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.

Why I Like the Small School

Dear Evin,Image

One of the most enjoyable parts of my day is standing in front of my door between classes (weird, I know). The door to my classroom is situated at the corner of our upstairs hallway, neighboring and adjacent to two other teachers’ doors. All three of us observe students as they walk to class.

“Hi, Jackson!”

“Morning, Mr. Boutin.”

“How’s your day, Jesús?”

I would wager that I know eighty percent of the students who pass my room on a daily basis. By June, it will be ninety-five. This sense of community is one of the reasons I love working in a small school. Like or not, students in a small school have no choice but to work with a small group of teachers who know their name, background, strengths, needs, and personalities intimately.

Had you walked into the first day of my sophomore world history class last semester, you might have mistook it for the middle of the year. Nearly all of my students knew me from having taken my language arts class their freshman year, advisory, or from having talked with me in the hallway. The only student I didn’t know was the one who had just moved to SeaTac. When I called their parents in the following weeks, it wasn’t to introduce myself, but rather to ask how their summer had gone and if they had any updates for me on what was going on with their student at home.

Small schools can benefit all kinds of students, but they’re particularly effective with reluctant learners – or maybe I should say reluctant trusters. If you’ve ever tried learning from someone you didn’t trust, then you’ve probably had the experience of many of our students. Sitting in a classroom with someone you may not believe has anything of value to offer you is a lot like trying to drink coffee that’s too hot. You may try a sip or two, but soon you simply give up until it cools down.

Last year, a phenomenal colleague went out on maternity leave at ACE. A long-term sub was brought in to fill her place in November, and by January, many of her students were reshuffled into my class for second semester. A handful of these students I only knew by name and through brief interactions in the hallway. Confronted with learning to trust a new teacher and a new way of doing things understandably frustrated them, and my principal can attest that it literally took me the remainder of the semester to convince many of them that I was worth listening to, learning from, and working for.

As sophomores, those same students often engage in my classes eagerly. Their metaphorical coffee has cooled.

In my “Defining an Education” post, I noted that supportive adults and peers are essential part of any students education. There is no easier structure to ensure those supportive relationships than the small school.



Defining an Education

GeneralEducationResourceslogoDear Evin,

Thanks for the insight on Chinook. It’s just next-door, and I feel like our staffs know so little about each other. I look forward to learning more as this process goes on.

I wonder if our next step might be to address the question, What kind of education should our schools contribute to? Ignoring for a moment the constraints of budgets and politics, what do we think an ideal 7-12 education would consist of?

In thinking about these questions, I consider my own experiences. I remember a longing to belong and a need for adult support. I can still remember the clothes I wore the first day of ninth grade: a blue Nike shirt, khaki shorts, and green Nike shoes. I obsessed over whether I should wear my backpack with one or two straps.

Later in ninth grade, I really wanted to try out of the soccer team. I’d talked to the coach, and he’d told me to show up at 2:30 in the team room. When I arrived, I didn’t recognize anyone. The coach glanced at me and said nothing before giving instructions to the whole team, but he talked to them like they weren’t new. I felt out of place. I wasn’t sure if this was where I supposed to be. I walked back out the door and went home. The next day, a student told me that if you didn’t go the first day, you were off the team.

That experience – one of not belonging, of feeling out of place – stopped me from playing high school soccer my ninth-grade year (although I did tenth, eleventh, and twelfth). If I had known the coach, if he had simply smiled at me and asked me to come in, or if any of the other players had assured me that I was in the right place that day, my ninth-grade year might have been totally different.

And so with my experiences in mind, I’d like to present my ideal secondary education two ways: through the eyes of a student and briefly from the perspective of the community.

Before I start, though, I want to say that I think we need to first disavow ourselves of the notion that schooling and education are synonymous. An individual’s education consists of far more than the hours she spends in school. The six-and-a-half hours per day students currently spend in school make up less than 20% of total time in a school week and less than 14% of total time in a calendar year (considering the holidays and breaks). We all learn all the time. It’s a function of being human. Schools are merely one of many things that help students learn. So when I use the term “education,” I mean more than schooling.

