Want smaller high schools? The public's not so sure

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"Shrink the schools" has become a rallying cry in certain education-reform circles. Spurred by the view that smaller schools can help more students stay on track, districts from Chicago to Oakland, Calif., are setting up small schools or splitting giant ones into more-personalized "learning communities." They're backed up by millions of dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other philanthropic groups.

Still, most public high school students, parents, and teachers aren't ready to list school size as a top priority, according to a recent report by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, New York-based research group.

Entitled "Sizing things Up" (www.publicagenda.org/specials/smallschools/smallschools.htm), it is based on focus groups and national surveys that tap into perceptions about the importance of school size. It compared people's experiences in small high schools (fewer than 500 students) and large ones (more than 1,500), and found that each type has certain advantages. Here's a sampling of key results:

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Parents: Fifty-five percent of parents whose children attend a large school said that students "fall[ing] through the cracks" was a very or somewhat serious problem, compared with 30 percent at small schools. A similar difference surfaced in relation to dropout rates.

Parents of students in small schools were more likely to think that staff would know and try to help if a child were going through a tough time. And more of them said that "students learn to speak and write well, with proper pronunciation and grammar."

Large schools got the nod in a few areas, though, most notably diversity. In the small schools (often in rural areas), 68 percent of parents said there were only a few Hispanic or African-American students, while only 33 percent characterized large schools this way.

Teachers: Fifty-one percent of teachers in large schools agreed that "too many students get passed through the system without learning," compared with 39 percent in small schools.

At large schools, teachers were also far more likely to agree that "class size is too big" and the school is overcrowded.

Only 35 percent of teachers said their small schools offer a wide range of courses, compared with 59 percent at large schools. "You get below 1,000 [students], you might as well forget about electives," one teacher said.

Students: They confirmed the overcrowding in large schools, and indicated that many students get away with cutting class. In small schools, more students said teachers tell parents quickly if a student is falling behind.

But the teens' answers were most notable for their similarities. Majorities in both groups said drug and alcohol abuse and peer pressure were serious problems. About one-third said the same about bullying and cheating.

But two-thirds of the high-schoolers said they were happy with their schools. Three-quarters at both small and large schools said they have an adult there whom they trust. And even more said their teachers know their subject matter and will give extra help.

While many agreed that smaller schools would likely have benefits, parents and teachers were just as likely, or more so, to want to improve class size, discipline, and teacher salaries. About one-quarter of them said they would oppose a proposal to break their schools into smaller ones.

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