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Should we try small learning communities …again?

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For the last several years, I have been a big advocate of breaking large comprehensive high schools into clusters of small schools on shared campuses as part of a strategy to transform our schools

The only examples I have seen where inner-city neighborhood high schools with graduation rates under 50% have turned into schools with graduation rates over 90% have been through small schools. That said, small school advocates in Philadelphia are beginning to feel like we have hit a brick wall. Dr. Ackerman has been clear that she does not support small schools.  For that reason, some of us have begun looking at other ways to meet the same goals, including small learning communities. Does that sound familiar?

Small learning communities (SLCs) and other strategies of breaking schools into smaller units (charters and academies were names) have a long history in Philadelphia. In the late '80s Philadelphia began a major effort to break schools into SLCs as a way of encouraging more personalization. My sense is that some SLCs were successful while others never really got off the ground. Even the ones that were most successful had trouble sustaining themselves.

I got to be around the Crossroads Charter at Simon Gratz High School some. In the early and mid '90s Crossroads was a model of what an SLC could be. 

There was a small group of highly dedicated progressive teachers that worked together to develop innovative curriculum and support students. Many students there were genuinely excited about learning. By the late '90s there had been several principal changes and the new leadership at Gratz was taking away SLCs’ autonomy. The teachers who had started Crossroads were frustrated with the lack of support from the administration and began leaving. Before long not much was left. 

I think the story of Crossroads is similar to the story of SLCs in Philadelphia. There were good things that happened, but it was hard to keep them going. Many schools still have small learning communities and while there are some good ones, I’m not sure how effective they are as a whole. 

Certainly none of them are having the same impact as the most effective small schools. It seems there are a number of problems that plague SLCs’ including:

  • In many schools with small learning communities, due to scheduling problems, students take as many as half of their classes outside of their SLC which undermines the whole purpose of having the same small group of teachers teach the same small group of students.
  • Many small learning communities have very little control of their budget, curriculum, staffing, or schedule. Without control over those elements there is little they can do to create an innovative program.
  • Similarly, SLCs are led by teacher coordinators who lack the authority to make many important decisions.
  • Changes in principal leadership often result in complete changes in the SLC structure of schools, making it hard to sustain anything.

While these problems are serious, I don’t think they are necessarily irreconcilable. 

While I prefer small schools because they institutionalize personalization in a way that is harder to water down, if small schools are not doable in this current climate, perhaps there are ways of learning from our history with SLCs and creating a model that can stand the test of time. 

Our neighborhood high schools are still in need of major change. I would be curious to hear other people’s experiences with SLCs. What has worked and what has not? Do you think they could be part of a strategy to turn around our high schools …again?

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