Are Small Schools Best?

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Our School District is in the middle of a transition from traditional high schools to “Small School” campuses. The district maintains there are several reasons for this change, but I believe the main one is the large dollar funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation that accompanies this change. With many school districts around the country seeing their budgets reduced or flat, and with Federal and State benchmark requirements increasing, finding alternative sources of funding can seem important. Additionally, The Gates Foundation does seem genuinely concerned with the overall educational quality of U.S. schools, but their money and the “solution” that comes with it has some serious shortcomings. Maybe because The Gates Foundation wants to focus on the bigger picture, it is difficult to contact them. Articles, with interviews in the “major” press can be found online, but requests for information from individuals or parents to the Foundation go unanswered.

If your school district has made this change or is considering it, the specifics may be different, butt basically it involves splitting large high schools up into several smaller schools. These smaller schools will focus on specific, separate areas like arts, science, math, English, technology etc. Students will choose a school within which to stay and take classes for their 4 years of high school. So even though the title “Small School” is a bit of a marketing euphemism, indeed these “schools within a school” will provide a more intimate learning environment. This approach might provide a better and more interesting school environment for perhaps ½ to ¾ of the students, but there are problems.

One problem that I am concerned with is that the plan does not address the needs of the best and brightest students at these changed high schools. Many of these students take advanced and honors classes in science, math, history, English, and foreign language. Many of the same students are also top performers in music programs and are student body leaders and mentors to other students. These students benefit tremendously from the ability to have a challenging and interesting high school experience. Some examples of the wide variety of classes traditionally available at our local high schools include, AP Chemistry, Honors and AP English, AP Calculus, AP Anatomy and Physiology, AP History and AP Government. The Small School Plan being implemented by our school district does not have a way for students to pursue a high school course of study which includes classes like these.

In many schools nationwide that have implemented a SSP, the need to continuing challenging top students has been recognized by having one of the Small Schools be an honors school. This is a school where students with proven motivation and grades can take a more challenging and broad curriculum by picking their classes from the overall choices of all the different small schools. A student could take the most challenging classes in a variety of different Small Schools, and not be constrained within their own Small School. So far, this type of choice seems to be discouraged by the Gates foundation and our district is not planning on anything similar. In fact, when I have brought up this concern at district meetings and open forums involving the transition to small schools, I perceive an indirect, subtle, inference that the concerns parents of high-achieving students are elitist in nature. I am also given platitudes about the plan being able to improve the high school experience for all students, not only the top students”. The idea is that by making all students take the same level of classes, and forcing them to stay within a single small school, the less motivated and, can we dare say it, less capable students will be helped by having the high achievers in the same classes. If the plan works, this will enable the administrators to claim they are helping to raise the achievement of the lowest performing students. You can interpret this administrative attitude in different ways, but I don’t like the idea of our best students being used in the classroom to raise the achievement level of the less motivated students.

For now, I guess all we can do is to continue to make our concerns and opinions known, and hope that the final Small School structure will account for all students, and not ignore the needs of the high achieving kids.

Update: Our first small school has opened. Read my thoughts here.

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Will Sig
1 Teak Memorial Benches Maker

AS someone who has sat on the PTA board here in the UK I know that there is a lot of thought that goes into these schemes (for lack of a better word).

We have quite a lot of Polish children who’s’ parents have made the move to the UK and some members of the PTA took this as an opportunity to secure some government funding plus grab some funding from other bodies and I know that this hasn’t been used for what it was originally intended.

– William

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2 Anonymous

AS someone who has sat on the PTA board here in the UK I know that there is a lot of thought that goes into these schemes (for lack of a better word).

We have quite a lot of Polish children who’s’ parents have made the move to the UK and some members of the PTA took this as an opportunity to secure some government funding plus grab some funding from other bodies and I know that this hasn’t been used for what it was originally intended.

– William

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3 EdH

I would say there is no “subtlety” about – the high-achieving kids often DO have elitist parents – or just plain snobs. That’s because they are more interested in how their kids reflect on them that their kids! I have seen it over and over, just as I have seen exceptions to it.

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4 Will

If I am understanding your comment correctly, Ed, it seems very elitist and snobbish itself. I wonder where the perception of high achievers being snobs comes from? I certainly do not have it and if anything, I am an underachiever, not a high achiever.

The parents I have come across that fit your description often seem to be insecure and shallow. Even if they happen to be high powered, rich, etc., I would not call them high achievers.

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5 EdH

To clarify, the parents aren’t the high achievers, the students are. I agree the parents ARE shallow, and very insecure in their identity (they identify through their children). Unfortunately, I have seen a lot of people in my area like this, though certainly not all of the parents of high-achieving children.

Most of the children of these parents have been quite well-adjusted, but I wonder how long that will last when they are constantly told that, “they are different”.

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