What About School-Within-A-School Plans?

Research on the effects of school-within-a-school arrangements is less extensive and conclusive than that on the relative effects of large and small schools, Kathleen Cotton’s review from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory reveals. But it suggests that students do benefit from this form of organization, as long as the school-within-a-school is sufficiently separate, distinct, and autonomous in its vision, culture, environment, and administration.

That autonomy may not come easily, given the variety of forms that schools-within-schools may take. Sometimes a larger school will organize into cross-grade-level “houses” of several hundred students, each with its its own discipline plan, parent involvement, student activity program, student government, and social activities. Other schools establish “houses” for particular student groups, such as ninth graders, students whose first language is not English, or particular interests such as technology or publishing.

But such houses do not achieve the central ends of small schools, argues Deborah Meier, who founded the Central Park East Schools in East Harlem, New York and serves as vice-chair of the Coalition of Essential Schools. “A small school . . . can be just one of many housed in a shared building,” she writes in her 1995 book The Power of Their Ideas, “but a building does not equal a school. A school must be independent, with all that the word implies, with control over a sufficient number of parameters that count-budget, staffing, scheduling, and the specifics of curriculum and assessment, just to mention a few. And power indeed to put toilet paper in bathrooms. And mirrors, too.”

Moreover, when a school-within-a-school exists as a “pilot” for reform ideas, it can create harmful divisions within a school culture and actually lessen the chances for whole-school change, research on Coalition member schools by Donna Muncey and Patrick McQuillan shows.

Still, Cotton observes, whether school-within-a-school students are compared with non-school within a school peers in large schools or with their own prior performance, the research shows benefits in their academic achievement, social behavior, attitudes, satisfaction, student-teacher relations, and attendance.