Through the Eyes of a Student

So here I am, twelve-year-old James, about to embark on the second half of my public education experience. What do I want? What do I need?

1) Supportive adults and peers

The stresses of moving from elementary to middle school, and then again to high school, mean I’m going to be happy to find smiling, supportive faces at school and at home. I’m developing, and I’m going to make a lot of mistakes. I’m going to build habits that maximize comfort and minimize discomfort, even when those habits are not in my own long-term best interest. This process is not going to be easy, and I’m going to try to avoid pain wherever possible. Sometimes that might mean not working hard in school. Sometimes it might mean sitting by myself at lunch. Sometimes it might mean Facebooking until four in the morning on a Tuesday night. And sometimes it might mean locking myself in my room with my headphones on full blast.

I might often feel like nobody understands me, or that I’m alone in dealing with things. Nothing will help me cope with these challenges like having a community of understanding and caring adults who communicate with one another. Even better, accepting peers. Odds are I’m not going to open up to adults fully as an adolescent, but I will certainly share more with adults I know and trust than those I don’t. A team of adults who know and trust each other will come closest to correctly identifying my strengths and needs when they work collaboratively. For these reasons, it’s important that my parents work side-by-side with school personnel and other adults in the community who I see regularly, like my basketball coach or after-school tutor.

The adults who surround me, along with my peers, should serve as role models. I should be able to see some of myself in many of these role models. They should be of varying age and gender, and give me daily opportunities to consider the value of their behaviors and life choices as a model for how I might make my own. To this end, my peers and I should be taught how to support one another as both learners and humans, so that we might serve as role models to one another.

2) Preparation for the Future

As a adolescent, a major cause of anxiety I have is whether I’ll be able to make it on my own when my schooling is over. When my day is no longer directed and supported by adults, what will I do and how will I manage?

In order to help me decide what I’d like my future to hold, I’ll need opportunities to explore and develop my talents and passions – to find interests I didn’t know I had. The older I get, the more I will want opportunities to direct my own education – to choose experiences that interest me. At school, that might mean electives, differentiated classes, or a variety of after-school activities to choose from. Away from school, it might mean participating in theater, dance, sports, a job or internship. When I feel sad or depressed, I’ll need adults to encourage (sometimes strongly) me to stay active and engaged.

But preparing for the future is requires more than finding my passions. It also means being exposed to skills and knowledge I’ll need beyond high school. Among a great many other things, I’ll need to be financially and media literate, and have skills and knowledge in mathematics, sciences, and the liberal arts.  I’ll need to have knowledge of the world outside my community and an appreciation for how it works. I’ll need to know how to stay healthy. I’ll need to know how to work with people, especially people I don’t get along with. I’ll need to be disciplined and possess habits of mind and action that predispose me to success. As an adolescent, there’s a good chance I will neither be aware of many of these things nor see the value in them. Therefore, I will need impassioned adults who know how to develop these skills and this knowledge in students.

3) To Be Part of Something

As a student, I am more than just a human in training. I have feelings and desires. I wonder about things, and I act. And as a human, I have a need to participate. I want to be a part of something, and I may not go about that initially in the healthiest of ways. I may find myself hanging out with the wrong crowd or doing something purely to gain social acceptance, even when it disagrees with my values. I need guidance and structured opportunities for thinking and wondering about these things, both to help me define my moral compass and to determine what actions it requires.

There are myriad ways we can be a part of something that is ultimately harmful to ourselves and others. An effective education should help me think about how that happens and ways to avoid it. This sort of education gets at the core of who we are as humans, why we act the way we do, and how other people affect us. It should show me that an instinct for revenge or intolerance often works against me. Importantly, this education should provide me with opportunities for positive civic engagement and reflection in all the communities I inhabit: home, school, virtual, city, country, and world. It should make me wonder when I should sacrifice my own wants and needs for a group and why.

The Community Perspective

1) Education must better the community

Communities with well-educated members are more likely to be healthy, physically and economically. They’re more likely to look like places you’d want to live.

