Elements of Smallness Create Conditions for Success

Since not all small school restructuring outcomes are equal, care must be taken to insure that these resources and efforts will be truly productive. The last thing small school proponents want to see is a future in which school downsizing ends up on the dead fad pile, with students reaping few benefits from it, funding agencies declaring it a bust, and school personnel across the country remarking wistfully, Oh, we tried small schools, but they didn’t work.” Since they do, in fact, work very well under the right conditions, it is important to specify what those conditions are.

-Kathleen Cotton, “New Small Learning Communities:
Findings from Recent Literature”

Educators, researchers and funders are amassing a growing body of data and conclusions that identify small learning communities as likely to create optimal conditions for educational achievement and success. Correspondingly, small schools have received an increasing amount of press and financial backing. Horace delves beneath the headlines to examine what smallness actually affords in an education and how schools that are larger nonetheless achieve some of the benefits of smallness.

Fifteen years of innovation within the Coalition of Essential Schools demonstrate that no one structural alteration- innovative schedules, team teaching, advisories, or others-is enough to guarantee that a school will maintain sustained, meaningful connections among students, teachers, community members, and parents. These structures, however, allow the possibility of achieving substantive goals: the need for in-depth discussions, the time to develop complicated relationships, the creation of trust among teachers and students.

Horace talked to teachers, administrators and students from seven schools nationwide: Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, Massachusetts, the Met in Providence, Rhode Island, Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, Washington, Souhegan High School in Amherst, New Hampshire, Watkinson School in Hartford, Connecticut, Wildwood Secondary School in Los Angeles, California, and Poland Regional High School in Poland, Maine. None of the educators and students at these schools identified a single structural aspect as the key to knowing students well and taking the best personal and academic advantage of that intimacy; people at every school took care not to isolate particular elements that in practice work as an indivisible whole. But certain themes repeatedly surfaced: the presence of varied forms of small learning communities, personalized learning plans, learner-centered assessment and advisory systems that enable the schools’ teaching, learning, and human connections.

Educators at these schools-and many others-closely focus on their students’ academic and personal success. They fiercely commit to knowing students well, and preserve and create structures that personalize curriculum, schedules, and assessment. They help students find opportunities to participate in the life of the school and the community. These schools make the most of their conditions so students can voice their thoughts, face challenges, and learn, all on their own terms and according to their own needs.

Small Learning Communities

The idea of small, “human-scaled” schools dwells centrally in many educators’ discussions about structures that support personalization and trust. Research and practice point to the size of a learning community as a core factor, demonstrating that small schools are more likely to create the right conditions for student connection, equity, and high achievement. How many students should attend ideally small high schools? Experts disagree. Some put the upper limit at four hundred students, while others maintain that two hundred is an optimal maximum.

But in daily practice, the size of a group that learns together most effectively, no matter how many students arrive at the school building each day, is much smaller yet. Teacher/advisor Phil Price works with seniors preparing for graduation and the world beyond at the Met’s Peace Street campus in Providence, Rhode Island. The school-formally known as the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center-houses one hundred students on each campus and is slated to grow to twelve school sites. Price’s sense of community resembles a series of nested circles. “We talk about small learning communities on a number of levels,” Price describes. “The first unit is the student-advisor pair. Another community is the learning plan team-parents, student, mentor, and advisor who sit down together and talk about a learning plan. Advisories, with fourteen students and one advisor, are another, and then there’s the whole school, with a hundred students, eight advisors, a principal and one or two support people.” The Met gathers students and teachers in differently sized groups throughout the day. The whole school may assemble to start their day with a sense of shared community and purpose, one student and her advisor may meet together to break through frustrations in her senior project, or two advisories may meet together for a debate.

