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Is Smaller Better?

Many teachers in the ‘small high schools’ movement shout ‘Yes!’—but others are less convinced. Here’s what you need to know about this latest wave of reform.

By Alain Jehlen and Cynthia Kopkowski

It started as an experiment led by a group of dedicated innovators. Their early successes grew into a reform movement. Now, the effort to transform large urban high schools into small schools has turned into a virtual stampede, driven by a giant carrot (Bill Gates’ money) and an even bigger stick (No Child Left Behind).

Thousands of new schools, generally with 400 or fewer students, have been launched in the last few years. Many are stand-alone schools created from scratch. Others were formed by dividing big schools into several “small learning communities,” or “academies,” which still share the old building. Most keep teachers and students together for several years to strengthen their relationships.

Having come from a large school, Kansas math teacher Lesley Hornberger relishes the one-on-one relationships a small environment affords.

Many educators love their little academies, where everyone knows everyone else and discipline problems no longer dominate the classroom. “I’m getting to do what I really want to do, and that’s teach,” says Patty Kamper, an art teacher in Kansas City, Kansas. “The teaching becomes so much easier because you know how they learn.”

The benefits for students are clear. “In a large high school, students can become invisible and slip through the cracks,” says Marsha Smith, a middle school physical education teacher in Rockville, Maryland, who serves on the NEA Executive Committee. “In a small school, you personalize attention to the student.” Downsized schools, she adds, “give students and parents a sense of community.”

But like most good education reforms, this one can be done well or badly. “Small schools can be great, but they do take more resources,” says Oakland, California, math teacher Jack Gerson. His big high school was chopped into three small ones. “Now we have three principals, three attendance clerks, three offices,” says Gerson, and yet Oakland is slashing its school budget.

Many cities are imposing small schools from the top down, but success depends on giving teachers a leading role, says journalism teacher Stan Karp, who led a small school in Patterson, New Jersey, and now works on a state taskforce writing guidelines for small, urban high schools. “Where the rubber meets the road is in the teacher teams. They’re on the front lines,” he says. “They need support and autonomy.”


That’s why it’s important for Association members to be proactive when a small school conversion is in the works, says Smith. “The union needs to call people together and move out front. Have a discussion with members and talk about the pros and the potential challenges. This needs to be done with us, not to us.”

The huge high schools now being carved up are the product of an earlier reform wave intended to offer a variety of courses to suit the needs of every student. In affluent communities where most students come to school ready to learn, big schools tend to do well and there’s little appetite for breaking them up. But in low-income areas, big schools can breed paralyzing discipline problems.

One of the movement’s leading pioneers was Deborah Meier, who founded Central Park East High School in East Harlem in 1985. (See interview on page 30.) Her success led to other experiments, and in 2000, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded its first grant for a small high school in San Diego. Gates has since poured $1 billion into creating about 850 small new schools and breaking up 700 big old schools.

Meanwhile, the so-called No Child Left Behind law, with its escalating punishments for schools with low test scores, is putting mounting pressure on schools in low-income areas, where scores are much lower than in wealthy areas. Something has to be done, and starting small schools definitely qualifies as something.

But recently, Gates Foundation leaders have sounded less enthusiastic about the virtues of smallness. A Gates-commissioned study revealed that test scores in a sample of Gates-funded schools were slightly lower than for comparable students in regular public schools. Small school teachers told the researchers they were struggling with heavy workloads. “Unwieldy workloads may be endemic to…many small high schools,” the report warned.

“We still believe in small schools,” says James Shelton, the foundation’s education program director, but adds that they now put more emphasis on improving the quality of instruction because downsizing is not enough.

Likewise, many educators say the move to small schools can be a giant step forward—if done right. NEA Today recently visited schools in two cities to hear from frontline educators about the virtues and problems of the “small-is-beautiful” movement.   

Kansas City, Kansas

Saving a Troubled School

Veteran teacher Patty Kamper—there for Wyandotte High's at-times rocky small-school conversion—is an ardent fan of the change.

The teachers at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City shifted in their seats and set their jaws. It was 1997, and yet another administrator was detailing yet another education reform they would have to implement. This time it was called “First Things First,” and it required breaking their 1,200-student high school into several self-contained units, called learning communities.

“We about chewed him up and spit him out,” says visual arts teacher Patty Kamper, recalling that uncomfortable introduction to the small schools movement. “Here was another program coming at us and it’s top down.”

Then the teachers began considering their troubled school, where academic disinterest and discipline problems made teaching a Herculean task. Truancy and tardiness were rampant. Students set locker fires, urinated in classrooms, and intimidated teachers. “You’d get to the point where you would walk out at the end of the day and not want to ever walk back in,” says Dave Toepfer, an applied skills teacher.

Wyandotte High’s staff made a group decision to take back their halls by embracing the small schools idea—but they did it with the understanding that they would have complete autonomy. A new principal and superintendent, who agreed that decisions about educating students were best left to the people actually doing the educating, made that possible. And that goes a long way toward explaining why Kansas City today has a national reputation for successfully implementing the change to small high schools. 

