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Small Schools at a Crossroads

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One of the most intriguing initiatives in urban school reform, taking large schools and shrinking them to create more humane and flexible ones, is at a crossroads, and education leaders in Oakland have some tough decisions to make.

Six years ago the Oakland Unified School District was in a financial crisis, and was forced to borrow $100 million from the state. Teachers agreed to take a four percent pay cut, and a state administrator was appointed to run things. The District also faced declining enrollment. Every year we had several thousand fewer students – and our funding is directly tied to the number of students we teach. The District also faced chronic academic problems, with many schools way below state average on their test scores.

The District had already embarked on a path led by the “small schools movement,” and the state-appointed administrator supported this direction. With leadership from the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, and millions of dollars from the Broad and Gates Foundations, each year new small schools were launched. The District went from about 90 schools to more than 140 in just the past eight years.

Many of these small schools have been academically successful where the schools that preceded them were not. Some have implemented project-based learning, and all have worked to personalize the learning environment. At the secondary level, the small middle and high schools have increased graduation rates.

Unfortunately, small schools are inherently more expensive to run than larger schools, for obvious reasons. And the dollars that once flowed from foundations are now elsewhere – small schools have lost their allure. It should be noted that other areas, such as Portland and Seattle, where the Gates Foundation likewise supported the creation of new small schools, are undergoing similar challenges. According to this June article in the Seattle Times, “Gates Foundation leaders also have grown impatient at the uneven results when big schools break into small ones. This fall, Gates probably will switch the focus of its grants for fixing high schools to target teaching and raise teacher quality, says Vicki Phillips, who directs Gates' education initiatives.”

In Oakland, our District still owes the state $84 million, and enrollment has continued to decline. The District has gone from 54,024 students down to 38,852 during this time. As a result, the District is researching school closures as a means of saving money to repay the debt and to make sure the schools that remain open have adequate resources.

So now the District is embarking on the painful process of examining which schools should be closed, and which should remain open. Widely respected education policy expert Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford University, is working on a report, and shared preliminary results last week. Community meetings have begun to discuss the criteria that should be used in deciding which schools ought to be closed. This article in the East Bay Express describes the controversy.

School closures are highly disruptive and painful, so the decisions must be made very carefully. The process allows us to focus on some questions we should be thinking about anyway.

What are the critical variables in the success of a school? Here are some of the variables at play in our schools:

Size
Age
Design
Ethnic composition
Economic status
Teacher experience
Teacher leadership
Administrative leadership
Community involvement

It will be interesting to read Linda Darling-Hammond’s report and see how these various factors play out in the evaluation of the effectiveness of these schools. I will share her results when they become available.

In the meantime, what do you think? What are the critical variables in the success of a school? Are there intangibles not on this list? What about student performance? What measures would you use?

7 Comments

Anthony:

Your list is similar to the one that my own district used. Unfortunately they did not consider the academic achievement of any school under consideration for closing. They did consider the capacity for schools close by to take on students and some factor for the impact on the neigbhorhood (although this did not protect one low income neighborhood from losing most of its schools). Oddly, none of these issues were considered before a new building program was launched (to access matching $ from the state--a sop to respond to an inequitable funding lawsuit). So there were some really bad mismatches already in place. Really poorly performing schools going into new buildings--which made them a higher priority than better performing small schools nearby. Closing the smaller schools and moving kids to other buildings really accelerated the loss of students.

My recommendation would be to look at the district as a whole, rather than evaluating individual buildings for closing. When you take the individual building pathway, it seems to spark maximum loyalty to whatever is known and traditional and everyone loses. Even the "receiving" schools view the newcomers as interlopers and "problems" to be solved.

If the building plan had incorporated (rather than denying) the likelihood of needing fewer buildings, the building process might have been an opportunity to bring together a new school community from two buildings who would each gain a new building, perhaps new curricular focus and a new community sense. Overall redistricting, rather than piecemeal closures, offers a better opportunity to make closures a part of enhancing educational opportunity--as opposed to just killing off some school communities and deporting their citizens. In short--it focuses on wins rather than losses.

Certainly there should be an attempt to (understand and) maintain anything that has worked well. Was it the "small" in the small schools that worked (and if so, why didn't it work more universally?), or was it merely a Hawthorne effect, or was there something else going on in those buildings where it worked (a unique approach to leadership, a unifying theme, relationships, differentiation???). I understand Gates' decision to move on--and even if I didn't, this is always the problem with grant funding. I am aware that some schools have been successful with "school within a school" models to maintain small schools while economizing on overhead.

Any attempt to maximize the use of resources for the benefit of the greatest number runs the risk of goring somebody's ox--whether they currently have more than their share, or are the ones who are always on the bottom. Good luck to you.

Congratulations! Your post will appear in the Mole Day edition of the Carnival of Education. You can view the CoE here - http://theinfamousj.livejournal.com/341377.html - on 10/22 when the link goes live. Thank you in advance for any publicity plugs that you offer on your site.

As an aside, I spent the last two years teaching at one of the Gates-initiative small schools out here on the East coast. I hate to say this, but while the school was smaller, I had a larger class size than I now have at a larger school. I've found this to be a trend that is true.

Small school means a small student body. A small student body means that less faculty are hired. Fewer faculty mean larger class sizes.

