Schools within Schools. ERIC Digest.
by McAndrews, Tobin - Anderson, Wendell
Growing numbers of educators and parents across the nation are drawn
to the idea of downsizing schools. Numerous studies and successful model
programs have confirmed the academic, social, and financial benefits of
small-scale schooling. And thanks to several foundations and the U.S. Department
of Education, funds are more readily available to reorganize large schools
into smaller learning communities.
Most discussions of small schools focus on which model to choose and
how best to implement the downsizing. One model that is gaining increasing
favor is "schools within schools." The advantages, drawbacks, varieties,
and sources of funding for schools within schools are discussed in this
WHAT ARE SCHOOLS WITHIN SCHOOLS?
Schools within schools are large public schools that have been divided
into smaller autonomous subunits. The National Association of Elementary
School Principals officially recognizes a school within a school as "a
separate entity, running its own budget and planning its own programs.
However, school safety and building operation remain vested with the principal
of the larger school, and use of shared space must be negotiated" (NAESP).
Designers of schools within schools seek the advantages of both large
and small schools by placing students into small learning communities while
using the resources of the larger existing facilities. Those resources
include faculty and staff. "Small school," a type of school within a school,
employs faculty and staff brought in from elsewhere in the district rather
than from the larger school (NAESP).
A key organizational characteristic of the school within a school is
that the program and individual classes remain small (Sicoli 2000). Researchers
and reformers have identified the optimum number of students in a program
to be as many as 500 and as few as 30. A number of factors, including reasons
for the program and the size of the school in which the program will be
housed, determine optimum size (Sicoli).
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BENEFITS OF SMALL SCHOOLS?
Although few studies have been conducted on the school-within-a-school
model itself, proponents infer that the benefits of a school within a school
closely parallel those found in small schools, which have been widely investigated.
In 1996, a report from the National Association of Secondary School
Principals and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
recommended smaller schools and smaller classes as essential for student
improvement. Research shows that smaller learning environments create happier,
safer, higher achieving students (Oxley 2001).
Summarized here are some of the advantages of small schools identified
by researchers. Depending on physical layout and resources, the advantages
of small schools can apply to schools within schools.
Academic benefits: Test scores of students in small schools are consistently
higher than those in larger schools (McComb 2000; Jacobson, February 28,
2001). Administrators of small schools are also better able to reform their
curricula and teaching strategies (McComb). Smaller class sizes and interdisciplinary
methods allow greater contact between student and teacher. And because
teachers in smaller schools tend to be more aware of student performance,
student accountability is increased.
Social benefits: The greater sense of belonging that students feel in
small schools fosters more caring through interpersonal relationships (Capps
1999). Small-school settings have been shown to enhance students' self-
perceptions, both socially and academically (McPartland). Small schools
also foster a more aware and involved faculty, which promotes positive
student attitudes (McPartland). Additionally, in small schools there is
more opportunity for student involvement in school activities because of
less competition for membership on athletic teams and in clubs and student
Attendance and graduation benefits: The average national dropout rate
for high schools with more than 1,000 students is 6.39 percent, whereas
schools with fewer than 200 students have an average dropout rate of 3.47
percent (McComb). Research shows that small schools have higher rates of
attendance than large schools have (Gewertz 2001). These variations may
be due to the relative ease of staff members at the small-school level
to recognize students and hold them accountable.
Safety and discipline benefits: Small schools generally have fewer discipline
problems than larger schools. The strong parental support and adult connections
often present in small schools create a safer environment for students.
Strangers can be spotted more easily in small schools, which further promotes
Financial benefits: Studies have shown that larger schools spend more
per student as administrative costs grow with larger student bodies. Also,
the cost of "learning per unit" is higher in larger schools as a result
of their often less favorable academic outcomes (Lawton). A study in 1998
in New York City found that small schools were more cost effective because
more of their students graduated on time (Gewertz).
WHAT ARE SOME DRAWBACKS OF SMALL SCHOOLS?
