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Smaller school size called a launch pad for high school reform efforts

High schools are unworkable when students feel invisible, says Michael Klonsky




"Small schools are the launch pad, not the rocket ship," cautioned Michael Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago, during a talk sponsored by the Philadelphia Education Fund on February 1. The Education Fund brought Klonsky to Philadelphia to support local efforts to create more small high schools in the School District.

Klonsky founded the Small Schools Workshop in 1991 as a support network for Chicago's "rebels against the tyranny of principals" - those teachers who had decided to start their own schools. Fifteen years later, he is a key player in the nation's "small schools movement."

Holding area and sorting device

Klonsky outlined the problems with large high schools, highlighting a February 1 New York Times editorial entitled "Reinventing High Schools," which described traditional high schools as "a combination holding area and sorting device."

In these schools, he said, teachers do not have relationships with their students and therefore cannot connect the curriculum to their students' lives. Teachers often do not live in the communities in which they teach. And strong teachers are often not teaching the neediest kids. As a case in point, he said, new teachers often teach freshmen courses, though 9th and 10th grades are the critical years for high school dropouts.

Of course, the problem with large high schools does not lie entirely with the teachers. Klonsky explained that these schools are often characterized by a cultural mismatch between school and home.

"The things [urban public high school students] have to do on the street to get respect clash completely with the things they've got to do in school to get respect," he said. School violence is a constant battle in urban schools, and it limits teaching and learning.

All of these realities create what Klonsky called "an unworkable situation."

Incredible impact on violence

Though size alone does not determine student or school success, Klonsky said, "Smallness alone has an incredible impact on violence."

According to his recent research on school violence, schools with 700 students have 10 times the number of serious violent incident reports as schools with 350 students. As the number of students increases, the daily violence rates increase exponentially. Klonsky said that teachers' primary concern in urban public schools is "getting the kids under control," and small schools help solve this problem because students cannot be anonymous.

In advocating for small schools, however, Klonsky emphasized that attention to the scope and pace of changes to small schools is essential for their success. Klonsky pointed to Renaissance 2010, a new Chicago initiative, as an example not to follow. The program aims to start 100 small schools over the next five years. Klonsky cautioned that without the proper planning and resources, small schools risk being only "smaller holding areas and sorting devices."

According to Klonsky, one answer for Philadelphia is to convert existing high schools into small schools that share a building.

However, he emphasized that size is only one piece of the equation and gave the following tips to schools that are considering converting to small schools:

  • Engage the school community.

  • Make sure resources - teachers, leadership, money, time - are in place.

  • Make sure that there is a viable site.

  • Provide for training and ongoing professional development.

Klonsky predicted that without all four of these pieces present, a small school would never succeed. The sustainability of small schools, he stressed, depends on community support and exceptional leadership, both of which vary by school.

"Every school is different. That's the problem with some of these replicable models," he said, referring to efforts by some districts and communities to build their own versions of such celebrated small schools as the Metropolitan Regional and Technical Center (The Met), a state-operated small school based in Providence, R.I. The school campus includes a fitness center, a performing arts center, and a "commons" area that doubles as a neighborhood town square for the entire community.

Klonsky named relationships between teachers and students, challenging curriculum, and instructional models that help create a learning community among educators and students as the three factors at the heart of successful small schools.

Relationships are a basic component of successful schools at all levels, Klonsky maintained. But he argued that high school teachers have not traditionally focused on forging relationships with their students or on connecting the curriculum to their students' lives.

"Kids," Klonsky told the audience, "are being killed by anonymity."

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