An Excerpt from Choosing Small: The Essential Guide to High School Conversion

In October 2005, Jossey-Bass releases Choosing Small: The Essential Guide to High School Conversion by CES Director of Research Jay Feldman, and former CES staffers M. Lisette L?pez and Katherine G. Simon. In Choosing Small, CES draws on its longtime experience in school design and research on completed school conversions to provide strategic and practical guidance, offering those creating new small autonomous schools information for achieving the complex process of dividing large schools into small schools that effectively educate all students.

The Role of a Transformed District

By providing schools with autonomies and flexibility, the district moves from mandating and monitoring reforms to keeping schools focused on their own unique missions and visions and on improving their instructional practice. The district leads and facilitates policies and practices that enable schools to use their autonomy effectively and make decisions that are central to their vision of instruction. The district must reorganize its whole relationship with schools – its policies and its responsibilities – if it is to provide small schools the conditions and autonomies they need to be successful. We see two new roles.

First, district central offices buffer noninstructional issues, mediate conflicts, and provide those services that are not cost- or time-effective for schools to do on their own or are not part of their core mission. Districts can do work that is easier to do centrally and that takes away from a school’s ability to implement its vision. In one sense, the district becomes a service provider. The district makes many central office costs discretionary, and so becomes more accountable to the needs of each school. Schools can choose to access certain discretionary services or they can instead have the per-pupil funds that the service would cost placed in their lump sum budget. The district needs to work with schools to assess the value of the services on offer and make decisions about which services to staff and fund, which to restructure, and which to phase out because too few schools regard them as valuable enough to buy.

Katrina Scott-George, special assistant to the state adviser in the Oakland Unified School District, which has given significant autonomy to schools, believes that districts need to evaluate their operations: “all of the decisions that we’re making about where services are located or who has control over those services to determine who is best positioned to fulfill that role.” Schools want to have a say over their lives: the “actual high leverage decisions and things that the schools need to control as opposed to those that just bog them down in administrative and operational tasks that somebody else could do better.”

Too often districts provide poor services to schools and so schools believe that if they could only get control over that activity, they would receive better service. This is not necessarily the case; given equal care and attention, some services really are best provided centrally rather than locally. But it may take the threat of competition to inspire the district to develop an organizational structure responsive enough to support improving teaching and learning.

Second, the district provides services and support to enable each school to achieve its stated goals and mission. Its staff co-create policies with schools that help schools focus on instruction. For example, districts can manage school accountability practices, helping schools to implement continuous improvement cycles and working with schools to use data effectively to identify and address needs. In the process, districts should model both the types of practices expected and the relationships that it wants to have in schools. For example, if we want to see engaged, hands-on learning in classrooms, superintendents should model this approach when they meet with principals, who in turn model this in their faculty meetings. You would then expect to see teachers doing the same in every classroom in the school. By reorganizing the district with this approach, school and district staff can develop relationships and deep understandings of one another.