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New Book Gives a Close-Up Look at Small-School Reform

After watching their students' test scores drop for nearly 20 years, school officials in Mapleton, Colo., took steps to shut down the city's traditional, comprehensive high school and replace it over a period of years with a network of six to seven smaller schools as part of a broad, and bold, effort to improve learning.

The story of the school system's transition over the next five years is the stuff of a new book, titled Against the Odds, by five researchers and school reformers. The team, led by noted Stanford University researcher Larry Cuban, draws on interviews, analyses, and observations conducted between 2006 and 2009 as the initiative kicked into high gear.

Yes, I know small schools are yesterday's news in national debates on school reform, but this book extracts some interesting lessons and observations from Mapleton's experiment, which was heavily backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For one, the school system found the conversion was expensive, largely due to increased building and transportation costs. That may not have been unexpected, but the surprise (for me, anyway) was that the added 5 percent in costs meant that educators had to make up the money somewhere else. The cut, for Mapleton, came in instructional services. The district reduced some staff development and asked teachers to volunteer their time for other professional development workshops.

Another surprise: While participation in high school athletics dropped off after the conversion, it grew for after-school clubs, including those that were academically oriented.

In the end, while the district did succeed in creating more personalized learning environments for students, it still had not seen the hoped-for, dramatic learning gains by 2008. But dropout rates appeared to be decreasing by the end of that time span, and district officials were hopeful that, with a little more time, test scores would follow suit. At the same time, though, the district was facing increasing pressure to ratchet up accountability measures and boost lagging test scores.

It's hard to know how many, if any, of these changes were due to the high school's downsizing. (In a second phase of the reform, the district also began shrinking its elementary schools.) As part of the transformation, the district embraced a more constructivist-oriented approaching to teaching. And each of the new schools also adopted a different instructional model, such as Big Picture High School or Expeditionary Learning, so much was happening at the same time.

But, for any school system that's still interested in downsizing, Mapleton offers a candid and cautionary case study.

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