Is a smaller school always a better school?

School districts across the US are seizing on size as the key to reform. But some experts worry that the rush to create smaller schools is happening too fast.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Veiled in scaffolding and green netting, the old high school stretches six stories skyward, covering half a city block in Manhattan. High up on the building's facade, the words "Julia Richman High School" are still etched in stone. But a smaller blue-and-white sign near the door identifies its current incarnation as the "Julia Richman Education Complex."

The tale of how, by the early '90s, Julia Richman High School had devolved into one of New York City's worst, only to later see six successful small schools re-emerge, phoenix-like, within its hulking walls, has served as a national model for the small-schools movement. Today, the schools boast a high school graduation rate of around 90 percent (compared with a citywide rate of closer to 50 percent).

Across the United States, districts are embracing the small-school movement.

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New York City alone has pledged to open 200 new small schools by 2008 with help from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Nationwide, the foundation has worked with more than 1,500 schools in 42 states to reduce large high schools to communities of 400 students or fewer.

Los Angeles and Chicago are also launching ambitious plans to splinter their largest schools into smaller units.

Administrators in all of these districts point to an early body of research suggesting that smaller schools - particularly those in low-income and minority neighborhoods - produce higher graduation rates and test scores, fewer dropouts, and a better, safer sense of community.

Yet even as some small-school advocates insist that reducing size will cure much of what ails US public education, others are urging more caution. Unless small schools are created thoughtfully and deliberately, they say, reducing size will not solve this country's education crisis.

"Small is not the answer," says Deborah Meier, the education reformer who is sometimes known as "the grandmother of small schools" because of her part in the reorganization of Julia Richman and the creation of some of New York's first small schools in the 1970s. Small schools are a strategy, she points out - not a panacea.

Proponents like Ms. Meier fear the culture change and approach to education that they originally conceived of may get lost in the headlong rush to downsize American schools. And there have been other unintended side effects to the rapid proliferation of small schools. In some places, increased pressure on existing large schools, where the vast majority of students will continue to go, has led to battles over limited space and funds.

Of course, success stories are easy to find at smaller schools. At the Urban Academy - one of the six small schools now housed within Julie Richman - students Frenchie Duarte and Taina Camacho talk of their pleasure in finding themselves both academically engaged and personally recognized at their new 120-student high school. Frenchie says he's been transformed from a frequent truant into an enthusiastic learner now planning a career in architecture.

The two students transferred together from Washington Irving High School two years ago. Like many urban high schools, the school Frenchie and Taina left behind is overcrowded and struggling. Last year, 2,861 students were enrolled at Washington Irving, according to the school's annual report, bumping it to 105 percent capacity. This year, the city's education department website lists enrollment at 3,070 - in part because it absorbed students forced out when nearby large high schools were broken down into smaller schools.

But as much as reformers are eager to see the end of conditions like those at Washington Irving, most agree that while a school's problems may be aggravated by overcrowding, it's not the only challenge failing schools face.

Small schools are absolutely essential to improving education, especially for inner-city students, says Tom Vander Ark, education director of the Gates Foundation. But he also recognizes that while 'small' creates opportunity for success, it certainly doesn't by itself make success.

Some educators argue that rather than simply mass producing small schools, the entire approach to education must be rethought. Otherwise the result may be what one researcher has called "small schools in drag" - all the problems of a big school reproduced in a smaller package.

"Small was just the door," says Michelle Fine, a professor of psychology and urban education at the City University of New York. "Now I think people are worried that people are just creating smaller versions of what we know to be problematic structures."

Of 145 small schools visited by insideschools.org, an independent group that evaluates New York City schools, director Clara Hemphill writes that about one-quarter "replicated many of the problems of the large schools they replaced." These problems include low achievement and demoralized students and staff.

Others worry that the current trend toward judging schools based on standardized test scores will work against the individual approach to education of many small schools. "Information retrieval" and "formulaic writing" clash with what the best small schools offer, says Urban Academy codirector Ann Cook. "Assessment in the end will undo and ruin the promise of small schools," she predicts.

Small schools are not new to the US. Before the 1950s - when the model of the large, comprehensive high school took hold - small schools were the norm. In the 1990s, the national Annenberg Challenge led to the re-creation of small schools across the country.

In the wake of the 1999 school shootings at Columbine High in Colorado, the US Department of Education started a grant program to foster the development of smaller communities within large schools. But never has the cause of small schools been taken up with so much gusto and enthusiasm as in the past few years.

For her part, Meier worries that this breathless drive - and unrealistic expectations - may set small schools up for failure. "Every time we have a good [education-reform] idea that we don't do well," she says, "it increases the cynicism."

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