In larger schools, too, educators identify ways to group students intimately to create connection. “We have students who would prefer to be anonymous,” says Nathan Hale High School’s Ninth Grade Academy Coordinator Tina Tudor. “They always relied on that to get through school. You can’t be anonymous here. You can’t fade into the crowd and not participate.” Since 1998, all 270 ninth graders at Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School-which has 1,100 students in ninth through twelfth grades-belong to one of the school’s three Ninth Grade Academies. “Four teachers share those ninety kids for half of the day, teaching English, history, science, and health,” describes Nathan Hale principal Eric Benson. Tina Tudor, reflecting on what motivated the creation of the academies, recalls, “We did not want to create a school within a school. It was crucial that all ninth graders be involved-it’s not something students and families elect to do. Our goal is to create an environment where all ninth graders have opportunities for more personalized learning without separating them into groups that don’t all have the same opportunities. I hand-balance the groups, looking at standardized test scores, gender, ethnicity, language group, special services (if they’re English language learners or in special education programs), and math placement from eighth grade.” The students spend half of the day in contiguous block periods in the academy structure. Ninth graders also gather in their Mentorship-or advisory-groups, within the academy structure.

Nicki McDonald, longtime Nathan Hale educator and current health teacher on one of the three ninth grade academy teams, feels that the academy structure enhances personalization not only between students and teachers but among teachers, too. “It is much more satisfying to have fewer students and to get to know them well and to work with my colleagues. I meet with my team for one period a day and with the other ninth grade health teachers as well. With three minds, we can create a much richer curriculum.” Eric Benson stresses that time for teachers to work together, to focus on students and curriculum, and to build relationships is crucial to Nathan Hale’s ninth grade integrated teams’
success. “It’s key to give teachers time to work with each other to achieve personalization.” Nathan Hale students continue in the academy framework, studying integrated English, social studies, and science, through tenth grade, usually staying with the same teachers both years. The integrated structure is beginning to move to the upper grades, with a group of students participating in an eleventh grade American Studies program that intertwines English and history.

Students at Souhegan High School, in Amherst, New Hampshire, likewise start their high school careers in one of three academies, which in their case fully integrate ninth and tenth grades-Division I, in the school’s parlance. However, the Souhegan faculty has decided to push the idea further and is creating three all-school smaller learning communities. These learning communities, which are now at their conceptual start, will keep teams of teachers and students together as autonomous units within Souhegan for four years. Peggy Silva, co-author of Standards of Mind and Heart: Creating the Good High School, is currently Souhegan High School’s Writing Center Coordinator. At Souhegan from its inception, Silva describes the changes that the school is making to push the development of small learning communities. “Our principal, Ted Hall floated the idea. The Wrst time he brought it up we said, ‘Go away.’ But I think that every time we faced trouble in one of our existing structures, when we found that as students went through the upper grades, we were losing focus on them, Ted urged us to think about small learning communities. We then formed a steering committee to look at how can we grow smaller as we’re growing larger. We will phase it in with talk this year. Next year, we will have release time to pull it together. It seems like a slow pace but we need to do this thoughtfully.”

Silva discussed the Souhegan faculty’s motivations to restructure their school-and their trepidations as they face diYcult change in the midst of their daily work. “We’re not doing this out of a sense of whimsy or because Bill Gates decided to invest some money. We’re doing it to preserve relationships among all members of our community, to preserve integrity about how to conduct ourselves as a school. Small is better; you’re not leaving relationships to chance. And now that we have 1,026 kids at this school, I am really wrestling hard with the need to change. I know what I do and to try to Wgure out how to do it diVerently is hard. Souhegan had the luxury of building from scratch. That’s so much easier than changing from within, which is what we’re doing now.” While aware of the challenge, Silva and others at Souhegan are conWdent that the restructuring will get them closer to the goal, as articulated in the school’s Mission Statement, of “supporting and engaging an individual’s unique gifts, passions, and intentions.”

Everyone Under One Roof

Educators in small schools comment on the value of being able to get all members of the school community in one common space and making these gatherings integral to the school’s structure. Students and faculty at Watkinson, an independent school in Hartford, Connecticut with 275 students in grades six through twelve, prize their thrice weekly all-school meeting, held in the school’s amphi-theater, which the school built for the purpose of housing such gatherings. Head of School John Braker says, “That space in the amphitheater is the major limiting factor on the number of kids in the school.” The community meetings are intended to share big and small aspects of school life, everything from anno-uncements about soccer games to, in 2001, the news of the events of September 11. The meetings are not censored; participants signal their need to make a contribution by sitting at the front of the room and speaking in turn. While the meeting’s material is unmonitored, making an announcement is among the requirements for graduation. Junior Sable Cady found the meeting a way to break out of anxiety and isolation during a personal crisis last year. “I made an announcement when one of my really good friends was diagnosed with brain cancer. I asked everyone to think about him and pray for him so he would be okay through surgery. I got a lot of support for that. People I didn’t know would say, ‘I am thinking about him and about you.’ The assemblies are a way to bring the school together and make it a more solid community.”

