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Small Wonders

On one side of the argument, the chant is “Bigger is better.” A bigger school can offer students a greater variety of courses, especially advanced classes, and more opportunities to be involved in extracurricular activities. Constructing one school facility on a single campus typically is less expensive and less disruptive to the community than finding several tracts of land and building numerous buildings.

The other side counters with its claim, “Smaller is smarter.” In a smaller setting, teachers get to know students better and spend more time with them, and students are less likely to become alienated from the school community. Students who are more involved and connected with their school tend to be more successful.

Meanwhile, taxpayers listening to the dialogue clutch their wallets and purses tightly, and ask warily, “How much will it cost?”

Administrators, who must weigh the educational needs of students, the economic realities of shrinking budgets and the desires of a public often averse to new taxes, tread carefully as they decide what kinds of facilities they will provide for students and staff.

Big or small? The answer, in many cases, is both. Districts are building facilities, or retrofitting older buildings, so they can effectively accommodate several smaller school communities on one campus. They provide the personalized attention that leads to better student performance, and they offer a wider array of amenities that a district might not be able to provide at smaller, separate campuses.

Are school districts that opt for the schools-within-a-school concept splitting the difference, or are they getting the best of both worlds? Educators and architects say that depends on how committed the school is to the concept. But they believe a well-designed space can allow several small learning communities to function effectively in the same facility.

Getting personal

In the last several years, many educators have embraced the movement toward smaller schools as a way to improve student achievement and the school climate.

“It's growing, and it's picking up steam,” says Peter Brown, an associate principal architect with Perkins+Will in Dallas. “You are hearing more about it.”

According to the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago, a small school can lead to better student performance, improved attendance and graduation rates, reduced violence and disruptive behavior, and increased teacher satisfaction.

Many of the nation's large urban districts are creating smaller schools, especially at the high-school level, to combat the dropout problem and boost student achievement. One of the more notable — and deep-pocketed — advocates of the small school movement is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has donated nearly $1.2 billion to education initiatives that have helped create more than 2,000 small schools in 41 states.

In some cases, districts have built standalone small schools. Brown says individual charter schools, such as Perspectives Charter School in Chicago, embrace the small-school concept.

More common, Brown says, is a larger facility, such as Arlington High School in St. Paul, Minn., that is broken down into more manageable units. They may be called houses, clusters, teams, academies, schools-within-a-school, or smaller learning communities. Whatever the name and regardless of whether the school unit exists on its own or as one of several in a facility, a smaller learning community should function as an autonomous school.

“It's important for each section to be self-contained,” says Brown. “Each school should have its own classrooms, teachers' spaces, administration and counselor space. The organization of a building can greatly foster communication — or at least visibility. By putting student-gathering areas and teacher areas close to each other, students can catch teachers in informal opportunities.”

Crowded Sunshine State

Where population is sparse and enrollments are low, administrators and architects don't have to devise ways to create a small-school atmosphere — it's already there. But in areas where the student population is booming, and the schools are built big, districts have to take special steps if they want students to experience the benefits of a smaller learning community.

A prime example is Florida. From 1986 to 2004, public school enrollment in Florida has increased 64 percent, and districts have had to find classrooms for more than 1 million additional students.

According to the Florida Department of Education, the state's schools have the highest average enrollment in the nation — at the elementary, middle and high school level. In 2001-02, the average Florida elementary school, with 674 students, was 53 percent larger than the average U.S. elementary school. The average Florida middle school had 1,069 students and was 75 percent larger than the average U.S. middle school. With an average 1,565 students, the typical Florida high school was 108 percent larger than the average U.S. high school. In 2002, the state had 81 high schools with enrollment of 2,500 or more; 225 of the state's 473 high schools had enrollment of more than 1,500.

“They build them big in Florida,” says Dan Tarczynski, a vice president with SchenkelShultz Architecture in Orlando. “You have to build so many schools, and land is not so easy to find.”

That means typical capacities of the Florida schools being built are 800 to 1,000 at elementary schools, 1,200 to 1,800 at middle schools and 1,800 to 3,000 at high schools, Tarczynski says.

In Seminole County, Fla., the new middle school facility the district is building to replace Chiles Middle School will have a capacity of 1,500 students and accommodate grades 6 to 8. Tarczynski says the campus, which will open later this summer, is designed to create three smaller learning communities — one for each grade.

“It's designed so that students will spend 75 to 80 percent of their time in their communities,” Tarczynski says. “There's no reason to go into the other buildings. You have 500 students on two floors — you can divide them into 250 each. And each floor had two corridors, so you can divide them into 125 each.”

In the smaller communities, students get to know each other and their teachers better. By designing the space in a compact way to cut down on movement, Chiles Middle School reduces between-class congestion that often can lead to hallway scuffles or worse. The compact space also allows teachers to monitor student movement more easily.

In addition to the three learning communities, Chiles has other areas that serve the entire school — central administrative offices, a cafeteria, gymnasium, locker rooms, an auditorium, band and music areas and a library.

“By having one large school, you can have a better band area and a black-box theater,” says Tarczynski.

