ERIC Identifier: ED393958
Publication Date: 1996-03-00
Author: Raywid, Mary Anne
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Urban Education New York NY.
Downsizing Schools in Big Cities. ERIC Digest. No. 112.
Over the last 30 years research and experience have suggested that students
benefit in many different ways from attending small schools, as opposed to large
ones. Many existing schools, however, and even most under construction, can
accommodate 2,000-4,000 students. While educators may disagree about the right
school size, they recommend that the schools serve between 100 and 1,000
This digest briefly reviews the current movement to downsize urban schools to
help educators decide whether and why to pursue such a move, and to indicate
which models appear most promising.
RATIONALE FOR DOWNSIZING
The school downsizing movement is
only a decade old, and still small, but the evidence is strong that small
schools benefit the entire school community: teachers, students, and parents.
STUDENT BENEFITS. Small schools are particularly beneficial for disadvantaged
students. Specific benefits already documented for these and other youngsters
include: better attendance and retention; better behavior, attitude, and
engagement; enhanced academic performance; and increased involvement in
extracurricular activities. The extra attention that students get from the staff
affords them greater educational, psychoemotional, and social services, and also
makes them feel part of a community. This sense of belonging, as well as
academic performance, are further enhanced when students can choose their
school, and make their selection based on the school's focus.
TEACHER BENEFITS. Teachers, especially those who are able to choose their
school, frequently experience the same growth in commitment to it as students
do. The result is that they willingly participate in planning and analyzing
practice, and they are likely to expend extra efforts to ensure that the
students achieve and the school succeeds.
INSTITUTIONAL BENEFITS. Downsizing frequently improves school organization:
more effective and appropriate governance, stronger student supports, improved
staff effectiveness and satisfaction, better advisement, and enhanced curricula.
The benefits to the school increase along with its autonomy and separation from
other district schools, since there are fewer time- and energy-draining
bureaucratic hurdles to overcome, and the ability to develop its own
distinctiveness is empowering. Further, small schools are easier to
"restructure" than large ones and reform strategies are easier to implement
there, so models for successful change within them are emerging.
Finally, creating several small schools from a large, failing school is a
solution to the problem of what to do with such a school, as well as an
effective way to improve education without incurring construction costs, since
the new schools are housed together in the old building.
CHARACTERISTICS OF SMALL SCHOOLS
Some small schools are
quite different from large ones in all areas of operation, while others differ
mainly in the fact that they serve fewer students. In addition, some schools are
limited in their ability to fully implement the small school concept, because of
their relationship to the school district and other schools within it, or
decisions and regulations imposed by the administrators of the building where
they are located.
Some small schools operate in a structure
totally their own, but most exist within a building that houses other schools.
In the latter circumstances, the small school either may be one of several small
schools that combine to fill the building, all with equal decision-making
authority over building-wide issues; or it may be the only such school in a
building otherwise housing a single larger, "host" school that makes all
building-wide decisions and may exercise some controls over the small school as
Some schools identified as small schools are really just special programs
within a "parent" school, usually developed for a special student population
such as limited English speakers. Most aspects of their operation are controlled
by the host school administration, and the teachers may have duties in both the
parent and small schools. These schools are often less successful than the small
schools that achieve the separateness and autonomy necessary to distinctiveness.
Small schools with a building of their own obviously have greater control
over their operations and are not limited by having to share resources. Such
facilities are, however, often harder to locate. Especially in urban areas, it
may appear nearly impossible to find unused space unattached to an existing
Different cities and school districts design
their small schools very differently, and to different purposes. Although labels
differ, four broad types of small schools are distinguishable:
HOUSE PLANS. In a house plan students and teachers may remain together for
some or all coursework. A house can be organized on a one-year or multi-year
basis. It is usually overlaid upon the department structure of the traditional
middle or high school that hosts it, which restricts the amount of change the
arrangement can create.
MINI-SCHOOLS. This arrangement has some of the properties of a house plan and
is also dependent on its larger host school for its existence. But mini-schools
almost always serve students over a several-year period, and they usually have
their own instructional program, giving them more distinctiveness from one
another than houses usually achieve.
SCHOOLS-WITHIN-SCHOOLS. These are separate and autonomous units with their
own personnel, budget, and program, authorized by the board of education or
superintendent. They operate within a larger school, sharing resources and
reporting to the school principal on matters of safety and building operation.
Both students and teachers choose to affiliate with such a school.
SMALL SCHOOLS OR SCHOOLS-WITHIN-A-BUILDING. These have the properties of a
school-within-a-school, but differ in that each is an entirely new, separate,
and independent school--as opposed to one carved from an existing larger school.
They have their own organization, instructional program, budget, and staff.
COHESION. Aside from their size, many
small schools differ from larger ones in that their creation was based on a
particular philosophy or a distinctive set of organizing principles.
AUTONOMY. To the extent possible, usually through permission or authorization
from host schools or school districts, subschools and small schools develop
their own organizational structure and climate. The four types represent a
continuum with respect to autonomy and control over their own instructional
programs, budget, and personnel.
FOCUS. Many small schools have an agreed-upon focus or theme. Some are
created specifically to provide students with a specialized curriculum, such as
a career magnet, or to provide a certain student population with a program
tailored to its unique needs. A school's focus may also be its instructional
approach. It can be either broadly defined, such as use of inquiry learning
techniques; or based on specific strategies, such as cooperative learning. The
usual function of the focus is to attract and sustain learner engagement across
a full curriculum.
CONSTITUENCY. A self-selected staff and constituency results in a school
community that is cohesive and committed to common goals. Ideally, therefore,
small school teachers must volunteer to work in the school. Similarly, students
benefit most when they elect to enroll, and when the student body is assembled
on the basis of shared interests instead of on the basis of ability or
achievement levels. Also, because they choose the school, presumably because of
a special affinity for its program, parents tend to be more involved in its
operation and in their children's performance there.
FUTURE PROSPECTS FOR SMALL SCHOOLS
cities--New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, among them--have a significant
investment in school downsizing, through strong professional and reformer
support, and through financial support from private foundations and partnerships
with non-profit organizations which are convinced that small schools are
essential to urban education improvement. Downsizing experience to date has been
mixed, although optimistic about its potential. It appears that, besides limited
resources, the greatest inhibitors to a small school's ability to realize its
potential is lack of autonomy--constraints imposed by stringent regulations,
bureaucratic regularities, and longstanding labor agreements; and the need to
mesh with policies and practices of the board of education, the school district,
and the host school--and the hesitation of some education personnel at all
levels to make fundamental changes in the way they function.
Despite the difficulties, small schools are opening and many more are being
planned. They combine a number of the features currently recommended by both
researchers and reformers in the interests of transforming schools into engaging
and responsive places to teach and learn.
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This digest is based on a monograph, Taking Stock: The Movement to Create
Mini-Schools, Schools-Within-Schools, and Other Small Schools, by Mary Anne