Staff and students at the Met’s campuses start their day similarly, in an all-school gathering called pick-me-up. In One Kid at Time: Big Lessons from a Small School, Eliot Levine describes the morning gatherings. “Pick-me-up begins with announcements and then moves on to a presentation by students, staff, parents, or invited guests. The presentations are meant to stimulate interests, showcase skills, broaden knowledge, and energize the minds of students and staV for the day ahead.” Pick-me-up allows opportunities for public speaking, a skill and practice that the Met encourages for its students. Eliot Washor, co-director of the Met, says, “We do this every Monday, Wednesday and Friday because our school is built on relationships. We want to take the time to see and hear each other, the whole group, before we go our separate ways to do our own thing.”

Personalized Learning Plans

Teri Schrader, principal of Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, Massachusetts, believes that personalized learning plans (PLPs) are the core of Parker’s ability to make each student’s education immediately relevant, compelling and personal. “Every October, parents, the child, and the advisor talk about goals, hopes, and ideas. Advisors talk about the future, about how best to support the student. With the pre-work that happens-questionnaires and conversation-kids feel prepared. PLP is the result, the statement of that child’s identity. The PLP is formulated around strengths and parlayed into goals and strategies. We revisit the PLP in the spring, refer back to it, update, and celebrate.” PLPs create for all students the personalization and focus that Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) provide for students who receive special education services. Parker’s 2000-2001 Annual Report notes this parallel, commenting, “Special education services at the Parker School are provided in the context of a philosophy that emphasizes the importance of individualized education for all students. Each student, whether or not he or she is considered eligible for special education services, has a Personal Learning Plan. Similar in many ways to an Individualized Educational Plan, the process of developing the PLP requires the collaboration of the advisor, teachers, the parent, and the student in assessing current progress and developing educational goals for the school year. Many strategies typically described in IEPs are included in these learning plans, often making referral to special education unnecessary.” By focusing on the particular, personal needs of each student individually, Parker-and other schools that use PLPs-advances on its aim to apply the school’s goals rigorous intellectual goals to all students.

Watkinson describes its personal learning plan, which each student develops with her advisor and parents, as the Thumbprint program. Introduced three years ago and currently serving ninth, tenth and eleventh graders-next year, it will apply to seniors, too, as they rise-the Thumbprint process bring together student, parents, and advisor twice yearly to create and reWne a web of goals and intentions for the year ahead. Junior Sable Cady feels galvanized by the process. “Thumbprint plays a big part in defining what I want to get out of school, what my goals are, and how I want to achieve them. After you write a to-do list, you can cross things off, and the satisfaction is so great.

It’s an awesome feeling to have accomplished my goals or at least to have tried. It’s a cool way to look at school not as a chore but as a way to say, ‘It’s for me. I can do what I want to do.’ ” As she created her Thumbprint, Cady set speciWc academic goals for herself. She received an exemplary assessment on her sophomore exhibition-a binder of work that demonstrated that she has mastered Watkinson’s essential skills (collaboration, written expression, presentation, and problem solving)- and achieved the status of high honors. Cady credits the Thumbprint for the motivation to meet both aims.

Poland Regional High School, which serves 583 ninth through twelfth graders in Poland, Maine, guides students through creating individual learning plans in their advisory groups. But a group of teachers realized that the school was not always meeting the goals that students named for themselves in their plans. In “Meaning What We Say: Personalizing the Public High School,” a 2001 Fall Forum workshop, teachers Erin Connor, Elke Christ-oVersen, and John D’Anieri said the array of individual learning plans made them come to a “stark realization.” They continued, “While the structures and course oVerings we had were working wonderfully for many of our students, there were a signiWcant number who did not see their needs reXected in the choices available to them. Essentially, we were asking students to write a plan to Wgure out how they might best learn, and what would be the best way for them to reach their own goals, while conWning them to courses designed more around teacher specialties and scheduling issues than their individual student needs.”

