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.

Saying Yes and No at the Same Time

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Dear James,

I apologize for the long wait of the post, however as a mutual friend of ours puts it, I wanted to give your response the attention that it deserves. (In other words, I was busy with oh, I don’t know – life?! Haha.)

The small school experience is something that every student deserves. Every student deserves to be known by her or his ‘name, strength, and need’ – something that our own superintendent believes. If that becomes our premise, then this also means that going to a 1500+ school may not be the best choice for our students. But there is always a catch.

During my junior and senior years of high school, I went to a Gates Grant school. My school was a 4A school and this meant that it was to be transformed with a small schools model. This meant that at some point the transition needed to go down seamlessly. Every couple of months, my principal met with our Class of 2004. He would break down the on-track to graduate numbers for us, chat with us about what we want for our school, and be the ‘dad.’ One day, he told us about the small schools move.

(Let me remind you that I’m not as old as my students think.)

“Wait, what?” I whispered to my other AP friends in the gigantic auditorium.

“He’s telling us that we won’t be able to take any class with any teacher we want? Like we used to?”

I was a good Christian kid back then, otherwise my next word would have been bull. I loved our principal. For being the administrative head of 1500 students, he knew my friends and me well. (Maybe it was because we actually tried on the WASL.)

Now, as a Honors/AP student, I was only thinking about my college transcript. This did not bode well. I wanted Mr. Slater for AP American Government and Politics. I wanted to take senior year Mock Trial. I wanted AP Biology. Yep, that was me. Nobody was going to jeopardize that for me. I worked too hard and too long for a school to flip the script on me. The school received my stellar WASL scores. It was time for me to get something in return.

I became a part of a senior class of a 4A school moving towards the small school format and none of us liked it. Suddenly, half of my friends from sophomore-junior year were in Mr. Dodge’s AP Politics class when we envisioned taking Slater together. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

My pastor said that in order for us to move into something new God wants us to do, we must leave from someplace we currently are. I tell my students something similar, “By saying yes to this, you must by definition say no to that.”

James, this is my small schools argument: by saying ‘yes’ to small schools and the perks of it, you are saying ‘no’ to a comprehensive high school and the perks of such an experience.

With only a little more than half of your students graduating on time, what steps are we to take to ensure success? Why is a comprehensive high school a bad idea?

Every year, students come up to the 8th grade teachers (like myself), asking for honest, unadulterated feedback. The only thing I can really say is, “Well, I went to a school more like Mount Rainier.”

Are we saying that there is no student voice in a comprehensive high school? No. They have ASB.

Are we saying that there is no personalization of curriculum in a comprehensive high school? No. They have Advisory.

Are we saying that teachers don’t ‘know’ students by name, strength, and need in a comprehensive high school? No. Teachers care about their kids.

And so, I ask:

In a comprehensive high school, could academies be created to create community within hallways, teachers, and students? Yes.

In a comprehensive high school, is there a more diverse selection of classes and electives offered? Yes.

By offering more of a selection of classes, will our students be ready to compete transcript versus transcript at an Admissions Office when they apply for university? Yes.

In a comprehensive high school, are there more opportunities for students to take core Math and Reading classes that are more differentiated (i.e. SpEd Math, Reading Essentials, Algebra Lab, Honors 9th Grade Lit & Comp, etc.)? Yes.

By increasing staffing (thereby becoming Big Tyee), could there be more chances for students to have all of the opportunities above? Yes.

Respectfully submitted,

Evin

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.

Sincerely,

James