With the New York City Department of Education looking to dismantle its failing schools, Crystal Simmons came forward last year with a plan to create a small school. Less than a year later, she’s the principal of the Academy for Social Action, a school with about 200 students.

Oct 30 2007

Measuring Up

To get big results, many districts are turning to small schools. Are these new models of learning delivering on their promises?

To get big results, many districts are turning to small schools. Are these new models of  learning delivering on their promises?

A first-year principal at 35, Crystal Simmons is on the forefront of the growing small-schools movement in the United States. She’s a passionate educator with strong ties to the Harlem community where she grew up. She says the schools in that neighborhood aren’t preparing the next generation to go to college and become contributing members of successful communities and the 21st-century workforce. And she’s committed to doing something about it.

“My inspiration comes from being a student in this community and watching it change,” Simmons says. “I believe students today need to understand that in order to grow you need to give back.”

Taking advantage of New York City’s ambitious plan to dismantle its failing comprehensive high school system, last fall Simmons wrote a proposal for a new school, which is called the Academy for Social Action. She worked with an outside education organization, in this case the College Board, to fine-tune the school’s social action mission and tactics prior to her proposal’s submission to the Office of Portfolio Development at the New York City Department of Education. The College Board secured funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others to open up to 18 new small schools. Just a couple of months after Simmons submitted her proposal, the DOE approved the plan, and seven months later Simmons welcomed 81 uniform-clad seventh graders and 100 ninth graders to their new school. Simmons procured notebook computers for her new teachers and 60 notebooks for students as part of her grant funds from the College Board.

Simmons and her supporters hope the Academy for Social Action will succeed in boosting student achievement just as thousands of other newly launched small schools around the country have. But success is not guaranteed; though it’s dubbed the “small-schools movement,” research and documented failures show that more than size matters. “The idea that if you just made a school small it would produce academic gains is a foolish idea,” says Jacqueline Ancess, professor of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching. “Small-school people would say small is a necessary but insufficient requirement. But people are looking for the silver bullet, looking for the single solution; they don’t understand just how complex this is.”

It’s complex, but scores of small schools are achieving impressive results with the high-poverty urban populations they tend to serve. In New York City, graduation rates in new small high schools jumped 20 to 30 percentage points over large-school levels, says spokeswoman Melody Meyer. In Boston, small-schools attendance rates climbed to 93 percent, according to the Center for Collaborative Education. And Harvard researcher Jordan Hylden found that students in small schools participate in more extracurricular activities, report better attitudes toward learning, and have to deal with less school violence. In fact, research demonstrating the benefits of small schools is so convincing that Hofstra University education professor Mary Ann Raywid writes that it’s “morally questionable not to act on it.”

Partnering for Success

Many successful new small schools, including almost all of the New York City high schools, have one thing in common: a partnership with a nonprofit or other outside education organization with an established small-school model that also handles teacher training and helps secure funding, in many ways replacing the roles formerly played by district administration.

In this mode, the Academy for Social Action is one of 14 in the College Board’s portfolio, and will hew to the organization’s model for small-school success. The group requires schools be nonselective, small learning communities with extended academic hours and advisers intended to cater to each child’s academic, social and emotional development focused on preparing students for college. The organization hasn’t had a graduating class yet, but some 70 percent of its seniors are on track to graduate on time, says Helen Santiago, executive director.

Also achieving strong results is the nonprofit KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program. KIPP schools are a network of 57 locally run small schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia that focus on putting low income and minority students in a rigorous college-preparatory setting that includes extended days and summer school and prides itself on hiring principals who are strong leaders. Of KIPP’s more than 14,000 students nationwide, more than 80 percent are low income and more than 90 percent are black or Hispanic. The majority of KIPP schools are middle schools; still the organization measures its results in college matriculation. Nationally, nearly 80 percent of KIPP alumni have enrolled in college.

Schools partnered with the New York-based Institute for Student Achievement (ISA) have average attendance rates of 92 percent. The average graduation rate at ISA schools is 85 percent. More than 80 percent of graduates plan to attend two- or four-year colleges. ISA schools in Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York reach these goals by adhering to the “Seven Principles” that guide the ISA model, including personalization through student counseling; required parental involvement; continuous staff development and organizational improvement; and an extended day and year environment.

The Gates-funded, highly successful Green Dot schools in Los Angeles boast an 81 percent graduation rate, compared with 47 percent of L.A. Unified School District high school students. More than 90 percent of Green Dot graduates planned to attend college this fall, with two out of three admitted to four-year universities. Green Dot schools are also centered on adherence to a set of small-school principles, including a requirement for local control with extensive professional development and accountability and a commitment to low overhead that gets 94 cents out of every dollar of public funding into each school.