But what exactly counts as being well-educated? From the perspective of the community, it is particularly important that students learn to take ownership of their surroundings, and as a result, act to improve them. Communities need schools that work in tandem with local organizations and businesses to provide the best possible living environment for their inhabitants. For thousands of years, humans effectively learned to do and be in a community through an apprenticeship model. There is no reason that can’t still be part of our young people’s education.

Communities need citizens who are disciplined, who are occasionally willing to give up selfish interests in the short-term for group interests in the long-term, and who align their personal pursuits with the interests of the community. Students should be taught the merits of this through lots of community involvement. And importantly, the community needs students who are taught skills that help them do effective work, whether that work is for a company, a non-profit, or themselves.

The community needs its citizens to understand public schooling as a public good intended to benefit the community as much as it benefits the individual student or family.

Lastly, the community needs schools and students who recognize and participate in the creation and maintenance of community norms. In order to do this, students must know the history of the community, its members, and its values. They must learn to test that history and those values against their own, and how to seek reconciliation of those values when they differ. In other words, the community needs students who know how to do democracy.

Wrapping Up

Okay. I realize this was probably a little long. I hope you managed to read most of it.

What do you think? Did I leave anything out? Did I include anything you disagree with? What other perspectives are important to consider?

I look forward to comments, and to your response, Evin.



Laying Some Groundwork: What’s Going on at ACE

Dear Evin, we can save the debate over the merits of Core Knowledge or Balanced Literacy for a little later on. What I’m more interested in kicking our blog off with is some discussion about where we’re at – what’s going on at ACE and Chinook.

Maybe we could start by telling each other a little about our schools. But bear with me, I can only tell you what I’ve learned over the past year and a half.

Beginning in 2006, Tyee High School was broken into three autonomous small schools under the assumption that small schools would better support students’ academic achievement. Tyee had a history of underperformance, and people felt change was needed. (Click on “Big Tyee’s” last year of OSPI data below to enlarge it.)

Staff were empowered to shape the design of the new schools. They did their homework and choose the school model they wanted.

The Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment (ACE) was founded as a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools. Social justice was its theme. You can read an interesting article by a student from the first graduating class here. It provides some insight into what the original school’s vision must have been. Student voice was valued; staff attempted to find agreement on most decisions before moving forward; and advisory was intended to be at the school’s heart.

A few years of OSPI data suggested ACE was driving student achievement in the right direction. Educators from schools across the country visited ACE as a national example of positive school reform.

Since the ’06-’07 school year, a lot has changed at ACE. There have been numerous leadership changes, and only a very small number of the staff who began with the school remain. Recent OSPI data have not been as positive as the early years. The current staff is engaged in re-framing their work under new district and building administration.

We are unique in that we offer American Sign Language, services for the deaf and hard of hearing, and AP Studio Art. We have 105-minute classes Monday through Thursday, and 43-minute classes on Friday. Advisory occurs Monday through Thursday between 1:30-2:05. Nearly all of our freshmen students are double-blocked in literacy and math, meaning they get double doses of both classes. A number of our upperclassmen take advantage of PSSC or Running Start as a means of earning early college credit.

That’s what’s going on at ACE. Is there anyone who would like to add anything?

Do you have any questions? And can you tell me a little about Chinook?



It’s Time to Talk

Anonymous_Chat_iconDear Evin,

I only began working in the Highline School District last year. At first, I didn’t quite realize the amount of controversy that existed around my small school, ACE. But over time, it became clear that lots and lots of people had lots and lots to say about what we were doing. I imagine conversations about the Tyee campus happening in small pockets in a great many places, although often lacking diverse perspectives – it is, after all, easier to speak your opinion freely when you know you’re in the company of like-minded people.

When I met you, I had no idea how far apart our educational philosophies were. I assumed, as I too often do, that we probably shared a number of beliefs that I’ve since discovered we don’t. In conversation after conversation, we began to find more and more differences to discuss.

I think it’s time to make a public place where differences like those between you and I can be discussed honestly and publicly, so that some of those little conversations can be brought to light for us as we consider the best way to serve the students in our community.

What do you say? Are you ready?