The administration and library space in the common area is smaller than that typically found in a middle school that size, Tarczynski says, because each learning community has its own decentralized administrative space and media center.

“You need to have the administrators and counselors in the grade-level area,” says Tarczynski. “That's where they're needed.”

Chris Boothe, a project manager in the Seminole County district, says the Chiles faculty and staff had to be persuaded that breaking up the media center into three grade-level spaces and one common library area would be beneficial. The overall space dedicated to media centers in the school is the same as it would be if there were one large media center, says Boothe, but “this gets the services and resources closer to the students.”

Because so much research is done with digital resources or over the Internet, the decentralized media centers do not have to have as many printed volumes. Many books that are not considered as vital for student research are kept in the media center in the common space.

“That is a smaller area for fiction or pleasure reading, and a little research,” says Boothe.

Boothe says the district already has another middle school under construction — Markham Woods — that has the same design as Chiles.

Science friction

One common obstacle that prevents some schools from carrying out the totality of the small-school concept is what to do about science facilities. To create a full-fledged smaller learning community, each school-within-a-school should have its own science labs and equipment.

“Often, the science faculty like to be together,” says Brown. “They like to share equipment.”

In existing buildings, the costs of dismantling some science classrooms and dispersing them throughout a facility may not be affordable.

“To retrofit an old double-loaded corridor building, you might have to leave science out of the equation,” says Tarczynski. “You could integrate social studies and language, but science might have to stay a separate department.”

At the Chiles Middle School, each smaller learning community has its own set of four science classrooms. To maximize the effectiveness of the facilities, the science facilities include one high-end laboratory classroom and three “dry labs.”

“Often in a science class, you might have one lab experiment a week, and the rest of the time the lab stuff is sitting idle,” says Boothe.

By allocating resources into one high-end lab, students have access to more sophisticated supplies and equipment than they would if the district had built four identical labs in each learning community. To make the setup work, Boothe says, the science teachers in each grade level must cooperate with each other and coordinate their lab schedules.

Another way to try to fit science classrooms into a school-within-a-school concept, Brown says, is to group science classrooms where they are adjacent to more than one smaller learning community. That way, he says, students consider the science space part of their community even though more than one community is using the space.

Inevitable changes

At the high school level, the concept of dividing a school into smaller communities is basically the same, but administrators have to decide how they want to divide the students.

“You can split a high school by grades — 9, 10, 11, 12,” says Tarczynski. “You can have two 9-10s and two 11-12s. You can have a series of subject-based academies. You can have four 9-12s.”

Brown says a building design must be able to accommodate new teaching philosophies and administrative reorganizations.

“You need to have the flexibility to change themes,” says Brown. “The building will not always have the same curriculum. You have to anticipate other possible uses.”

The smaller learning communities also should have some flexibility built in, Brown adds, because the neat division of students as envisioned in a design does not always reflect reality.

“The division of teams does not always work out to good math,” he says. “What was a team of 150 may go up to 200. You need to have swing space for shifts that occur.”

The most successful scenario for a small school, Brown says, is a school situated in a new facility with a faculty selected specifically because they want to teach in a smaller learning community.

“Sometimes teachers are the impetus, and sometimes it's a mandate from the top administration,” says Brown. “It's better when the staff buys into the concept.”

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

Five in one

Students returning to McKinley High School in Canton, Ohio, last September came back to the same building, but they were attending a new school — actually, five schools. Using a $1.52 million grant from the KnowledgeWorks Foundation and $1.1 million in contributions and services from the Stark Education Partnership, the Canton district has divided McKinley's 2,000 students into five smaller schools — Alive, Diversity, Impact, McK II and Stars.

It is one of several schools in the state that are a part of the Ohio High School Transformation Initiative.

“In the smaller schools, no one falls through the cracks,” says Cynthia Loukas, project manager for McKinley's small school conversion.

Signs throughout the facility help students find their way to their school-within-a-school, says Loukas.

“We divided as much as we could,” says Loukas. “We tried to limit crossover from school to school.”

A building renovation was supposed to help establish separate identities for the four schools, but Loukas says the state of Ohio had withdrawn the funding that was supposed to pay most of the cost.

“We delayed the renovation to see how the small-schools would fit, and in the meantime the state pulled the funding,” she says. “We wanted to do separate entrances and arrange the science labs more efficiently.”

Despite that setback, Loukas says the school is committed to the small-school concept. “It's like a university with several different colleges,” she says.

Although McKinley is considered five distinct schools for academic purposes, the community wanted to make sure McKinley maintained its longstanding identity, especially with regard to its sports programs (the school was the Ohio state basketball champion in 2005).

“This is a traditional community, and people wanted to see that identity maintained,” says Loukas. “We don't see it as a barrier. That's not the focus of what we are trying to do.”

Designing small

SchenkelShultz Architecture identifies five key design characteristics for small schools:

  • Distinct identities of separate schools, with their own curricular or grade-level focus.

  • Separate entries, information/gathering centers and unique colors.

  • Unique circulation patterns that do not overlap adjacent schools.

  • Decentralized administration, media center, exploratory labs and teacher planning areas.

  • Minimized student circulation movement with simple circulation patterns.

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