Big Time for Small Schools

With dropout rates soaring to 50 percent and higher in some urban areas, and 70 percent of American teens attending schools enrolling 1,000 or more, increasing attention is being paid to more efficient and viable alternatives to the huge traditional American high school.

Emerging chief among the reform options is the development of "smaller learning communities," a phrase used to encompass the growing number of autonomous small schools as well as programs developed within larger high schools geared toward individualizing the learning experience for students. Backed by research in large part driven by the Coalition of Essential Schools-established in 1984 in response to an early study questioning the efficacy of the large high school-the movement is finding broad-based support from funding sources as diverse as the U.S. Department of Education and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

A single major driving force in the small schools initiative has been the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which in the past decade has awarded more than $475 million to schools serving low-income, minority students across the country. To date, the foundation has made "Reinvention Grants" to states such as Texas and Ohio; to urban areas, including New York City, Indianapolis, and the San Francisco Bay Area; to school reform models such as The Big Picture Company, High Tech High, and New Technology Foundation; and to education reform organizations, including CES and The Institute for Student Achievement.

Also offering support for the trend is the No Child Left Behind Act's Smaller Learning Communities Program, intended to help local education agencies plan, implement, or expand small learning communities in large high schools. With funding of $175 million for fiscal year 2004, planning grant awards range from $25,000-$50,000 for a single school, with implementation grants going up to $2.5 million for a group of schools. With such major funding initiatives, new small schools are currently in place or starting up in at least 41 states.

The exact number of small schools being launched is hard to track, as "new" schools emerge through charter school legislation, comprehensive high school conversions, and grassroots activism. For example, hundreds of small learning communities are being created out of Philadelphia's 22 high schools. Despite the difficulty in tracking exact numbers, the rapid proliferation of small schools is undeniable. New York City's first New Schools Initiative, for instance, reports 157 small schools scheduled for next fall.

Common Elements

While there are myriad variations on the theme of small schools-indeed, that is one of the hallmarks of the movement-there are also certain common characteristics. Enrollment is one. The identified population range for effectiveness is typically 200-400, with outside limits being 100 (The Met) and 500 (Chicago Public Schools Office of Small Schools).

Other elements common to effective small schools are: distinctively focused educational programs which don't try to be all things to all people; personalization, with each student being known well by at least one adult; multiple forms of assessment, extending beyond standardized tests to include student demonstrations of applied learning; and teacher collaboration, providing rigorous learning for every student. The Gates Foundation's "Seven Attributes of High-Performing Schools" include the above characteristics and add high expectations, a climate of respect and responsibility, and technology as a tool.

Focused Educational Programs

Creative approaches to teaching and learning are an integral focus of the new small schools.

Built from the ground up as a showcase for the use of technology in education, Los Angeles's High Tech High enrolls 180 students from 40 different zip codes, 52 percent of whom are on free or reduced lunch status. This school's education philosophy aims at narrowing the digital divide and equipping students with 21st century tools through project-based learning experiences. Every classroom has a SMART Board, is wired for sound, and has integrated computer/DVD/VHS projection. The school provides wireless access throughout the campus, ample computers, e-mail access for all, and a robotics shop.

The Big Picture Company, an education reform group dedicated to having schools "work in tandem with the real world of their greater community," emphasizes student internships with local businesses and agencies. Tucson's City High School's City Works program also promotes learning through community interactions. Other examples of small schools' emphases include: experiential and inquiry based learning, science and technology, media and performing arts, humanities, global studies, community-based learning, health and human services, and the traditional college preparatory track.

Inevitably, students are playing an important role in driving the reform. "Some schools have had great leaps in community learning opportunities," states Joe Hall, a coach for the Small Schools Collaborative at the University of Washington's Small Schools Project, "and technology plays a role in that. As students return to school from their work in the community, they bring to their teachers' attention ways instruction can better prepare them for after school."

In the new school model, motivating students is not just desirable, but essential. "Our job is to engage kids and provide access to 21st century learning," says Marsha Rybin, principal of High Tech High. " For example, our robotics class and robotics team allow kids to do math, physics, and have a ball at the same time."


The Gates Foundation's "National School District and Network Grants Program: Year 2 Evaluation Report" (April 2004) takes the lead in acknowledging and celebrating personal relationships between students and teachers. Among the methods for developing these ties are advisories, block schedules, and individualized learning plans.

