I haven't posted in ages, but thought I would see if I could get a debate going on the merits of the small school movement. I recently visited a small school in Brooklyn that really impressed me. All of the seniors in a school that almost exclusively serves low-income Black and Latino/as applied to college and the majority were accepted (in some cases to great schools like Brandeis and UNC Chapel Hill). Most passed the New York Regeants tests in math and English and an increasing number in the harder science subjects. The teachers all appeared dedicated to the mission of ensuring that their students were well-disciplined, passed the regeants and went to college. They worked collectively to improve pedagogy and share information on individual students, including an impressive accountability system that tracked students throughout the year and culled those who needed additional help. The students all seemed to know each other and had a strong relationship with the teachers and principle. There was an air of comfort, structure and shared commitment to learning in a nurturing, caring environment. The school was originally a large, urban high school, but split into three schools that are isolated from one another.
I do know the critiques that have been levied against small schools, including 1) fewer class offerings 2) less diversity of students (and thus less interaction across cultures) and 3) a proclivity to be co-opted and thus to mirror negative trends in larger comprehensive high schools. But there appear to be huge benefits that cannot be easily overlooked: 1) small class size, which is generally shown to increase student achievement no matter what the right likes to saw 2) more attention to individual students and their differentiated needs 3) more opportunities for collaboration across the staff 4) the ability to build a small community that can work collectively toward common goals. It is the last two aspects that I saw first hand and that I believe could be extremely effective in closing the achievement gap and addressing the specific needs of minority and poor children who are failing in our large urban high schools at alarming rates. I really believe high expectations and a structured, caring environment can go a long way to compensate for the many disadvantages these children bring into schools. This is not to discount all of the other problems facing urban youth today, but to suggest an alternative that might be very effective at mitigating some of these disadvantages and offering these students the opportunity for academic success and a brighter future.
Richard Van Heertum
Visiting Assistant Professor of Education
CUNY/College of Staten Island