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Are Smaller Schools the Answer?


Michael Klonsky, of the University of Illinois (Chicago) College of Education says, "A compelling body of research shows that when students are part of smaller and more intimate learning communities, they are more successful." This week, Education World takes a look at some of that research.

A compelling body of research shows that when students are part of smaller and more intimate learning communities, they are more successful.

--- Michael Klonsky, College of Education, University of Illinois at Chicago

For much of the latter half of this century, big schools were seen as the academic environment of choice for most of our country's school districts. Large schools, it was said, are more efficient and more economical to build and run. They offer a broader range of course offerings and a wider variety of extra-curricular activities. They provide students with more opportunities for specialization and with more special services. So persuasive were those arguments that, between 1940 and 1990, as the U.S. population increased by 70 percent, the total number of public schools declined by 69 percent -- and average school enrollment rose more than 500 percent!

Today, however, the pendulum is swinging -- if not quite back to the days of the one-room schoolhouse, certainly to a widespread belief that smaller is better, and that, despite their reputed fiscal inefficiencies and curricular deficiencies, small schools can provide a solid -- even better -- education for all students.


The Chicago Task Force on Small Schools characterizes "small schools" in the following way:

  1. They are small, with enrollments of less than 300 for elementary schools and 500 for high schools.
  2. They consist of like-minded teachers and families.
  3. They are sufficiently autonomous to control key curricular, budgetary, personnel, organizational, and student decisions.
  4. They have an agreed-upon focus or theme.
  5. They are inclusive, rather than selective.
  6. They are effective in preparing and graduating students.

Many educators today believe that such schools provide significant advantages over large schools in a number of important areas. Those areas include:

  • Personalization: Perhaps the most important characteristic of small schools is the personal relationships established between teachers and students. In small schools, teachers are closely involved with each student. They know who students are, they understand their backgrounds and their interests, and they have the opportunity to spend large blocks of time with them. In such an environment, it's harder for a student to fall through the cracks. "Anonymity is the greatest tool an adolescent can use against you," says Mary Butz, principal of Manhattan Village Academy, a 330-student high school in New York City. "In small schools, students lose their anonymity and have to produce."

  • Climate: In small schools, teachers and students know one another personally. Such knowledge fosters a sense of community and promotes a climate of mutual respect. The result is fewer discipline problems and an environment that's tolerant, caring, and safe.

  • Student Achievement: Smaller classes at smaller schools promote improved pupil performance. In addition, small schools allow for the development of a clear school mission and a consensus of goals. Common expectations are clearly communicated, home-school relationships are close and supportive, and the evaluation system frequently includes parents, students, teachers, and staff. Learning is more likely to be learner-centered and students are less likely to drop out and more likely to graduate.

  • Morale: In small schools, both teachers and students often have a more active role in decision-making and, therefore, a greater sense of belonging and community. Teachers often design instructional programs, schedule classes, and help set disciplinary policy. Greater teacher empowerment elicits stronger school affiliation, more effort, and stronger commitment to the school and to the students. Empowered students are more academically productive and more likely to participate in school events and activities.

  • Extra-Curricular Activities: Small schools provide students with more incentive to participate in extra-curricular activities and with greater opportunities to develop leadership skills by their participation. Both the number and variety of extracurricular activities in which each student participates are significantly higher.

  • Governance: Small schools generally require less red tape, establish fewer rules, and allow greater flexibility. They are better able to make changes and to innovate.

In addition, many researchers now believe that the disadvantages ascribed to small schools may be more perceived than real. A study of 128 New York City high schools, conducted by the Institute for Education and Social Policy, found that schools with fewer than 600 students spent $7,628 a year for each pupil, about $1,410 more than schools with 2,000 or more students. But, when higher graduation rates were taken into account (63.2 percent for small schools, compared to 55.9 percent for large schools), the small schools spent only $25 more per graduate. The study concluded: "We find that the size of the student body is an important factor in relation to costs and output and that small academic and articulated alternative high schools cost among the least per graduate of all New York City high schools. Though these smaller schools have somewhat higher costs per student, their much higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates produce among the lowest costs per graduate in the entire system."

