Thinking Small

Sept. 1, 2001
Advocates of smaller learning communities believe that when it comes to the size of a school, less is more.

Which of these schools would you want in your district? In the first one, the principal and teachers know every student by name; the teachers and students exhibit positive attitudes; attendance is high; behavior problems are minimal; and nearly every student is involved in extracurricular activities.

In the second school, so many students clutter the halls that tensions run high and disturbances are routine; apathy pervades the atmosphere; absenteeism is rampant among students and staff; and struggling students drift through classes unnoticed by teachers and fellow students until they eventually drop out of school.

When it's put that way, the choice is a no-brainer. In general, the attributes of the first school apply to smaller schools, and the characteristics that describe the second school are common at larger schools. Many studies in recent years indicate that students in smaller schools perform better academically, are more involved with their schools and have better attitudes than comparable students at larger schools.

Still, many districts continue to build facilities that are more likely to result in the second kind of school. With funding restrictions, lack of available land and resistance from communities that prefer the identity of a single large school, districts often build large campuses.

But as evidence mounts that small schools provide a better learning environment, more districts are embracing the concept of smaller schools. Some are building smaller facilities, and others are using academies, houses or other school-within-a-school concepts to bring a small-school feeling to larger campuses.

“For the first time, we are seeing significant resources being allocated for this kind of stuff,” says Michael Klonsky, co-director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago.


Many states and districts have recognized that smaller is better when it comes to individual classrooms, especially in primary grades.

States spent an estimated $2.3 billion to reduce class sizes in the 1999-2000 school year, according to the ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management. The federal government's Class Size Reduction Program provides about $1.2 billion a year to hire and train new teachers as part of an overall goal of lowering class size.

With fewer students in a classroom, teachers can provide more personalized instruction, and manage their classrooms more easily.

Having a small school does not necessarily mean class sizes will be small, but a smaller school can provide many of the same benefits throughout the facility. Those who have studied small schools have found a wide range of advantages (see sidebar, p. 18). In general, communication among staff and between students and staff is easier; the relative lack of bureaucracy makes it easier to individualize programs; students and staff notice strangers and potential trouble more quickly; parents are more likely to be aware of and involved with their children's school work; and more students feel a sense of belonging.

As more school systems recognize these benefits, many small-school advocates have persuaded districts to begin or expand small-school programs.

Among the efforts that have gained attention:

  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested millions of dollars nationwide to spur the creation of small schools that can be replicated elsewhere. Earlier this year, it awarded an $8 million grant to the state of Colorado to help it create new high schools and establish schools within schools at struggling, existing high schools.

    The Gates Foundation also has joined with the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Institute to form the New Century High Schools Consortium for New York City. The consortium will spend $30 million over five years and hopes to break up some of the city's largest and least successful high schools, and create a number of new schools for grades 7 through 12.

  • The Oakland (Calif.) Unified School District has developed a plan for New Small Autonomous (NSA) Schools and hopes to create 10 such schools. Enrollments will range from 100 to 400 for elementary schools and 250 to 400 for high schools.

  • A key part of the educational reforms in Chicago Public Schools since 1995 has been the creation of small schools. The district lists 88 small elementary schools and 21 small high schools — either stand-alone facilities or schools-within-a-school. Earlier this year, the district chose two winners in a national architectural competition for two elementary school designs that would incorporate school-within-a-school concepts.

  • Under the Clinton Administration, the U.S. Department of Education established the Smaller Learning Communities program, which made available $45 million in grants to help high schools with enrollments of more than 1,000 to create smaller learning communities.


Educators have come up with various ways to achieve a small-school setting. The Small Schools Workshop identifies these types:

  • Free-standing small schools: Small school with their own facilities and administration.

  • Schools-within-schools: One or more small schools that develop within a larger, “host” school. In some cases, they have their own administrative staff; in others, the administration is part of the larger school structure. A house can be created by grade level, an academic theme or by randomly picking students.

  • Multiplex: One building specifically intended to house several small schools.

  • Scatterplex: Two or more small schools at different sites that share a principal.

  • Charter schools: Independent, often small, public schools, designed and operated by educators, parents, community leaders, educational entrepreneurs and others.


Advocates say small schools are most effective when administrators realize the more manageable size allows them to teach differently.

“Small gives you an opportunity to create a different paradigm, a different kind of curriculum and teaching,” says Ann Cook, project director for the Julia Richman Education Complex, a former traditional high school building in New York City that houses six separate schools and other programs.

That means establishing space where teachers can regularly meet and collaborate. Teachers assigned together to work with specific groups of students need to have their classrooms close to each other. Classroom spaces need to be more flexible to allow for different uses.

“You're trying to create a sense of community,” says Klonsky.

A smaller learning community that is a school-within-a-school faces other challenges, especially if the facility has been a more traditional school.

“In most big high schools, all the science labs are in one area of the building,” says Klonksy. “With a school-within-a-school, you would like science labs in each of those smaller schools.”

Coordinating room assignments and making sure students stay within their houses also can be difficult.

“You face a tremendous obstacle creating a master schedule,” says Bob Stein, an assistant superintendent in the Grossmont Union High School District in southern California. “You have to keep teachers together with the same group of students, and you have to find common prep time for the teachers.”

The degree to which schools-within-schools establish separate identities varies.

When Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., adopted the house concept in 1994, students were adamant that they wanted the school to maintain a unified identity.

