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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 Teresa MéndezStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 14, 2004



NEW YORK

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."

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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.

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.

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