In response, for this group of students, Poland faculty created the Junior/Senior Individualized Team (called the JSITeam), taught cooperatively by Connor, ChristoVersen, D’Anieri, and David Rawson. Derek Pierce, Poland Regional High School’s principal, describes how the team functions. “Forty kids work with four teachers in a fully individualized program that serves a range of kids. For kids who bristle at structure, really independent kids, kids who are rebellious or who want to go above and beyond, this seems to be working really well. The teachers-from math, English, science, and social studies-help the kids match the work they’re interested in pursing with the state standards and graduation competencies.” The JSITeam encourages students to leave the school for classes or internship experiences. The team also pushes students to Wnd common ground in their interests to pursue group work to complement their individualized curriculum.

While the program is individualized, it’s aligned with the learning goals of the school and the state of Maine’s Learning Results standards. A student on the Poland JSITeam designed a course of study entitled Advanced Media Studies designed to examine “the ways in which media influence society and individuals.” Each of her self-prescribed activities-such as reading the Columbia Journalism Review twice monthly and choosing an article in each issue to critique in essay form-corresponds with various English, social studies, and visual and performing arts standards that students are expected to meet at her grade level.

Personalized Assessment

Wildwood Secondary School, an independent school in Los Angeles, California, is at the start of its third year, currently enrolling 220 students in sixth through eleventh grades, with its Wrst graduating class slated for 2004. From the start, the school has evaluated students with narrative assessments rather than letter grades. Mark Ossenheimer, Wildwood’s eleventh grade social studies teacher and Senior Institute coordinator, says, “I think that our learning-centered assessment is the practice that really compels us to pay the closest attention to each student. We use narratives, not grades. We evaluate students according the habits of mind we expect them to cultivate, so expectations are known. You have to know the students well to write these; you have to know their work and how they work. We have small classes, Wfteen students maximum, and that allows teachers to be observant and allows detailed observation.” Other schools, including Parker Charter Essential School and the Met use also narrative assessments. Parker’s principal Schrader describes how teachers use the assessments
to tie progress not only to external standards but to the students’ own goals. She says, “We try to refer to Personal Learning Plan goals in ongoing follow-ups and during the formal end-of-semester assessment. We want the assessments to reference the PLP, reminding the student of what she wanted to accomplish.”

All of these schools, along with other schools that use rubrics, descriptors, and other personalized and nuanced evaluation tools, reach out to college and university admission offices to make sure their students’ transcripts are fairly viewed. During a forum sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Education that took place in November 2001, Nancy Sizer, one of Parker Charter’s founders, discussed the school’s work with higher education admissions staff. “We have really reached out to colleges in educating them about who we are. So we have our own college fair every year where we invite colleges to come and visit our school, see our school in action, and talk with our students in small groups. And that’s made a huge diVerence, because now when we call the colleges, we actually know the admissions oYcers. We know whom to ask for and they know our students. They’ve met them. And we actually have the students prepare portfolios to have ready for that college fair, and that’s helped.” Parker’s efforts resemble the outreach work of other schools with alternative assessment practices.

Souhegan High School’s Peggy Silva values the school’s personalized assessment practices but acknowledges their cost, “We are really straining our resources. We do Division I exhibitions at end of tenth grade. They’re an academic rite of passage; the kids work all year on gathering a portfolio of work representing two years of high school. Parents, advisors, teachers and peers gather and students talk for forty-Wve minutes about themselves, about their strengths, about what hasn’t worked, about things of interest to them. The logistics for making this happen for 270 kids are intimidating-it takes time management and gives us nightmares. But we believe in it. It’s absolutely important and valuable that every kid sits in front of an audience and speaks about his own growth and development.”

Equitable Education Requires Choice

An ongoing challenge for schools dedicated to the principle of “less is more” is Wnding ways to meet individual students’ interests and create opportunities for them to use their skills to follow their passions. Some schools try to balance the offerings inside the school building. Poland’s Derek Pierce uses the school’s Honors distinction as an example of adding choice within a heterogeneously grouped framework. “We oVer an Honors challenge within our classes. Students who choose this have the opportunity to meet as a group with teachers during academic support times. This doesn’t take away from kids who aren’t in Honors challenge. It’s a flexible grouping idea. Sometimes it’s good for kids to meet with other similarly motivated kids.” That Poland is a rural school, the only public high school for students from three towns, makes its need to balance the need for excellence for all with alternatives for diVerent individuals particularly urgent. David Ruff, Director of School Reform at the Southern Maine Partnership-a Coalition of Essential Schools regional office-notes, “If a city has a school with 350 kids, that’s okay, because other students can go down the street if their school’s aim doesn’t suit them. Rural schools don’t have that option, so they have to ask themselves, ‘What’s the best thing we can do for one group of kids while we acknowledge that what’s good for other kids is different?’ ”

