, Director, BEST Center (private practice educator for tutoring and home schooled students) Port Orange, Florida:
As every student is an individual with varying abilities, personalities, motivation,etc. does it not seem that education can not be a “one size fits all” institution by philosophy or programs? We strive for common format, skills, and knowledge, but how are individual differences taken into account in order to reduce frustrations that can lead to probems for the students that may be carried over into society? Smaller schools may be the answer for some students while others may do better in larger schools."One size does not fit all” for school design.

Debra Viadero:
I think a lot of small schools have been successful in the past precisely because they provided an alternative to the “one size fits all” philosophy. It remains to be seen whether current efforts to make all or most high schools small will have the same degree of success.

Question from Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Curriculum Designers, Inc. New York:
Would you agree that it is not sufficient to focus on smaller schools at the exclusion of corresponding rethinking of curriculum and instructional practices?

Caroline Hendrie:
From my experience, even the most ardent advocates for small schools now say that small size is a necessary but not sufficent condition for improving student learning. As the small schools idea has grown in popularity, it seems that that message has sometimes been lost. As the results come in from the growing number of experiments with scaled-down high schools, it is apparent to many of the people doing this work that structural change must be matched by instructional change if the desired gains in achievement are to be realized. That may not necessarily be true, though, for some other improvements associated with successful small schools, such as improved safety, attendance, and graduation rates.

Question from James Etim, Department of Education, Winston Salem State University:
Currently we are talking about small schools. There is also the ongoing debate about small classes. There is the growing idea that class size especially in middle schools should be around 20-25 students. How do you see small classes helping students read better and achieve higher in subjects like Science, History, and English Language Arts. Consider this question in light of the growing diverse population of our schools, the acchievement gap in language arts and the fact that many students are not reading at the appropriate levels even in the first year of college.

Debra Viadero:
Most of the class-size research that I’ve seen has focused on the elementary school years and suggests that the benefits don’t really kick in until classes get down to 20 or fewer students. (Some would even say 15.) Certainly, proponents of smaller classes at any level of schooling see them as a way to provide more personalized instruction for all students---a definite plus in the face of the growing diversity of the nation’s classrooms. Some researchers have noted, however, that shrinking class sizes does not lead to improvements in student learning if teachers continue to teach as they always did. Some added professional development may be in order to help teachers adapt their teaching style to smaller, more personalized, and more diverse learning environments.

Question from Angela Townsend, reporter, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland):
In Ohio there is uncertainty over whether or not small schools will receive additional funding, the bulk of which they have used for professional development purposes, from the Gates Foundation. Is this ongoing funding critical or can small schools continue without it?

Caroline Hendrie:
Hi, Angela. I’m not familiar with all the details in Ohio, although I’m aware that the Gates Foundation has been a major backer of the extensive high school reform work by the Knowledge Works Foundation. Now, unless there’s been a very recent change of which I’m unaware, the two foundations are in the process of figuring out the future direction of that work. Also, Gates has funded high school reform work by other organizations in Ohio. One that I happen to know about is the work by the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, run by Joe Nathan. The center is working with schools in Cincinnati and West Clermont, Ohio. I apologize, but I’m not sufficiently informed about the specifics in Ohio to know whether the funding you mention is critical for the survival of the small schools or smaller learning communities that have been created there.

Question from Linda W. Washington, Business Education, Hephzibah Middle School:
What are the major benefits of smaller sized schools?

If school districts have large schools and students from these large schools are failing in more than one subject, how can there be a school within a school concept to meet the failing needs of these individuals? How can this best be accomplished?

Caroline Hendrie:
One benefit of smaller settings that both teachers and students are no longer anonymous, and that students can develop closer relationships with their teachers. The idea is that these relationships will help prevent students from falling through the cracks and that educators can better identify their individual strengths and weaknesses. Another plus is often a reduction in the need to do “crowd control,” if you will, so that discipline issues often become less salient in the day to day life of a school. This can help reduce distractions for both teachers and kids. Another benefit that advocates cite is the ability of teachers to meet together across subject areas, with a focus on individual kids. As far as how to help students with multiple failures in core subjects, you might be interested in taking a look at Diplomas Count, a new report just released yesterday by Education Week and our sister organization, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. In particular, I would recommend a story titled “Opening Doors” by Lynn Olson. The story outlines strategies for helping more students earn a diploma, and among them are developing multiple pathways and schools and programs specifically targeting students who are overage and undercredited. You can find the report here:

Question from Pam Vaughn, Teacher:
Isn’t “small schools” a term used to portray schools as personal? The term works but the concept does not. Teachers still have six classes of 30 - 38 students and multiple preps. Maybe the idea is a good one but the implementation has been a nightmare. Why not “small classes”?

Debra Viadero:
I think you’re right. What proponents of small schools are really talking about are ways to make schools more personal. While teachers may still have six classes, though, they may be able to get to know those students better because they see them year after year. In some small school models, they may also have those same students in “advocacy” classes, which are like homeroom period set aside for teachers to mentor and advise students. That’s the plus side in terms of scheduling and implementation. The drawback is that teachers in some small schools are being asked to teach a greater variety of courses, which means that they have to spend more time doing prep work. A teacher of freshman English, for example, may also have to take on 11th or 12th grade English classes. Why not small classes? I think the answer may be that schools would have to hire more teachers to staff classes for the same numbers of students. That would cost more money.

Question from Nada Rayyes, UC Santa Barbara Graduate Student:
How are factors such as personalization of instruction and student alienation measured in large and small high schools (small learning communities/schools-within-schools)? How do we know that these things impact (or HOW they impact) student achievement? What literature can you point to?

Debra Viadero:
There is a growing body of research to suggest that paying attention to students’ social and emotional learning can carry over to improvements in academic learning. For more on that, I would point you to the Consortium on Social and Emotional Learning based at the University of Illinois in Chicago. How much of this work applies to specifically to small schools is unclear. Researchers have, however, attempted to measure the extent of personalization and instruction in small schools through student surveys. The surveys ask students whether, for instance, they feel there is at least one adult in their school who cares about them, etc.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Thank you for joining us for this informative chat about the benefits and drawbacks of establishing smaller schools. And a special thanks to our guests for taking the time to answer many questions. If you would like to learn more about the small-schools movement, try using our “Advanced Search” tool on to find stories on this issue. Also, a transcript of this discussion will be online shortly.

The Fine Print

All questions are screened by an editor and the guest speaker prior to posting. A question is not displayed until it is answered by the guest speaker. Due to the volume of questions received, we cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered, or answered in the order of submission. Guests and hosts may decline to answer any questions. Concise questions are strongly encouraged.

Please be sure to include your name and affiliation when posting your question.’s Online Chat is an open forum where readers can participate in a give- and-take discussion with a variety of guests. reserves the right to condense or edit questions for clarity, but editing is kept to a minimum. Transcripts may also be reproduced in some form in our print edition. We do not correct errors in spelling, punctuation, etc. In addition, we remove statements that have the potential to be libelous or to slander someone.

Please read our privacy policy and user agreement if you have questions.

Chat Editors