Regarding the argument that big schools can offer more comprehensive programs, researchers have found that "it takes a lot of bigness to add a little variety. On average, a 100 percent increase in enrollment yields only a 17 percent increase in variety of offerings." (Pittman and Haughwout). Moreover, researchers say, the broader curriculum supported by larger schools often consists of introductory courses in non-core areas rather than of higher-level core courses. Furthermore, studies show that only five to twelve percent of the students in large schools avail themselves of those extra courses. (McGuire 1989; Monk 1992; Rogers 1987)


The trend toward smaller schools has presented a dilemma, however, for many districts that cannot afford to abandon buildings intended for much larger student populations. Educators who want to downsize large schools are often forced to develop a number of creative solutions. In Taking Stock: The Movement to Create Mini-Schools, Schools-within-Schools and Separate Small Schools, Mary Anne Raywid identifies the three most common plans.

  • House Plans, which assign students to groups, or houses within a larger school. Students attend classes with their housemates and are taught by teachers assigned to their particular house. The house is generally governed by the larger school, however, and does not develop its own programs or curriculum. Houses usually participate in the extracurricular programs of the larger school.

  • Mini-Schools Plans, which are similar to house plans in that they operate within a larger school structure, but which generally establish their own curriculum and instruction, and maintain programs different from those of the larger school. Mini-schools have their own students and teachers, although they are usually dependent upon the larger school for their budget and support staff.

  • Schools-within-Schools, which are autonomous units that plan their own programs, have their own staffs, and receive their own budgets. Although they often use common space, there is generally no further connection with other programs operating in the same building.


Whatever form they take, the Small Schools Workshop -- based at the University of Illinois at Chicago -- advises that educators who are considering establishing small schools in their own districts use the Eight Steps to Creating Small Schools as a planning tool. The steps provide additional insight into the problems and challenges of creating and maintaining small schools by posing a series of questions educators should ask themselves when considering restructuring larger schools into smaller units. Those questions include:

1. Understanding The Need for Change

  • How will restructuring impact teaching and learning in the classroom?
  • How will it help teachers?
  • How will it help students?

2. Creating a Vision of Smaller Schools.

  • What could a small school look like?
  • How would it be different?
  • What should it have?
  • What shouldn't it have?

3. Teacher Self-Selection

  • How can a group of multi-skilled, like-minded teachers come together to form a school?
  • What do teachers need to have in common?
  • How can differences strengthen or weaken a school?

4. Choosing a Focus

  • How can focus tap into students' interests and experiences?
  • How can focus tap into teacher knowledge and interest?
  • How can a focus be chosen that leads to a high-level, serious program of education?

5. Integrating and Aligning Curriculum and Instruction

  • How can the subject matter be de-compartmentalized and brought to life around the focus?
  • How can state standards, and graduation and college requirements, be fulfilled?
  • How will the school day be organized?

6. Building a Professional Community

  • How can teaching be de-privatized?
  • How can peer coaching and evaluation become part of the school's culture?
  • What is the role of leadership?

7. Getting a Buy-In From Students and Parents

  • Who are the students in the small school?
  • How can students and parents have some choice as to which small school is best for them?

8. Assessing Progress

  • How are teachers and students doing and how do we know?
  • How can a small school tell its own story?
  • What is a testing strategy for continuous improvement?


Many factors have contributed to the movement toward smaller schools in recent years, including falling test scores, rising drop-out rates, increased school violence, an impetus toward career and character education in schools, and a trend toward more learner-oriented educational strategies. Perhaps the answer to why small schools are often seen as the panacea that will cure all these ills can be found in "The Big Benefits of Smallness," an article by Deborah W. Meier published in the journal Educational Leadership.

"In small schools," says Meir, founder and director of several small public schools in New York City, "we're more likely to pass on to students the habits of heart and mind that define an educated person -- not only formally, in lesson plans and pedagogical gimmicks, but in hallway exchanges, arguments about important matters, and resolution of ordinary differences. We're more likely to show kids in our daily discourse that grown-ups use reasoning and evidence to resolve issues. We can teach them what it's like to be a grown-up."


The Small Schools Workshop
Based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, this workshop helps create innovative learning communities in public schools. This site provides links to relevant articles.

Bigger Oak Hills High School Aims for Small Feel
An article about one house plan, from the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Safe, Rigorous, Personalized: Rhode Island Small Schools
An article by Dan Corley, from the Providence Journal.


Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World

Originally published 02/22/1999
Last updated 04/29/2010