Student participation in their personal learning objectives is key to the approach taken by the Monadnock Community Connections School in Keene, New Hampshire. Every student develops and maintains an Individualized Learning Plan, negotiating their focus for each school quarter with their parents and advisor. An online virtual community using Centrinity's First Class collaboration tools provides each student a personalized work area for maintaining ongoing and completed tasks. Each family has an account as well, allowing parents real-time access to their child's on-going work. E-mail is used as a tool for daily reflection on learning, engaging parents and advisors in a communication loop with each student to monitor and guide learning choices.

Another important aspect of the personalization focus is equity. "There's something about having a smaller group of adults and students that raises the awareness of the digital divide," states University of Washington's Hall. "This gives the adults a chance to look at what they're designing for kids and how that accentuates or minimizes the divide."

As noted in the Gates Foundation's Year 2 evaluation report, the challenge of equity is particularly notable when striving to meet the dual needs of historically underserved students and high achievers at the same time. Dave Lehman, recently retired principal of Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, New York, points out one example of how technology can come to the rescue by citing middle school social studies teacher Karl Madeo's use of a projector and an Internet-connected computer to show and engage kids in discussions of artists' drawings of Native Americans from the Westward Expansion era. "ESL students, reading challenged students, special education students with attention difficulties...all can participate in rich, meaningful, respectful discussions."

Performance-Based Assessments

Engaging students in such rich learning experiences requires a variety of assessment tools. Small schools seek to move beyond the standardized tests that have dominated the curriculum in traditional schools in recent years to "performance-based" assessments that provide learners opportunities to demonstrate their learning in practical applications.

Dr. Gerry House, director of the Institute for Student Achievement based in New York, also emphasizes the power of technology for learning. "Students are able to probe deeper, observe more, and inquire more thoroughly."

"We want students to produce their own ways of communicating-photo essays, Web sites, newsletters," explains Brett Goble, director of operations of Tucson's charter City High School. Student work is created for audiences outside the school, such as the online local artists' exhibit created by City High students working in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson.

At Media and Technology Charter School in Boston, all ninth-graders take a class in media and technology, where they learn HTML and digital video and audio and use those skills to create autobiographical Web sites. Alan Safran, executive director of MATCH, says "The course requires curriculum collaboration for major media projects. For example, students will choose essays they have written in their humanities classes and present them visually by designing Web pages and PowerPoint presentations."

Monadnock students renovated the homestead cabin of a local nature preserve and created displays for visitors. In the course of their work, they used CAD to prepare the renovation proposal, spreadsheet tools to prepare their budget, PowerPoint to present to the preserve's board of directors, and digital photography tools for the display layouts. Their work is on exhibit for all visitors to the preserve.

One important aspect of the kind of performance-based assessment central to these schools is that students are able to publicly exhibit their growth in learning and readiness for moving on. Washington State has facilitated a consistent capacity for demonstrating this kind of success through their "eFolio System," a Web-based portfolio that provides an option for students preparing to meet the state's graduation exhibition requirement. Students are able to plan, monitor, and reflect upon their learning experiences and receive coaching feedback as they prepare for their culminating senior exhibition.

Teacher Collaboration

Retraining educators to think in new and innovative ways about how today's high-tech tools can inform new instructional models is at the forefront of the small schools reform.

Maryville High School in Tennessee is currently a traditional, comprehensive school of 1,400 students, but it is exploring the option of reorganizing into smaller schools. Such "conversions" require a significant investment in professional development and teacher time. The important thing, says technology coordinator Maelea Galyan, is to "restructure professional development to get at different instructional practices."

Professional development through collaboration is a priority for two of the larger small schools networks. CES has recently launched "ChangeLab," an online "qualified library" of best practices from proven CES Mentor Schools. ChangeLab "finally gives small schools tangible resources to improve their practice," explains Shilpa Sood, director of interactive design for CES. Sood states that one of the bigger challenges of conversion work has been providing support and encouragement for "small schools practices within the existing teaching environments as they transition."

School tours, discussion boards, "ask a mentor" panels, and a growing collection of specific tools and practices are among ChangeLab's on-going offerings to educators. "CES pioneered small schools," says Sood, "and this is the best of what it has to offer."

The Big Picture Company, which promotes a "one student at a time" philosophy, supports a network of 26 Big Picture Schools, based on the design of the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center. Big Picture Online is a Web-based tool designed to provide all members of the Big Picture Schools' communities with tools and shared resources for developing and maintaining commitments to accountability for each student. "This is soup to nuts about how to start a Big Picture School," says Elliot Washor, co-director of the company. "It's available from home, school, college, and the workplace." It contains resources for students, advisors, parents, principals, mentors, LTI (Learning Through Internships) coordinators, and specialists. Videoconferencing is another tool in the Big Picture repertoire for keeping schools connected and talking to each other.