Just something I don't think that people are thinking about.

What the reform really wants is a smaller CLASS SIZE. However, that isn't what they are saying they want nor what they are paying for, so of course it isn't what they are getting.

Margo,
I think you raise a valid point that we need to look at all the schools -- not just the new small schools. I believe the District is going to work in that direction.

J,
Thanks for featuring me at the Carnival!

I appreciate your comment drawing attention to class size. I think that is one of a number of variables. When I spoke with Dr. Darling-Hammond about these issues, she suggested that the smaller schools are able to "personalize" instruction a bit more with a smaller student population overall. This seems to be especially important in "at-risk" populations, where students may fall through the cracks on larger campuses. So this is another factor distinct from class size -- although the two are related.

I taught in a large middle school for 18 years, one of about 1000 students. In my own experience, the large size had some trade-offs. There were definitely problems that were made worse by our large size. There were students who were not cared for as well as they might have been in a small school. There was a wholesale quality to school-wide management, and when we had less powerful leadership, discipline issues had a way of getting out of hand.

On the other hand, the large size allowed the school to offer early morning electives. I taught an all-girl technology class that met before school. The school also offered a before-school Japanese language class, in addition to French and Spanish. We also had a large science department -- ten teachers, with at least two at each of the two grade levels. We were able to get some grant funding an over several years built a powerful learning community that improved our instruction and retained good teachers. Many of the small schools only have one science teacher at each grade level, making collaboration difficult. This is a real challenge when we have so many new teachers in need of support, (which is why I have been working to build a cross-district mentoring project that allows these novices to get support from experienced teachers at other sites. -- see here: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2008/08/it_takes_a_team_to_retain_our.html

There are no magic bullets in these schools. We have big challenges, whether they are large or small!

Anthony:

I am with you on the advantages of larger schools in terms of the things that they can offer. This is one reason that I chose to live in an urban district, rather than one of the attached suburbs (not the only reason, mind you). I do think that it is possible, through careful planning and commitment to ensure in a large school some of the things that I think are at work in small schools--particularly attention to individual students. My son had some experience in a High Schools that Work school. The model intends to incorporate that kind of individual education through organization into a freshman academy and focused strands (academies) in the upper grades. I would say that in our experience this was only cursory. There was a adult assigned to "know" my son as a freshman, however this had devolved to a single interview at the end of the year for the purpose of choosing an academy for the following year. I believe that the same thing can happen in a school of any size, although it may be more difficult to ignore/overlook a kid when there are fewer of them. The small school experiments in my district (Gates sponsored and otherwise) have not been terribly successful--and at least one opted out of the funding early. So much, I believe, has to do with the beliefs and commitment of the school staff. If they "get it" (no matter what the "it" is) and run with it, reform seems to be successful. When they feel coerced, or have already given up hope of improved outcomes no matter what, they might eventually get there with strong leadership, or not.

While on the one hand I agree that students really get known by an adult, at my old school it was rarely the adult who was assigned to them. It was, instead, the club sponsor.

A small school had the benefit that we were all able to communicate with one another about each student. Unfortunately this often turned into b*tch fests about specific students. Or gossip sessions, depending.

The problem with personalizing instruction is that it requires manpower to offer up a menu of courses into which the student can fit. Depending on the size of the school (like the one I came from), there may be only one course of study because there are not enough teachers to do otherwise.

For example, we had a school of 200-400 (somewhere in there) with two english teachers, one social studies teacher, one science teacher, two math teachers, one spanish teacher, and two CTE teachers. There was no flexability. Students either had to be a good fit for the courses we could offer, or they had to get out. We were constrained. Freshmen took Earth Science. Sophomores took Chemistry. Never mind their readiness. (We added a grade each year we were open, so we didn't have Juniors or Seniors when I left the school.)

At my larger school there are seven science teachers who teach a whole range of subjects. A student isn't ready for Chemistry but has already taken Earth Science? Then it is a great time to take Biology and luckily the course is offered by at least three teachers. Not so at my old school.

If you want tailored education, that is, I feel, in the hands of the guidance department. I recommend students for their science placements at the end of each year they have with me. If guidance, the student, or their parents wish to override my suggestion that is their right. On the other hand, I contribute my opinion towards their individualized instructional plan.

Students falling through the cracks? I think those would be the ones forced to do what their peers are doing, despite their readiness. Or have I just not been in a school where I've seen the despicable acts that are really meant by "falling through the cracks"? (Entirely possible, as I've only been in two schools which are on the whole, great. In which case, can someone enlighten me as to what we are really talking about?)

I think the academies idea is the best out there. Plenty of faculty. Students are kept on "teams"/academies which is really pulling a middle school model in to high school.

Your original list does not include anything about teachers offering the most efficient learning lessons to students. It's the teacher, not buildings, administrators, etc., who control what, how much, and when students learn, yes?

Bob,
You raise an interesting and challenging question. I think the whole topic of teacher effectiveness/teacher quality is one we are still grappling with. I agree this dimension is critical to the success of a school. Traditional means of evaluating teachers are of limited value. The use of standardized test scores as an indicator is problematic, so we need to invest some energy into alternatives, for the good of our students and our profession. This is worthy of further discussion.

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