In '90s Schools, a Return to 'Small Is Beautiful'

In 1963, when North Central High School was built in the Indianapolis suburb of Washington Township, American educators were in enthusiastic agreement that "bigger" was clearly "better." In the 1960s and '70s, the large school - with broad curricular offerings and a huge variety of organized sports and other activities - was seen as the school of the future.

Today, North Central serves about 3,200 kids. The 750,000-square-foot high school offers luxuries like advanced sculpture and ceramic classes; various performing-arts groups; an array of foreign languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and Hebrew; and all 22 sports sanctioned by the state athletic association.

Yet in the 1990s, nothing could be further outside the mainstream of educational theory. Beth Lief, president of New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that has helped to organize 30 small schools in New York City, says that even a school of 1,000 students is "ridiculous." Her idea of a reasonable size: anything below 500.

Talk about swings of the pendulum. Few changes of thought could be more total than that which has swept the educational world on the subject of school size.

Once upon a time, America was a country filled with small towns and small schools. Waves of immigration at the beginning of the century began to swell the size of city schools. Then, in the 1960s and '70s, the large school became a sought-after model.

In some communities at that time, it was also viewed as an ideal answer to the thorny question of integration. What could be easier than to knock down neighborhood schools and force everybody together into a brand new super-school?

But today, "You won't find a researcher anywhere in the country who supports big schools," says Tom Gregory, professor of education at Indiana University in Bloomington. "In my mind, even 400 is too large," he says.

Especially in urban areas, adds Sally Kilgore, director of the Modern Red Schoolhouse Institute in Nashville, Tenn., a nonprofit group that works to reproduce the virtues of the old-fashioned small school in a modern setting. "The cry for small schools has become a mantra."

Several factors have combined to create a sense of urgency about school size, educators say:

* Current ideas about how kids learn. Today's educational theory supports hands-on learning over traditional lecture-style classes, and "project work" (forays into the outside world that help connect abstract concepts to real-life applications) over absorbing information from books. While small schools don't guarantee that teachers will teach along such lines, small student populations "make it so much easier to organize this type of work," Ms. Lief says.

* Discipline problems. "Big schools have precipitated all sorts of discipline problems," says Dr. Kilgore. "Too many kids fall between the cracks. They don't have a feeling of attachment, either to the school or the adults they find there." In a small school, she says, "It's all mathematics. The probability is that all the teachers will know all the students."

* A need for moral education. Some educators say the closer personal contact between students and adults in smaller schools promotes a type of character education. "More and more kids are growing up in an amoral atmosphere," says Pat Wasley, dean of New York's Bank Street College of Education's graduate school. "Smaller schools could be a remedy."

* The District 4 experience. In 1982, School District 4 in New York's Harlem was considered one of the worst in the country as measured by abysmal test scores and soaring dropout rates. It reorganized five large junior high schools into 25 small, theme-oriented schools of about 150 to 200 students. Test scores and graduation rates improved so dramatically that the experiment caught the attention of educators around the world and helped to fuel interest in both small schools and the charter-school movement.

That's not to say it's been smooth sailing for the small-school movement. Various communities have failed to completely embrace the idea for different reasons (see story, right). One major sticking point has been the question of cost.

A recent study published by New York University, however, argues that while small schools do cost taxpayers about $1,410 more per student each year, the cost per graduate is actually slightly lower at the smaller schools because their graduation rates are higher.

And while some cities have invested in the construction of a handful of small-school structures, others have sought more cost-effective measures. In some areas, "large schools are restructuring into small communities," says Joann Manning, director of field services at the laboratory for school success at Philadelphia's Temple University. "It doesn't mean a smaller building. It means developing smaller units within the school, developing smaller grade clusters."

In response to the growing interest in the topic, Bank Street College is launching a master's degree program for teachers and administrators that focuses on small schools. "It's hard to predict what's going to occur," says Frank Pignatelli, chairman of the school's educational leadership department, "but it is our strong hope that small schools are the wave of the future."

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