The challenges of maintaining and integrating technology into small schools are not necessarily unique to their size. For instance, tech support remains a trouble spot for all the schools profiled here. In addition, Brian Krinsky, tech director for High Tech High points out the challenge of maintaining standards in such a small environment. "We have to raise a lot of dollars to keep up with the technology." Adds Principal Rybin, "Human resources are just really difficult. Everyone wears a lot of hats."

As well, a lack of understanding of technology's appropriateness in today's education setting continues to be the same problem for small schools as it has been for larger, traditional schools. "The people who run the school district and make economic decisions don't understand why kids need technology," says Roberta Weintraub, High Tech's foundation director. "They wanted us to call the help desk. There's an almost complete lack of understanding about what schools need to operate technology."

City High School has a similar challenge. Finding the salary for a technology coordinator to help with troubleshooting and technology integration is a real challenge. "We share facilities with our community partners, not just buildings," says Goble. "We're trying to look at salary sharing for IT support." Outsourcing and using college students are additional solutions being tested at Maryville and Monadnock.

Despite the challenges, the best news remains the degree of autonomy allowed small schools, which enables them the capacity to react nimbly to circumstances in a way that larger schools can not. The small schools initiatives certainly are a work in progress and, to the delight of proponents, innovation is the name of the game. Says High Tech High teacher Randy Siercks, "Nothing is written in stone. If it works, we'll use it."

Kim Carter is director of the Monadnock Community Connections School, a small public high school of choice, in Keene, New Hampshire.

Profiled Small School Initiatives

For more information and additional resources, visit the sites below.

The CES Change Lab is a growing database of best practices from CES's first five mentor schools in the Small Schools Project: Federal Hocking, Boston Arts Academy, Quest High School, Humanities Prep, and Urban Academy. View the whole school portfolios or visit the targeted resources sections: Teaching & Learning, School Practices, Assessment, Leadership, and Community Connections. There is also an Exchange section, where you can "Ask a Mentor". You'll need to create an account, but access is free.

Housed at the College of Education at the University of Washington, the Small Schools Project provides support and assistance to schools that have received reinvention grants from the Gates Foundation. The Web site contains a wealth of resources, research, publications, and hands-on tools.

Small Schools Workshop is a group of educators, organizers, and researchers, based in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who collaborate with teachers, principals, and parents to create new, small, innovative learning communities in public schools.

KnowledgeWorks Foundation is home to the Ohio Urban High Schools and Ohio High Schools Transformation Initiative, providing support and resources to 17 of Ohio's 21 large urban school districts as they "seek to improve student achievement by establishing the conditions that allow real learning connections to emerge and grow within the state's most challenged urban high schools." The Video Center contains school model tours, student and teacher testimonials, and more. You can also find cost effectiveness studies and other research regarding small schools.

The Chicago Public Schools' Small School Web site includes an overview of research about small schools and details of the advantages of small schools for different stakeholders.

Institute for Student Achievement

High Tech High and High Tech High-LA

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's site provides research and evaluation reports, as well as articles, fact sheets, speeches, grantee profiles, and the Education Grantee Newsletter.

"School Size, School Climate, and Student Performance" by Kathleen Cotton, April, 1996, #20 in the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory's School Improvement Research Series Close-Ups is one of the definitive research studies.

At the Big Picture Company's Web site you can find information about their philosophy, locations of Big Picture Schools, news, and publications.

News about Smaller Learning Communities is the U.S. Department of Education's site for information about awards, resources, legislative and funding updates, and performance reports related to Smaller Learning Communities.

Technology Toolbox

Below is a compendium of the products in regular use at the small schools profiled in our feature.


Cisco networking and wireless components

HP laser and color laser printers, laptops, scanners

Gateway desktop systems and laptops

Compaq servers and laptops

Apple iBooks and Power Books, media stations

SMARTBoards interactive whiteboards

Mitsubishi LCD projectors

Canon digital still cameras, video-cameras, digital SLR cameras, scanners, and photo printers


Microsoft Server 2003, Office, FrontPage

Inspiration concept mapping software

Adobe Photoshop, Premiere, Illustrator

Tech Ed Concepts, Inc. CADKey, computer aided design software

Key Curriculum Press Geometer's Sketchpad

Alias Maya animation software; educational purchases through (

Online Curriculum Tools

Educational Testing Service

SAS inSchool Curriculum Pathways

Bridges Choices Explorer, career planning, and Choices Planner, college planning

Apex Learning Advanced Placement and high school courses

Assessment Tools

Vantage Learning My Access! and Learning Access!

NWEA Measure of Academic Progress

Collaboration Tools

Open Text/Centrinity First Class