Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Are Small Schools Safer?: Creating a Secure Learning Environment

The movement to divide large campuses into smaller academies focuses on improving not only the educational setting but also the social climate.

April 1, 2001

High school junior Jesse Gross has heard the grim details about recent school shootings and can imagine feeling lost -- even alienated -- on a large high school campus.

In a few ways, the Marin County high school Gross attends is similar to campuses where deadly gunfire has erupted. It is relatively large, predominantly white and suburban.

But even though the high school has 1,000 students, Gross says the eighty-student academy he belongs to feels like a close-knit community within a larger school.

"It's nearly impossible to be an outsider in a community like this," Gross said. "No one's really shunned, and in this intimate an environment it would be hard not to notice someone who was that angry."

Gross and Academy X at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo, California, are part of a national movement that's gaining steam with each school shooting.

Splitting Up Big Schools

Backed by a growing body of research and a sense of desperation, large high schools are breaking themselves down into smaller, more personal communities. They've won the financial support of the federal government and several major foundations, which in the wake of the Columbine school shooting, believe smaller could mean better and safer.

People often think of schools and buildings as synonymous, but educators around the country are creating several autonomous schools in buildings that once housed one huge school. Others -- like Drake -- are creating smaller learning communities within a school, hoping to create the same.

"I really believe many of the other things we're doing in school reform are just so much shifting of deck chairs on the Titanic, so long as we continue to herd children into huge, impersonal schools," said researcher Kathleen Cotton of the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory in Portland.

About 70 percent of U.S. students attend high schools of more than 1,000 students, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and many attend schools with 2,000 to 5,000 students.

The large school model came of age in the post-Sputnik era, when Harvard University President James Conant argued that raising academic performance required consolidating resources. But critics say his argument was based more on intuition than research.

Schools Look Like Factories

Reform-minded educators taking a fresh look at most American high schools see factories instead. Each year, hundreds of teens are inserted into a school, scheduled into standard rotations of course work, and, hopefully, squeezed out at age eighteen with a diploma. But many get lost among their thousands of peers.

Cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia are now knee-deep in the small-school movement. Oakland has made small schools a top priority. San Francisco's new superintendent is proposing breaking schools into smaller learning communities, as are high school leaders around the Bay Area.

But educators warn that small schools aren't a panacea.

"There are lots of small schools I can think of that are not good academically or in lots of other ways," said Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at Harvard University. "It's a mistake to think that size alone solves all these problems. It's a necessary condition for improvement, but not sufficient to ensure successful outcomes for kids."

Concept Began in East Harlem

East Harlem often is credited with being the birthplace of the small-school movement, beginning with the restructuring of an elementary school in the 1970s. The movement has gained steam, spreading to about seventy-five high schools around New York City.

Julia Richmond High, for instance, was once among the worst performing and crime-plagued schools in New York City. In 1995, educators created six schools in its place -- four high schools, and an elementary and middle school. Each school has its own principal and space in the enormous five-story building, though they share a library, gym, and lunch room.

"We took the weapon scanners out from day one," said Ann Cook, co-director of the 120-student Urban Academy at Julia Richmond. "We cut the security force in half and we've had no incidents in the building at all."

Seventeen-year-old Vance Rawles transferred to the Urban Academy from a larger high school where he frequently cut class and earned poor grades. The artistic and shy son of a single mom said he used to feel like an outsider.

"Here you're going to have to interact with another person eventually," said Rawles. "They're more inquisitive here, more curious. You see the same faces every day. It's not like a jumble, a blur. It's a family, sort of."

He said he now earns good grades, attends school regularly, has friends and plans to go to a liberal arts college.

The graduation rate at a coalition of thirty-eight small high schools, almost all in New York City, is 81 percent compared with the city average of 44 percent, Cook said. Of the graduates, 91 percent attend college, compared with the city average of 58 percent.

Progress in Chicago

Chicago created about 150 small schools in the past decade. A two-year study of the schools by the Bank Street College of Education in New York found dropout rates and absenteeism fell, and reading scores improved.

The schools were also safer, according to the study, because students and teachers took more responsibility for each other's behavior. At restructured Paul Robeson High in south Chicago, arrests dropped by two-thirds and four years later there are virtually no arrests, said Michael Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois.

Most Bay Area educators haven't gone so far as creating separate small schools but are focusing on creating smaller learning communities within a school.

Spurred by the deadly shooting at Columbine High, Congress passed a bill to nurture the development of smaller learning communities. It gave $45 million to help 354 schools begin breaking down in size this year and will give another $125 million in December.

California school districts won thirty-eight of those grants. Bay Area winners included all six high schools in Mount Diablo Unified, Sir Francis Drake High, Berkeley High, Pinole Valley High, Balboa High in San Francisco, five Oakland high schools, and Antioch High.

Foundations have also stepped in, particularly the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which last year gave $37 million to develop smaller learning communities in California.

To some extent, California schools have been on this path for a decade. Like Drake High, many schools have already created one or more "academies" with focuses like architecture, technology, or environmental studies.

Students in the academies usually take three to four classes together with the academy's small group of teachers. But many other students at those schools are in a traditional high school program. Sir Francis Drake's academies serve about three quarters of its students, but the school plans to use federal grant money to make sure all students belong to an academy.

Other California high schools are doing the same.

A More Nurturing Environment

"The goal is to enable students to feel that they're part of a smaller environment where teachers really care about them, where they can have a greater connection to the school," said Balboa High Assistant Principal Ted Barone. His school has already begun breaking into academies of 60 to 120 students.

Oakland wants to ultimately create a number of independent, small schools in place of its six comprehensive high schools. It is starting by creating smaller learning communities that may someday become autonomous schools.

Oakland will start next year by organizing ninth graders into groups of 100 to 150. They will take core classes like English and math with a small group of teachers, and electives with the rest of the school.

"How could we have ever thought that doing things the old way was even any good?" wondered Dan Freeman, a teacher at Sir Francis Drake's Academy X. "It's so readily apparent that working with a small team of teachers, designing instruction, and assessing students together is a million times more rewarding, fun, and better."

If one of his students is struggling, Freeman's team of teachers often call the student and parents in for a meeting. The academy gathers several times a month for community meetings and began the year with an overnight retreat. Their efforts have created a collegial atmosphere, where students listen to each other and teachers do little shushing during class.

"This environment has brought a lot of personality out of me," said Gross. "I think I would have kept to myself a lot more if I hadn't joined one of these academies."

While a growing number of educators are latching onto the small-schools concept, some worry that schools will only go half-way -- and when they don't see quick results they'll say smaller learning environments don't work.

It's not enough to simply create advisory groups where teachers meet with a group of students for twenty minutes a day, said the University of Illinois' Klonsky. Schools need to give teachers significant amounts of time with a group of students, planning time with each other, and training on how to make the most of a smaller learning environment.

"If districts and schools don't do it that way, it'll just crash on the same rocks of failed school reform as a hundred other projects did," Klonsky said.

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