March 11 — 12:00 am, 2004

Small schools: a foundation for improving Philadelphia high schools

Crisis in our high schools cannot be allowed to continue

Philadelphia public high schools are failing too many of our students, and we need some solutions.

One sign of this failure is that at a typical comprehensive or vocational/technical high school, the number of ninth graders is more than double the number of twelfth graders, according to the 2003 "High School Audit" by the Philadelphia Education Fund. One recent study put Philadelphia’s graduation rate at under 50 percent – the rate is certainly not much higher than that.

Years of inadequate academic progress have placed over 20 Philadelphia high schools in "Corrective Action II," meaning that they face a restructuring of management next fall – the strongest sanction called for under the federal No Child Left Behind Act – unless they can make significant gains this year.

One option that a number of student groups, community organizations, teachers, and parents have proposed is to restructure many of our existing high schools into smaller schools. The Gates Foundation, one of the leading national proponents of this approach, defines small schools as schools that have no more than 100 students per grade.

The Vallas administration’s ambitious, five-year school construction plan creates an exciting and timely opportunity to rethink what our high schools should look like and develop a small schools strategy.

While small schools are not a panacea, they can help lay the groundwork for success for
students.

Having worked in a small middle school, I remember how rewarding it was to be in an environment where every child was known on an individual basis by more than one adult. Teachers could easily talk about student work and plan exciting curriculum together at common planning times during the school day. Teachers were able to control their rosters, enabling them to schedule the kinds of activities that they want to see happen at their school.

Research also has clearly demonstrated the many benefits of small schools. Small schools result in better student performance, higher achievement rates, lower dropout rates, and lower suspension rates. Small school size also contributes to greater gains in schools with low-income students or high minority enrollments.

Students demonstrate improved behavior and increased participation in small schools, while these schools also show reduced violence and fewer discipline problems. Researcher Michelle Fine has shown that students who graduate from small schools not only do better in post-secondary activities but are also able to seek out an adult when they need help.

At a time when our dropout rate is very high, the potential for our communities of having small schools where personalized learning and individual attention substantially reduce this rate is exciting. The consequences of failure to deal with this problem are clear. Dropouts are three-and-a half times as likely as high school graduates to be arrested; and 82 percent of inmates are dropouts. We pay an average annual cost of over $20,000 per prisoner.

There is controversy about the relative costs of constructing smaller vs. larger schools. But the research about operating costs and school size appears to show that because of the lower dropout rates and lower rates of failure, small schools actually have lower costs per graduate to operate. Small schools have also been shown to have higher attendance rates for students and lower teacher turnover and absenteeism, which could lead to huge savings for school systems.

What should small schools look like? Besides smaller numbers, organizational autonomy with regard to staff, budget, and curriculum is important. Small schools that actually are in control of their curriculum, assessment, governance, staffing, and budget show better outcomes than small schools with limited influence.

One hopeful story for Philadelphians who have heard it is about the Julia Richman Education Complex in New York, which once housed a large, failing urban school. At the urging of the Coalition of Essential Schools and parent groups, the school was closed and redesigned in the early 1990s and is now a consortium of small schools, each with no more than 300 students.

"Metal detectors have been replaced with teachers who know every student’s name and incidents of violence have plummeted," reports an article from the journal Education Leadership. The school has become a national model, widely recognized for its success.

Small schools would attract many resources to the School District of Philadelphia. Several foundations have already indicated interest in funding aspects of smaller schools. Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Vicki Phillips has expressed interest in small schools being a part of her secondary education plan.

The question for our city and state educational leaders is not whether we can afford to build and manage small schools. Given the urgent needs of our young people and the clear benefits, the question is: can we afford not to?

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