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Should we try small learning communities …again?

By Eric Braxton on Jul 7, 2009 10:40 AM

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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Comments (6)

Submitted by ceolaf (not verified) on July 8, 2009 6:30 pm

The research has shown over and over again that smallness does not really make a difference.

That finding is consistent with your observations, however. You see, bringing in new leadership and building a new team creates the oppotunity to create a common vision of valuable outcomes and the means by which they may be accomplished. The newness of school can help to promote a share sense of misson the pushes people to cooperate in their effort, to everyone's benefit.

Newness and leadership. Not size.

Submitted by Eric Braxton on July 8, 2009 10:58 pm


I don't think that anyone thinks that small size by itself is enough to improve schools. That said, I believe that small size can be an invaluable tool that makes transforming school climate so much easier.  There is a great deal of research that backs this up.  Small size means little if there is not a plan to improve instruction, but if such a plan exists it is much easier to implement in a smaller school.  In small schools the entire staff can sit around a table and talk about how to support students and how to deliver quality instruction.  In small schools students don't slip through the cracks.

The bottom line is that our large comprehensive high schools are dropout factories. Students are anonymous withon them.  Can you give me an example of a large neighborhood school with more than 75% students below the poverty line that graduates more than 90% of their students?  I can list 25 small schools that do, but I can't find a single large school that does.

So I agree that leadership and planning are essential, but history shows us that making them work in large schools has been nearly imposable.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on July 9, 2009 8:40 am

My experience at the middle school level as a member and long time team leader of an SLC supports Eric's analysis. When there is strong leadership and staff buy in SLC's make a difference. At my school, Julia de Burgos, we had a big Title VII grant for planning, staff development, and for materials that supported thematic instruction. The administration and staff were strongly committed and there was a marked improvement in staff morale, school climate, and attendance. There was also more student engagement in learning although this is hard to document since there was virtually no attempt to analyze data on student achievment by SLC during this period. But with the departure of the administrative team that led this process and new priorities at the top the SLC's lost much of their vitality.

For SLC's to be effective besides the elements of support at the school level there needs to be support from the top. SLCs can't just be mandated. They need to be nurtured, monitored and, periodically, renewed. Principals should be accountable for providing this kind of leadership and evaluated accordingly. SLC leaders should be judged based on their role in building and developing the SLC, These positions should not be comfortable sinecures for life. SLCs, I would argue, were never given this kind of systematic support. However, given the preoccupations of the moment, I seriously doubt this will happen for much the same reason that small schools have gotten minimal support.

Submitted by Philly High School teacher (not verified) on July 9, 2009 10:12 am

Once again :) , I agree with Ron regarding support for SLCs. I've lived through many "mandates" that don't go beyond paper - lots of rhetoric but little on the ground support. I also do not know of any SLC coordinator who had to reapply. Some SLC coordinators were athletic coaches - this gave them off the end of the day and limited the number of classes. Others were the union rep. - one way to keep him/her "close" to the principal. That said, I also worked under one very competent and hard working SLC coordinator who did her best with few resources and administration "push back."

That said...

I worked in one high school with "working" SLCs in the 1990s - there was time and money for planning and resources based on our theme. Teachers knew each other and the students/families. But, students were rostered in SLCs not just by interest but also by behavior/skill. I was in the "bottom" SLC while two of the five SLCs could "cherry pick" students. (I was told by non Crossroads teachers at Gratz that this also happened - Crossroads "cherry picked" students. Therefore, there was a form of tracking.) The principal could brag about the "top" SLCs while the pressure on the "bottom" SLCs could be intense.

I worked in another very large high school in the 2000s where SLCs quickly were in "name only" for all but the two "top SLCs" (one an official magnet and the other an "in practice" magnet). Students not in the official SLC rostered wherever they fit and it was very difficult to keep track of students. (e.g. I had students from 6-7 SLCs. I had to contact the SLC coordinator for anything related to a student. It became a another chore just to determine the student's SLC).

It would be interesting to analyze which small high schools with over 75% free/reduced lunch rate have a 90% graduation rate but have NO qualifications for student admission. Any functioning SLCs/Academies with similar stats that DO NOT have qualifications for admission are also worth examining. Some schools are obvious - most of the small schools established under Vallas other than the physical split of Olney and Kensington have admission criteria. (e.g. the Parkway schools, SLA, Constitution, Palumbo, etc.) Large schools like Northeast and G. Washington also have magnet programs within their schools and "tracked" SLCs. (It may not be on paper but it certainly is in practice.) This is on top of the "traditional" magnets in Philly - Masterman, Central and Girls - the magnets created in the late 70s as part of a deseg. effort (e.g. Bodine, Carver, Conwell).

At this point, because of CSAP and pressure to pass students - regardless of Dr. Ackerman's pronouncements - the graduation rates will increase. As a teacher and parent of 3 Philly students, I'm more interested in post-graduation. How prepared are our students for college / career? Have they been supported in developing work habits (showing up on time, putting forth effort, learning how to work in a team, etc.)? Do they have the confidence and "grit" to stick it out? This is learning beyond the classroom and requires an array of social service supports that need to come from the city/community in collaboration with the schools.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on July 9, 2009 12:56 pm

Magnet schools or maggot schools?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 4, 2009 8:24 pm

Must we always turn to disparaging remarks like "magnet or maggot"? If this is intended as a communication tool, it is almost a certain turn-off to just that. Try understanding, instead, the path of a student in a magnet school. Try to understand their successes and their difficulties.

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