ERIC Identifier: ED438147
Publication Date: 1999-12-00
Author: Dewees, Sarah
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools
The School-within-a-School Model. ERIC Digest.
In an age of reform and restructuring, educators are seeking new models
to improve their schools. One approach is to replicate the qualities, and
hopefully the advantages, of a small school by creating a "school-within-a-school."
This approach establishes within the school a smaller educational unit
with a separate educational program, its own staff and students, and its
own budget. Several cities, including New York City, Philadelphia, and
Chicago, have experimented with this as a method for downsizing (Raywid,
1995). This Digest briefly introduces the school-within-a-school concept,
summarizes existing research on school-within-a-school models, and reviews
some of the advantages and disadvantages.
DOWNSIZING AND THE SCHOOL-WITHIN-A-SCHOOL MODEL
A great deal of research suggests that smaller schools contribute to
student achievement, attainment, and sense of well-being (Cotton, 1996a;
Fowler, 1995; Howley, 1994; Howley & Bickel, 2000; Lee & Smith,
1995; Lee, Smith, & Croninger, 1995; Rutter, 1988). To capture some
of the benefits of small-scale schooling, educators are increasingly looking
for ways to downsize, including dividing large schools into subschools
or subunits. This approach is especially useful given the large number
of schools that have been built recently based on the assumption that "bigger
is better." The literature on school downsizing has been inconsistent in
its descriptions of how large schools are divided into subunits. The most
precise definition of a school-within-a-school model comes from Mary Anne
A school-within-a-school is a separate and autonomous unit formally
authorized by the board of education and/or superintendent. It plans and
runs its own program, has its own staff and students, and receives its
own separate budget. Although it must negotiate the use of common space
(gym, auditorium, playground) with a host school, and defer to the building
principal on matters of safety and building operation, the school-within-a-school
reports to a district official instead of being responsible to the building
principal. Both its teachers and students are affiliated with the school-within-a-school
as a matter of choice (p. 21).
Large schools have implemented a myriad of programs to downsize or downscale:
house plans, minischools, learning communities, clusters, charters, and
schools-within-schools. Each model differs from the others on a range of
factors, including how separate the subunit is from the larger institution
and how much autonomy it receives to manage its own education program.
The models also differ in terms of programs and organizational structure
and practice (Raywid, 1995). Some simply group cohorts of students together
while maintaining a symbolic and administrative identification with the
larger school. The school-within-a-school model has the greatest levels
of autonomy, separateness, and distinctiveness. Students follow a separate
education program, have their own faculty, and identify with their subschool
unit. Because the school-within-a-school model replicates a small school
more closely than the other forms of downsizing, it is most likely to produce
the positive effects of small-scale educational organization.
A review of the literature suggests that implementing the school-within-a-school
model has met with varying degrees of success in different settings. The
most critical factor for success is a commitment to implementing the program
fully, allowing for complete administrative separation of the subschool
and the creation of a separate identity (McCabe & Oxley, 1989; McMullan,
Sipe, & Wolfe, 1994; Raywid, 1996b). Without full implementation, many
of the benefits of small-scale schooling, such as establishing community
and symbolic identity, cannot be realized. Staff and student support is
also important, and the strengths or weaknesses of a particular plan may
vary over the years with personnel changes. Obtaining the support of the
superintendent, school board, and school principal is also essential.
OUTCOMES ASSOCIATED WITH THE SCHOOL-WITHIN-A-SCHOOL MODEL
While considerable dataexists on outcomes associated with small schools,
there is much less evidence about outcomes associated with school-within-a-school
programs (Cotton, 1996b). In part, this is because very few school-within-a-school
models have been fully implemented. A growing body of literature does suggest
that downsized school models can have a positive impact on students, including
improved attendance rates, improved behavior, greater satisfaction with
school, and greater self-esteem (Aschbacker, 1991; Corcoran, 1989; Fouts,
1994; Gordon, 1992; Raywid, 1996a; Robinson-Lewis, 1991; Tompkins, 1988).
Additionally, there is a positive impact on teachers, who have reported
enhanced morale (Fouts, 1994; Robinson-Lewis, 1991). Some case studies
suggest that a school-within-a-school can contribute to a greater feeling
of "community" among participants, which facilitates student attainment.
Greenleaf's research (1995) suggests that "creating learning communities
for young people ... increased their social commitment to one another and
to their teachers, thereby increasing their personal investments in school"
(p. 46). Evidence related to educational achievement is less clear. Several
studies provide evidence that school downsizing models can contribute to
increased educational achievement and attainment (Crain, Heebner, &
Si, 1992; McMullan, Sipe, & Wolfe, 1994; Robinson-Lewis, 1991). Some
research, however, suggests that subschools produce only moderate or mixed
gains in achievement (Robinson-Lewis, 1991; Jokiel & Starkey, 1972;
Other research has identified fiscal and organizational advantages and
disadvantages of the school-within-a-school model. Aside from the advantages
of replicating the qualities of a small school, the school-within-a-school
appears to be a cost-effective approach to school reform in terms of start-up
costs, and in some cases is less expensive to maintain (Moffett, 1981;
Public Education Association [PEA], 1992a; PEA, 1992b; Raywid, 1995). Among
the disadvantages, research suggests this model can sometimes create divisiveness
in schools because it tends to realign organizational structures and fracture
preexisting relationships. Conflicts can arise concerning allegiances to
the larger school versus the smaller school unit, thus creating rivalries
(Muncey & McQuillan, 1991; Raywid, 1996b). Other critics maintain that
subschool groupings can lead to inequitable tracking if only one population
is targeted for a subschool (Raywid, 1996a; McMullan, Sipe, & Wolfe,
1994). Another critique argues that the school-within-a-school model may
negatively affect school coherence and the role of the principal, two areas
of concern in the literature on effective schools.
The school-within-a-school model may be an effective and affordable
way to capture the benefits of smaller-scale schooling within larger school
buildings. While research results are limited, the school-within-a-school
model has the potential to contribute to a greater sense of student well-being,
a sense of student community, and higher student achievement and educational
attainment. This model seems to hold promise especially for disadvantaged
students, who are affected positively by smaller schools but are more likely
to attend larger schools (Jewell, 1989; Lee & Smith, 1996). Because
a subschool model can be adopted in an existing building structure, it
is a cost-effective approach to school reform; however, the challenge lies
in successful implementation. As Raywid (1985) observed, "The major challenge
to schools-within-schools has been obtaining sufficient separateness and
autonomy to permit staff members to generate a distinctive environment
and to carry out their own vision of schooling" (p. 455).
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