Size Is Just the Starting Point

Mixed in with these broad success stories are anecdotes about schools where conversions from a large comprehensive high school to small learning communities went poorly and were abandoned. Chief among them are Denver’s Manual High School, where in 2001 the large underperforming high school was divided into three smaller schools with the support of $500,000 in Gates Foundation grants and $500,000 in government funding. By 2005 the conversion was abandoned because achievement didn’t improve and enrollment dropped drastically. In a bold move, Denver educators closed the school for the 2006–2007 school year, and reopened to about 180 freshmen this fall as a new small school.

The lessons from Manual’s missteps and other mediocre results are plentiful. Chief among them is that though size matters, it only creates the requisite conditions for a school to be able to perform well; it doesn’t guarantee success.

“What the small structure allows is for a group of teachers, and a leader, to have closer relationships with students,” says Gerry House, president and CEO of the Institute for Student Achievement. “It’s those relationships that allow the adults in the school to develop the confidence and trust of the students so they can push students and support students in doing academically challenging work that prepares them for college. That’s virtually impossible in the large high school structure.”

Next is the reality that the small-school model requires autonomy, an approach the Green Dot schools in Los Angeles have embraced, but which is anathema in most school districts. “When there are enough small schools you have to adapt, not just plug them into the large-school model,” says Jay Feldman, director of research at the Coalition of Essential Schools, a nonprofit dedicated to creating small schools and whole-school reform.

Finally, experts say, success with the small-school model requires a cultural shift by students, parents, teachers, staff and district administrators when it comes to what students need to know and how they learn. Not surprisingly, both questions dive into a whole other area of controversy.

Addressing Content

Many small-school advocates embrace project-based learning that calls for the daily integration of technology tools — whether they are Internet research methods, digital video cameras, iPods or PowerPoint presentations. Teaching students the critical thinking, time management and problem-solving skills to master the demands of college or a 21st-century work environment is far more important than memorizing any specific content, some educators argue. But for now the primary metric used to measure the success of small schools is grade-level performance on standardized assessments and on-time high school graduation.

The leading thinkers in the movement have come to realize this is not setting the bar high enough. But the Gates-funded New Visions organization, which partners with many schools in New York, has led the way in deeper data analysis, and found that though its schools achieved a 78 percent graduation rate last year, only 42 percent of graduates earned a Regents diploma. The rest earned a local diploma, which is considerably easier to achieve and “which we all know is not college-ready,” says Lili Brown, executive director of development and external affairs at New Visions. “Dealing with structure, small is not enough. You really have to look at the results you’re getting.”

By the Numbers:

1,042,078 Number of registered students with the New York City Department of Education in 2006

93,287 Number of New York City DOE teachers in pedagogical positions last year

1,466 Number of schools and programs in the New York City DOE

$58,972 Average teacher salary in the New York City DOE

Some Small Schools Make Tech Ubiquitous

It’s hard to argue with the kind of success that New Technology High School in Anderson, Calif., had with its first graduating class: 45 of the 47 graduates went on to college, and since then many have complained they feel overprepared, compared with their peers, says Ron Zimmerman, the school’s technologist and a social science teacher.

Most of that feeling came from the rigorous project-based learning environment that New Tech High School has embraced since it opened six years ago. What this means is that for each major unit in both English and social science classes, students collaborate on teams to solve a problem or answer a question, then present their results to their peers.

“I think it better prepares them to go to college and face competition in the real world,” says Principal Pat Allison. “When in the real world is anybody going to ask you to read chapter seven, answer the questions at the end and regurgitate that on a test?”

The school boasts a one-to-one computing ratio in all its classrooms and “essentially we use technology and computers the way you would in any productive business,” Zimmerman says. “We don’t try to force the curriculum into technology in a way that doesn’t make sense.”

That’s exactly what Toby Sanders, senior project manager for education technology at College Board Schools, would love to see in every classroom in the United States. “For me, rigorous use of technology in a small school involves students researching, analyzing and collaborating, to produce their own learning and publish their projects,” Sanders says. “It’s about being active learners.”

Small schools that have adopted technology as a theme or part of their mission are well on their way to this point. But for the rest of the small-school world, getting there requires two dramatic culture shifts: the embrace of project-based learning and the creation of an accepted educational technology vision. Neither is currently part of the basic small-school ideology.

“There is not yet a pedagogical vision for the use of technology in education,” says Helen Santiago, executive director of College Board Schools. “And that’s our next best challenge, figuring out a way to support ubiquitous, quality use of technology in schools towards rigorous learning.”