Small Schools: Excellent When Done Correctly

Pros-Cons3Dear Evin,

I’d like to use this post to respond to your thoughts on small schools.

Let me be clear: You’re absolutely correct. Small schools come with costs. Small schools often aren’t able to offer the electives that large high schools can, and they are more work for instructional staff. But they come with some great possibilities.

Organizational studies suggest that many benefits can be reaped by decreasing the number of students a school serves.

I’ve already noted the relationships they can build, so I’ll briefly mention a few other things the small school structure offers and respond to some of your points.

Small schools (by which I mean schools of less than 400 students, and ideally less than 300) give students and staff a great deal of opportunities to practice democracy. This leads to school buy-in, and, as a result, many studies show markedly increased student achievement, better attendance, and lower drop-out rates.

While big schools may, as you note, offer students voice and personalization through advisory and ASB, it’s nowhere near as effective as in quality small schools. You argue that teachers will know students by name, strength, and need in a large school because, “Teachers care about kids.” This is a logical fallacy. “The police will solve all crimes because police are dedicated to the community.” Not necessarily true. When you have fewer students, you spend more time with them individually. It’s easier to learn more about them and tailor an education to them, which is extremely beneficial for students who aren’t as self-directed in their learning. This is a major pro of a small school.

You also suggest that large, comprehensive high schools prepare students more for college. Maybe some of them do. But for decades, research has continued to show that in small schools, where there are fewer students to take on leadership roles and join clubs, students are more exposed to those kinds of opportunities. There’s less crowding out at the top. Everyone gets a try. Everyone develops an identity. Everyone experiences democratic practice. Everyone’s more prepared for the real world.

I could go on, but this is a blog post, not a book. For more, you may want to check out this link for a video on small schools in New York. You may also want to look into the work by Ted Sizer and Debbie Meier (here and here) on how small schools can help staff collaborate more effectively in order to offer a stronger set of curricula.

I think it’s important we don’t assume that because one type of high school worked for us, that it works for everyone. I agree that there is merit to the large comprehensive high school. I also believe strongly that it simply doesn’t work for everyone.

But you’re right. For small schools to work, they need to be done correctly. That means schools should offer a clear mission and vision, be kept under 400 students, and have long-term support from their district to continue that mission and vision.

In Highline, we’re not doing small schools correctly. At ACE, we will have over 400 students next year. Due to high rates of administrative and staff turnover, our mission and vision have largely been lost. (However, the school leadership team did write a new vision statement this year that holds promise for next.)

Also due to high rates of turnover, many of the amazing teachers who worked so hard in the conversion from big Tyee are no longer with us. In their place is a new group of amazing teachers who are less familiar with small school principles.

Lastly, the demands of state testing have vastly altered the job description of our excellent counselor. For a good part of the year, she has become a testing coordinator. Since we’re a small school with only one counselor, that has major repercussions for us. Indeed, since small schools have fewer staff, any time one of them has a change in their responsibilities, there are greater repercussions than there would be at a large school.

So I also have to say “Yes and No.” If Highline can make up its mind to truly fund small schools (by keeping their student populations low, supporting staff stability and PD for new staff on how small schools work, and doing something about the ridiculous amount of time testing steals from our counselor), then I think it is in the best interest of our students to keep them.

If, on the other hand, district administration is uncommitted (and possibly unfamiliar with how small schools are supposed to function), then the large comprehensive high school with academies may be more effective. But only if it’s done correctly.