“Administrators have to give teachers free reign to make this thing work,” says Toepfer. “Otherwise, it won’t.”

Within the first year, the school’s dropout rate decreased and its graduation rate increased. A new zero-tolerance policy cut tardies from 2,000 the previous year to only 24. While test scores still fall below the state average, those scores are improvements over the early years of the small school system. In 2003, 4 percent of 10th-graders scored proficiently or better on the Kansas State Assessment test, up from 1 percent in 2000. Reading scores jumped 15 percent during that time.

The reason for the success: “Teachers were no longer at the bottom of the barrel on decision-making,” says history teacher Romona Robson.

A Conversation with Deborah Meier

The small schools pioneer talks about the school she started and the current rush to downsize.

Deborah Meier has spent more than three decades working in public education as a teacher, writer, and school reformer. In 1985, she started a small school, Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem. Its success helped launch today’s small high school movement. She spoke recently with NEA Today’s Alain Jehlen. Read more...

Also, join an online discussion and ask Deborah Meier a question about small schools. Join the debate!

Instead, they were meeting in committees and voting, almost weekly, on the mechanics of the eight small schools. Decisions about each school’s theme—such as business, health, global communications, and performing arts—disciplinary measures, block scheduling, and space allocation within the imposing, castle-like 1930s building came from faculty votes.

That independence remains in place today. If a school’s teachers think a student should be suspended, he is. When the typing teacher in the business school realized the 90 minutes in a block schedule period were too much for her students (their fingers cramped), the faculty tweaked the schedule to accommodate shorter elective periods.

Ask any teacher at Wyandotte about the biggest boon from the small school conversion and they will invariably reply that it is the relationships, with and among the students and with each other. Each day a team of about 10 teachers instructs the same 160 to 200 students within their learning community. (Teachers begin with a group of students in freshman year and stay with them through graduation.) The educators meet twice weekly, discussing administrative tasks and curriculum. They even eat lunch together—not just to chat about the previous night’s West Wing, but to find out how their students are faring that day.

“We know by lunchtime which students are having a bad day,” says math teacher Lesley Hornberger.

And the teachers know when they need to go the extra mile, literally, for their students. Some nights, instead of heading home to dinner, Kamper drives several miles out of her way to take a senior student home. The boy would have had to leave Wyandotte High because his parents moved to find work. Kamper knew he deserved a senior year in the environment that had cultivated his artistic talents. She knew that because she had been one of the teachers nurturing him for the past three years.

“He worked so hard, and to have to leave now?” she says. “How could I let that happen?”

Some Headaches Remain

With eight years of experience comes Wyandotte’s teachers’ willingness to speak candidly about the pitfalls of small schools. For starters, the same administrative autonomy that teachers demanded also brought extra work, especially for those serving as coordinators—and de facto principals—of their learning communities. Among their duties is designing schedules for as many as 200 students each semester.

Drawbacks of small schools, such as administrative burdens falling on staff, are outweighed by the pluses, sas teacher Dave Toepfer.
“Scheduling is a pain,” Toepfer says. “Essentially, everyone is on an [individualized education program].”

Because each learning community adheres to a theme, students can find course offerings limited. Students may take a specialty class in another learning community, called “cross pollinating,” but teachers try to limit student movement within the building. Until recently, faculty from a local college came and taught college-level courses, but budget cuts ended that. Now teachers are trying to figure out how to offer Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses.

Assigning teachers to subject areas proved difficult as well. During the initial planning, instructors completed a survey on their expertise and interests. But when the dust settled, some weren’t in the area they preferred and left Wyandotte High.

Such drawbacks are a small price to pay for the overwhelming success, Wyandotte’s educators say. They encourage teachers whose schools are converting to small schools to aggressively seek a voice in the process and then to be flexible and patient as the change unfolds.

“Keep an open mind and communicate,” Kamper says. “You will see results.”           

Oakland, California

Help Wanted!

Walk into the teachers’ room at Life Academy in Oakland, California, and right away you’re struck by how young the faculty is. “Luckily, we don’t have kids, because if we start having our own families, there’s no way we can sustain this,” explains math teacher Candace Hamilton.

Besides teaching, Crmelita Reyes keeps the computers running and writes grants.

Life Academy is a tiny, 260-student school with a biotech theme, located a mile and a half from the large high school it budded off from five years ago—a move that was led by the Academy’s teachers. Students get two years’ credit toward a California biotech lab certificate when they graduate, and with another year at a nearby community college, they’ll be eligible for jobs in the mushrooming biotech industry.

Like other Oakland schools, however, it has been hit by brutal budget cuts, which means, among other things, that there aren’t enough teachers. Oakland is a prime example of what happens when a district decides to go small and cheap at the same time.

“The first two years, I had five preps,” says math teacher Richard Boettner, who helped found Life Academy five years ago. “This is the first year I have just three.” (The contract allows teachers to refuse more than two.) “There are more demands on your time in a small school,” he adds. “Each teacher is a big piece of the pie—you can’t hide here.”

