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May 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 8

One Urban Solution: Small Schools

Recent studies show small is beautiful—and improves student learning.
We can't save Chicago's public school system without reconstructing it, and we can't save individual schools without transforming them. The system is oversized, underfunded, and, in a range of ways, dysfunctional. The city school buildings are obsolete, and the schools unable to perform the traditional tasks of minimum skill development. How do we restructure such an unwieldy system?
A recent study of school-reform progress points to small schools as one answer. According to this study, small schools (those with fewer than 350 students) make pursuing a systemic approach to school improvement more manageable. Small schools are also less likely to produce adversarial school politics and more likely to encourage strong democracy. The study concludes that “school reform and improvement activities are more likely to be productive in small schools.” Thus, establishing schools-within-schools, or chartering new schools, offers some promise.
In Chicago, the movement to build small schools from the bottom up has become a grassroots effort of teachers, principals, academics, and parents. From a lone initiative by a group of innovative elementary teachers two years ago, the small school movement has now spread to more than 50 schools. The forms have varied. In one school, a whole-language approach brought a collective of teachers together to initiate their own school. One high school group has organized several small schools around vocational orientations, while another has established six schools around career interests, ranging from business to performing arts. A group of teachers at an existing south-side school are now organizing a “satellite school” downtown that will use museums, libraries, and business offices as its classroom.
The teachers union and board of education have assented in theory (they tend to agree easily in the abstract but find hundreds of procedural and technical reasons to oppose each initiative in practice), and have offered modest support in areas of training and assessment. While systemwide financial cutbacks have crippled some reform efforts, groups of teachers, parents, and students continue to organize small schools. Several recent studies show that small schools are in fact far more cost-effective than large ones.
Some new small schools have been principal-driven, while teachers or support groups like the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago have originated others. A more distant catalyst has been New York's District Four. Dozens of Chicago principals and teachers have visited there, and many New York teachers, parents, and administrators have come to monitor efforts here.
  • Schools must really be small (a 200–400 student population at most). School change is complex, difficult work. Sustained and serious change requires the active participation of the people in the school—teachers, students, administrators—and high-level participation is more likely in a small group.
  • Restructuring should begin with a group of like-minded teachers and/or parents and administrators united by a clear vision. While the initiative may come from outside, the teachers are the key link in the chain. Teachers are expected to be active initiators, creators, agents of change. Small school development is not a reform done to a group of passive teachers, but is the direct result of their own thoughtful actions.
  • Choice is a key element in small schools, and teachers and students can be encouraged to join, but cannot be assigned.
  • Small schools need to be constructed vertically, with a student body reflecting the full range of abilities within the larger school. Small school development is not simply another way to track kids.
  • Small schools should be conceived as schools, not as “programs” or “tracks” or administrative re-shuffling. Small schools must have substantial autonomy, with teachers guiding decision making and use of school resources for their school.
The progress of small-school invention and school restructuring points to a practical way that reform may yet be successful within the larger system of public education. Small schools allows for the creation of flexible, humane, self-directed learning communities. They can be places of direct accountability, thoughtfulness, safety, intimacy, and common purpose—in short, the kinds of schools we would want to work in and send our children to.
End Notes

1 A View from the Elementary School: The State of Reform in Chicago, (July 1993), A Report of the Steering Committee, Consortium on Chicago School Research.

2 Small Schools' Operating Costs: Reversing Assumptions About Economics of Scale, (1992), (New York: Public Education Association).

Michael Klonsky has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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