Other schools elect to push students to individualize their learning outside of the school building. The Met’s Phil Price says, “We want to be a school where learning happens outside of school, so the design
is intentionally pared down and minimalized.” The Met has structured its curriculum around the Learning Through Internships (LTI) program, which provides all students with the opportunity to identify their interests and Wnd a community mentor with whom to work, learn and spend two days a week outside of the school’s walls. Elaborating on the philosophy underpinning the LTI program, Elliot Washor explains, “We value personalization of place, where students understand that there’s a place in the community with people who have similar interests, a place to do real work at an artist’s studio or a business or a nonprofit or a bank. We help kids realize that there are people in the world who are doing the things that they want to do and how to be a part of that. It’s a big deal if you don’t know that those places exist-if you don’t, your experience is severely limited. It’s about how you Wnd your sense of place in a community, and that doesn’t mean just in school.”

In a less structured way, Watkinson also urges its students to learn and grow outside of school, making an explicit commitment to students to allow time to pursue alternative opportunities. Head of School John Braker acknowledges, “We’re not going to get bigger or add more just for the sake of more. I Wnd myself talking to upper school students about how to make a small school big. We believe that less is more. We can’t offer nine languages. We don’t have resources, and our schedule wouldn’t handle that many singletons. So how do you make it bigger? This year, twelve seniors are taking courses nearby at the University of Hartford. We urge students to pursue internships, to get out into the world off campus.” Watkinson sophomore Jason Paul values the school’s commitment to individual pursuits. “The smallness here pushes you to have an exterior life,” Paul observes. “This school is good for complementing other lives but it won’t give you an entire life, and they don’t expect it from you. They expect all of their kids to do other things. This year, I am working for a candidate for the Governor’s race. I’m in Hebrew high school and I just joined USY [United Synagogue Youth group]. But you can’t hide in your classes here, either. If you’re not doing well that will come up, so that’s got to be the first priority for us.” personalization of relationships, personalization of place David Ruff comments, “There are a lot of ways to personalize, but we have to get clear and narrow about our expectations. If we are too broad about what we want for all kids, we don’t provide space for individualized learning. There’s a tension about what is the right amount of common expectations for kids, about equity for each child versus the amount of freedom that I want to put into place purposely to allow for differences in learning.” Ruff’s observation poses an essential question: how do we create personalized experiences that meet the idiosyncratic needs
of each student while operating within a structure of commonly held high academic expectations?

Elliot Washor suggests that identifying different sorts of personalization provides some answers. Washor distinguishes between “personalization of relationships” -what happens when people know each other intimately and use that relationship to advance learning and growth-and “personalization of place” -what happens when a school setting allows each student to craft her own experience. Sustained, meaningful relationships create the context for high expectations and appropriate support; individualized experience allows room for autonomy and choices. Washor believes that the Met’s success depends on knowing how to deepen personal relationships while simultaneously diversifing individual students’ school experiences.

Employing the combination of advisory structures, smaller learning environments, personalized learning plans, and individualized assessment systems, Poland, Wildwood, Watkinson, Nathan Hale, the Met, and Parker fashion a balance between curricular depth and the breadth of out-of-school experience. In the company of other like-minded schools, they’re Wnding ways to individualize students’ experiences and hold them to high standards.

References Cited (see Horace’s Where to Go for More, pp. 19-20, for additional resources)

Levine, Eliot. One Kid at a Time: Big Lessons from a Small School (Teachers College Press, 2002)

Littky, Dennis, et al. “One Kid at a Time: Big Lessons from a Small School.” Harvard Education Review Forum Feature, March/April 2002

Silva, Peggy and Mackin, Robert A. Standards of Mind and Heart: Creating the Good High School (Teachers College Press, 2002)