Support for small schools, however, is not unconditional. "Small, in
and of itself, can be as silly as big," said Michelle Fine, a professor
of psychology at the City University of New York (in Gewertz). "It will
produce a sense of belonging almost immediately. But hugging is not the
same as algebra. Rigor and care must be braided together, or we run the
risk of creating small, nurturing environments that aren't schools" (Fine
Several staffing issues arise when large schools are carved into smaller
units. Some teachers worry that they may have to transfer from one school
to another, may lose seniority in doing so, may have to teach out of their
specialty in a school with fewer course offerings, or may not truly gain
the autonomy they desire in the downsizing of schools (Gewertz).
A survey by Public Agenda showed that parents and teachers chose reducing
class size and improving discipline over making schools smaller as ways
to improve the educational experience. A majority of teachers surveyed
believed that smaller schools will have less money for equipment and that
it will be more difficult for students who have problems with teachers
to transfer out of classes (Jacobson, October 3, 2001).
To avoid segregation along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines,
care must be taken when assigning students to smaller learning communities.
WHAT ARE SOME TYPES OF SCHOOLS WITHIN SCHOOLS?
School-within-school plans were initially conceived to offer alternatives
to parents who wanted a specialized education for their children not available
through the normal school structure or standard curriculum. Administrators
have devised a variety of plans in accordance with the special circumstances
and resources of their districts. Nine such plans have become common.
Vertical-house plans: First instituted in the United Kingdom, these
plans serve students in grades 9 through 12 or 10 through 12. Typically
a school of 1,000 or more students is broken up into groups of several
hundred students. Each "house" shares the same faculty and facilities but
has autonomous policies for student discipline, activities, government,
and parental involvement.
Ninth-grade house plans: These plans are similar to the vertical-house
model but involve only the ninth grade (Cawelti 1993, Oxley).
At-risk schools: These plans serve students who have not responded well
to traditional learning environments. A typical model includes traditional
academic curriculum along with an academy program in which students learn
a trade such as computer repair.
Career academies and clusters: In these models students engage in classes
or house systems aligned with their interests and possible career choices.
Special-curriculum models: These schools offer advanced courses for
high-achieving students. Students are divided into houses based on their
special needs or interests (Cawelti).
Newcomer schools: Newcomer schools are sometimes established in areas
where a large number of students-generally elementary school students-are
entering a school system for the first time and having difficulty with
the transition (Boloz and Blessing 1994).
Parent-participation plans: In these plans parents of elementary-school
children are permitted to enroll their children in the school only after
making a commitment to donate a specific amount of their time and energy
Advisory systems: Under these systems students are placed under the
guidance and care of either a teacher or administrator for their entire
school experience. In effect, the student acquires a personal academic
and social guidance counselor.
Charter schools: Similar to special-curriculum schools, charter schools
develop curricula independent of the public system. Charter schools are
generally developed by parents or teachers seeking an alternative to standard
programs. Charter schools, nevertheless, are held to the same standards
of educational achievement as public schools.
HOW DO ADMINISTRATORS DEVELOP AND FUND A SCHOOL WITHIN A SCHOOL?
Developing a school within a school requires careful planning. Administrators
must assess the need for and purpose of their plan before committing resources.
Initial plans must include components for hiring faculty and staff, developing
curriculum and admittance policies, and selecting facilities and equipment.
Additionally, administrators should decide the type and extent of possible
subschooling systems to implement, such as programs in art, business, college
prep, sciences, and community studies. The satisfaction of designing a
school within a school is the nearly limitless possibilities. The scope
of classes and programs that can be offered is only a matter of imagination
coupled with resources.
In the nonprofit sector, the Annenberg Foundation, the Pew Charitable
Trust, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have offered more than
$1 billion for the planning and implementation of smaller learning communities.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged more than $240 million
over the next several years to help districts downsize their schools (Jacobson,
October 3, 2001).
In the public sector, the U.S. Department of Education's Smaller Learning
Communities program saw its budget increase nearly threefold to $125 million
for the year 2001. Through various grants, the Department of Education
offers administrators the opportunity to study the strategic feasibility
of organizational methods and systems that will facilitate smaller learning
communities. The grants can also be used to implement the outlined strategies
for developing schools within schools, all without drawing on already stretched
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Gewertz, Catherine. "The Breakup: Suburbs Try Smaller High Schools."
Education Week on the Web (May 2, 2001): 8 pages. http://www.edweek.org
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_____. "Survey Finds Mixed Reviews on Smaller Schools." Education Week
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