Smaller Schools and Learning Communties: The Wave of the Future?

Smaller Schools and Learning Communties: The Wave of the Future?
Smaller Schools and Learning Communties: The Wave of the Future?


Nearly one year to the day after the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, policymakers, researchers, and educators gathered on Capitol Hill to discuss the growing movement for smaller schools and its implications for school cohesiveness and academic achievement. Many of the speakers at the meeting, sponsored by the American Youth Policy Forum, began their remarks about small schools by briefly addressing the Columbine tragedy. “Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a crisis to point serious attentions at the problems in this country,” said Patricia McNeil, Assistant Secretary of Vocational and Adult Education in the U.S. Department of Education.


Forum Brief

McNeil, the first of five speakers at the Capitol Hill forum, addressed the Department of Education’s current efforts to support the restructuring of large existing high schools into smaller units. More than seventy percent of students in the United States attend high schools with over 1000 students, McNeil says, and she argues that the “large and impersonal” nature of these schools does not promote advanced learning. In fact, she believes that large learning environments allow many students to graduate without the skills they need to succeed in colleges and careers. As one way to deal with these systemic problems, the Department of Education received $45 million in fiscal year 2000 for grants to local education agencies that “develop or implement smaller, more personalized learning communities in large high schools.” These grants support schools-within-a-school, career academies, teacher advisory systems and other initiatives to personalize high schools with over 1000 students. Small school initiatives, like the ones supported by the Department of Education grants, arguably foster a more cohesive and close-knit learning environment for students.

Research has consistently supported small schools for years, according to the forum speakerKathleen Cotton, Research Associate at Northwest Regional Education Laboratory, but Cotton argues that policymakers are just now beginning to pay attention to this research consensus. While the research base for the effects of large and small schools on youth is quite broad, Cotton admits that less is known about the efficacy of school-within-a-school reform. She argues that the “appropriate and effective” school size is between 300 and 400 students for elementary schools and 400 and 800 students for secondary educational facilities. In her analysis, student academic achievement, social behavior, attendance, and extra-curricular participation are often superior in small schools. The small learning communities give students a sense of belonging that also lowers drop out rates and increases parent involvement according to Cotton. Though the evidence suggests that school-within-a-school reforms have a more limited impact on these variables of student achievement and attitudes, Cotton believes that students can benefit from these reforms if the small learning units are separate and distinct from other units in the school.

Kathleen Cotton and Mike Klonsky agree that ethnic minorities, poor students, and students who speak English as a second language benefit the most from small learning environments, but unfortunately, they are over-represented in urban school districts with the largest schools. As theDirector of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), Mike Klonsky has seen first hand what large impersonal schools can do to low-income and minority youth. “If you want places just to ‘warehouse’ kids,” Klonsky says, “[then] bigger is cheaper,” but if you are talking about making a connection to kids and improving graduation rates, then smaller schools are better. Along with fellow UIC Professor William Ayers, Klonsky lays out many of the arguments for small schools in A Simple Justice: The Challenge of Small Schools, published this year by Teachers College at Columbia University.

Klonsky also works as a consultant with administrators and teachers at the 1400 pupils at Paul Robeson High School on the South Side of Chicago. In 1996 authorities arrested 185 students on the Robeson grounds and in 1997 only twenty percent of the high school’s seniors graduated. Since then, the school has been divided into five academies in addition to the freshman academy that is now mandated for all Chicago Public High Schools. The smaller learning environments have already resulted in a dramatically reduced number of school arrests. Excluding students detained for possessing beepers (a law that was recently revoked), there were zero arrests on school grounds last year. Klonsky argues that in the wake of Columbine, the money schools are spending for increased security measures would be better spent in reorganizing large schools into smaller units. He estimates that it costs on average a half million dollars to restructure a large school as opposed to an estimated one million dollars to install security cameras.

Like their sister schools in urban areas, rural school districts are dealing with problems created by large schools, as described byMarty Strange, Policy Director for the Rural School and Community Trust (RSCT). Though community schools are the norm in rural districts, state legislators have moved in recent years to consolidate community schools into enormous learning centers. This means a longer commute to the classroom for vast numbers of rural youth and has required school districts to spend a total of $10.2 billion dollars transporting 21 million students 23 million miles per day. Interested in this and other variables connected to school size, RSCT researchers analyzed data from 13,000 rural and urban schools in Georgia, Montana, Ohio, and Texas. They found that poverty had a weaker influence on student performance in smaller schools in 48 out of 49 testing indices, and school size had the greatest influence on student achievement in middle school grades. In addition, they calculated the number of schools in each state that were too large to be efficient. In Texas, for example, between twenty-six percent and fifty-seven percent of the schools were too large depending on the grade level examined. With more than half of the rural districts in 20 states losing students, RSCT is using this data to warn policymakers of the potential consequences of school consolidation.

Over the last two decades, Prince George’s County, Maryland has been transformed from a predominantly rural county on the edge of Washington, DC to a center of urban and suburban population growth. According to Prince George’s County Superintendent Iris Metts, the 185 existing schools in the county are straining to accommodate the population explosion. Metts points to Roosevelt High School, which won distinction as a New American High School because of its small, successful academies. Metts, who proposed the first one billion dollar education budget in the county’s history is, this year, trying to chart a course for school reform with a High School Summit for teachers, administrators and policymakers in her district. The summit will draft a five-year plan to restructure twenty large schools in the county along the lines of Roosevelt High Schools. “If this county [is going to] go forward with economic development, it must reform its schools,” Metts says, and for her, reform means better funding for small school initiatives.

As researchers and reformers, rural and urban residents, teachers and administrators, policymakers and practitioners, the presenters on the small schools panel all agreed that smaller schools and academies within large schools are important for creating a sense of belonging and ownership for students. Opponents of the small school movement cite the added costs for physical facilities and “redundant” programs necessitated by community schools, arguing that bigger is more efficient in education, becasue cost per student goes down when the size of a school is increased. Proponents of small schools counter with the argument that cost per student should not be the measurement of efficiency, but that the cost per well-trained graduate should be. The bottom line, they say, should not be cutting corners; it should be the creation of quality education in small learning communities.

This brief is from an American Youth Policy Forum held on April 14, 2000 on Capitol Hill as reported by Steve Estes.

Presenter Information

Kathleen Cotton

Research Associate

School Improvement Program

Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory

101 SW Main Street, Suite 500

Portland, OR 97204



Patricia McNeil

Assistant Secretary

Office of Vocational and Adult Education

Department of Education

330 C Street, SW, Room 4090

Washington, DC 20202



Michael Klonsky

Professor and Director

Small Schools Workshop

University of Illinois at Chicago

115 S. Sangamon Street, #118

Chicago, IL 60607



Iris Metts


Prince George’s County Public Schools

14201 School Lane

Upper Marlboro, Maryland 20772-9983



Marty Strange

Policy Director

Rural School and Community Trust

51 South Pleasant Street

Randolph, VT 05060



The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.