Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Small is ... functional?

Yes, the schools within schools idea is a good one. Small is not only beautiful but functional, too. From an AP story on cnn.com:

The freshmen at Wheaton High often seemed lost, overwhelmed by new faces and classes that felt disconnected. So the school got its houses in order.

Wheaton gave ninth-graders their own community -- a separate wing of the high school and teams called "houses," in which about 100 students share classes and teachers all year.

Now, in a building of 1,470 students, class sizes for freshmen rarely go above 20 students in the core subjects. Teachers of English, math, science and social studies meet regularly to coordinate their lessons and to figure out how to help struggling students.

Since this Ninth Grade Academy began three years ago, the school has seen freshman attendance improve, advancement to the sophomore year rise, and classroom disruptions drop.

"The students are very focused, and calmer than most ninth-graders I've seen," said assistant principal Virginia de los Santos. "I've seen students turn themselves around."

Wheaton's experiment with the school-within-a-school idea is part of a trend that keeps growing in popularity more than 30 years after it first emerged. Roughly 3,000 academies exist in different forms across the country, an example of how U.S. school leaders are trying to make high schools more meaningful -- a mission that's suddenly a national priority.

If Bush and Spellings are sincere about improving the quality of high school education, this is something that can be done without a hefty price tag. Schools need only be reconfigured. And the Gates and Dell Foundations will augment what minimal government spending is needed. Any good reasons why we shouldn't make the transformation of high schools into smaller units a national priority?


Blogger Instructivist said...

I dislike huge high schools and like the more personal atmosphere of small schools.

But there are drawbacks. Small schools cannot offer a great variety of courses because there wouldn't be enough demand, e.g. no foreign languages, no auto mechanics, etc.

Another problem is that highly ideological groups see small schools as an opportunity to push their agenda through the vehicle of "themed" schools. This is happening to an increasing extent, e.g. NYC.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Jenny D. said...

There is very little research on schools within schools, and that which has been done indicates that they are covert mechanisms for sorting and tracking kids by race, SES, and ability. I dislike large schoosl too, but before we throw $1 billion at something, shouldn't we get some idea of whether it really works? I mean, besides the enthusing of one assistant principal?

1:50 PM  
Blogger Stiles said...

The important question still to be addressed is Jenny D's. We know that smaller high schools, say 400-800 or 600-900 students, seems to produce stronger academic achievement. The question is whether schools within schools have the same impact as small, self-contained, high schools.

At that size, you can usually offer a comprehensive progam if you choose to do so. Not so much for hands on vocational course, but for other courses, distance learning can fill in the gaps for electives.

In addition to short term effects on academic achievement, I wonder if there are not longer term effects on educational attainment and lifetime earnings. Not large effects, but measurable.

6:31 PM  

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