“We have nothing that visibly separates the houses,” says principal Dan Galloway. “Many students don't even know what house they are in.”

The student body of 4,100 is divided into three houses. The “white” house is in a new addition, and the “green” and “gold” houses are situated in the main building.

In contrast, the six schools in New York's Julia Richman Education Complex have strong individual identities. There are four high schools with different themes, a middle school for children with autism, and an elementary school. In addition, the complex houses a health center, an infant and toddler program, and an arts center.

“All the schools have autonomous space,” says Cook. “What you want to do with your space is your business. Each of the schools has developed its own culture.”

Students can get to all of the complex's common spaces — the library, cafeteria, health center, infant room, art gallery, pottery room, swimming pool, gym, dance room and mini-theater — without entering another school's space.

“We can immediately recognize if someone from outside a school is walking around,” says Cook.

Small school proponents emphasize that one of the keys to creating a successful smaller learning community is to have those that will use the facility represented in the planning process.

“You need to hear a lot of different opinions,” says Klonsky. “Not just the technical and financial experts, but the voices of the teachers, kids, parents and community partners. It should be a democratic enterprise.”

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

The case for smaller schools

Educators looking for a rationale to make schools smaller have a cornucopia of studies, reports and data to bolster their arguments. Researchers have found that small schools have beneficial effects on student achievement, attitudes and behavior; attendance and dropout rates; participation in extracurricular activities and relationships among students, teachers and administrators.

Many districts still are building large high schools, but most research in recent years on school size indicates that small schools are better for students.

Here are some of the benefits reported in various studies:

  • The Rural School and Community Trust found strong evidence in Georgia, Ohio and Texas that students in less affluent communities perform better when they attend smaller schools.

  • Research from the New York Networks for School Renewal has found that the network's small high schools in New York City have low dropout and high graduation rates. In the lower grades, more network students stay in school the whole year and show consistent reading gains.

  • A report from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory found that student attitudes, behavior and participation are better when school size is smaller. Student achievement in small schools is at least equal to, and in many cases superior to, big schools.

  • A report prepared for a conference at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on high school dropouts found that students are more likely to drop out of larger high schools.

  • Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that recent efforts to break down large public schools into smaller units may be beneficial not only to students, but also to teachers. Teachers in small schools generally reported a greater sense of community than teachers in large schools.

  • A Virginia Tech study indicated that smaller schools strengthen interpersonal relationships and a sense of community. It also found that smaller schools are associated with stronger parental commitment and have higher rates of parental involvement.

  • A study from the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, “Small Schools, Big Imaginations: A Creative Look at Urban Public Schools,” found that second only to high socioeconomic status, small school size is the factor most consistently related to positive outcomes in test scores, student retention, suspensions, post-school employment and college attendance.

  • The journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis published a report that looked at school budgets and student performance. It found that small academic and large high schools are similar in terms of budgets per graduate.

  • A report from the Nebraska Alliance for Rural Education also asserted that small schools are cost-effective when graduation rates are considered. “The so-called ‘inefficiencies’ of small schools are greatly reduced when calculated on the basis of cost per graduate, and virtually disappear when the substantial social costs of non-graduates and the positive societal impact of college-educated citizens are considered,” the report stated.

  • The Bank Street College of Education studied the growing number of small public schools in Chicago. It found that students in these small schools had higher grades, significantly lower dropout rates, and better attendance rates than did students in larger schools. At the elementary level, fewer students were retained than students in larger elementary schools.

How big is small?

Studies indicate consistently that students have a better opportunity to receive a good education in small schools.

But that begs the question: What is a small school?

That depends on whom you ask.

Back in 1959, when Harvard University President James Conant said that American high school graduating classes should be at least 100 students (a high school of about 400), he was arguing for bigger schools.

The notions of big and small have continued to change over the years as districts have consolidated and larger facilities have been built to achieve economies of scale. In 1999-2000, the average enrollment in a U.S. public high school was 752, and a few schools had enrollments topping 5,000.

In 2001, for a school like Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., with 4,100 students, “small” means dividing the student body into three houses of 1,300 to 1,400 students.

Breaking Ranks, a paper from the National Association of Secondary School Principals, recommends 600 as the ideal size for a high school.

Chicago Public Schools defines a small elementary school as one with 200 to 350 students, and a small high school as one with no more than 500 students. A paper from the Coalition of Essential Schools notes “researchers tend to regard as ‘small’ an elementary school of 300 to 400 students and a secondary school of 400 to 800.”

A high school of 400 or 500 might seem small in Hawaii or Florida, where the average high school has more than 1,460 students, but some researchers believe even those smaller schools are too large.

“The problem with high schools of 500 students is that they still function as big schools. It is in this sense that small is too big,” writes Thomas Gregory, a professor at Indiana University, in a paper, “Small is Too Big: Achieving a Critical Anti-Mass in the High School.”

In another paper, “School Reform and the No-Man's Land of High School Size,” Gregory argues, “A size of 400 or 500 students makes sense only if one's intent is to continue to conduct business as usual, a routine of textbook-dominated classes that are designed to dispense a curriculum that emphasizes transmission of information from the old to the young via group instruction delivered within the confines of the school building.”

Gregory states that for small high schools to be most effective and develop a culture different from those of large schools, the upper size limit is around 200.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

Sponsored Recommendations

Latest from mag