Richard Boettner drives three hours each day to teach math and work with a "phenomenal" staff.

Unlike most of the staff, Boettner does have a child—a two-year-old daughter. On top of that, he lives in Davis, an hour and a half north on the freeway. He could get a job closer to home, but “the people here are phenomenal,” he says. “One teacher gets here at 7:15 to teach journalism before school because her course didn’t fit into the schedule. You don’t get that kind of dedication unless the staff is all on the game plan.”

Now that he’s a dad, Boettner leaves right after school. “My wife would kill me if I stayed until six like I used to,” he says. But he makes up for it by resuming work after his daughter and wife go to sleep, and by getting in first in the morning, turning off the alarm, and opening the doors at 7 a.m. His colleague Carmelita Reyes arrives a few minutes later to teach her journalism course.

“At my previous school, you were just responsible for teaching,” she says. “Here, I’m also the librarian and I’m in charge of writing grants, keeping the computer lab running, and ‘Are we going to have uniforms next year?’”

Even with teachers playing many roles, Life Academy can’t offer a wide range of extracurricular activities or courses.

“Every small school has to decide what it will do well and abandon other programs,” says Reyes. “Some students come here and are bummed out that they can’t take art because we decided we’re science.”

Safety in (Small) Numbers

Jack Gerson loves the closer ties with students, but says small schools cost more to run.

The narrow range of courses is the main complaint that comes up when English teacher Vicki Stoneham’s students discuss small schools at Oakland’s Leadership Preparatory High School, one of three new schools carved out of 1,500-student Castlemont High two years ago.

But for most of these students—seniors who remember the old school—the benefits outweigh the cost.

“We don’t have crime and riots any more,” says Sha-lin.

“I didn’t use to talk to my teachers,” says Sherricka, “but if you’re going to have them for two years, you might as well talk to them. When teachers relate to you, you learn better.”

Like Life Academy, Castlemont students are almost all low-income and minority. But unlike the teacher-led creation of Life Academy, math teacher Jack Gerson says the break-up of Castlemont was imposed over objections from many faculty members and a negative vote of the school site council, including representatives of staff, parents, and students.

Gerson was against the move, but he sees the benefits. “I thought it would be an unmitigated disaster and I was wrong,” he says. “I didn’t allow for the fact that you do get to know the students, and they get to know you. That’s powerful. They may not act out as much in the halls, and when they’re in class, there’s more of a personal relationship.”

Vicki Stoneham's students say smallness helps prevent fights.

A vital part of the Leadership program is the advisory group—very common in the new small high schools—in which a teacher stays with a small group of students for their entire high school career. When Gerson’s group meets one period to discuss senior projects, the trust that has developed among students and teacher is prominently on display as the teens start talking about family issues with amazing openness. One girl reports that her project is on spouse abuse. “My brother is in jail because of abusing his wife,” says the girl. “He broke her face.”

A tall, thin boy says that sometimes men abuse their wives “kind of out of love. They’re insecure. They love her so much, they’re afraid of losing her.”

“I love you so I hit you in the face?” a girl retorts angrily.

They debate “bad genes,” culture, stereotypes, the meaning of love—all in starkly personal terms—for 25 minutes. Gerson says that conversation would probably not have happened in the old Castlemont.

On the other hand, he says he was right to expect the district would not come up with the extra funding a small school needs. One example out of many: “We don’t have a copier—it’s in the school that’s farthest from us,” he says. “You have to bring your own paper and often it’s locked, so most people have given up. I get up early and drive to Kinko’s.”

For now, educators like Gerson put in the long hours and extra effort to make their small schools work, even without the support they need. But in the long run, the fate of small high schools may depend on the willingness of school boards to give educators the funding and autonomy necessary to take advantage of the strengths and compensate for some of the weaknesses of smallness.

Related Conent:

Web Extras: Discussion Boad, Interview with Deborah Meier, and more resources


Size 'em Up

The small high school movement evokes strong feelings for and against—often in the same person. Here’s what teachers say about working in small schools:


  • Closer relationships with students motivate students to learn and improve teaching because teachers understand what makes each student tick.
  • Better discipline and less frequent classroom disruptions. Tardiness and cutting class can be significantly reduced. Strong teacher teams are better able to monitor students’ performance and behavior.
  • Innovation and interdisciplinary teaching are easier.     
  • Greater opportunity to connect with parents, who may push kids to work harder.
  • Students form closer relationships with each other, giving them a stronger peer network.


  • Teachers wear many hats, carrying out functions beyond teaching. Many feel overloaded.
  • Less variety of courses. Advanced Placement classes, electives, and extras such as sports teams may fall by the wayside.
  • Self-segregation. When students choose their small schools, they may sort themselves out by ethnic group, social class, motivation, and academic ability.
  • Higher cost. Economies of scale of big schools are lost.

Photos by Reed Hoffmann and David Bacon

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