Small Schools Movement Essay

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The small schools movement is known by a number of different names, including small learning communities and schools-within-schools. In spite of the numerous names, the central point is to reduce the size of large, comprehensive high schools and purposefully reorganize them based on sound curriculum and the delivery of services intended to meet the social needs of students. Many large, comprehensive high schools serve as many as 1,500 to 5,000 or more students in large urban districts. These schools are designed to offer literally hundreds of different student activities, a full slate of coursework (e.g., remedial or advanced placement), and building facilities appropriate for school and community-based functions. In spite of this intent, for a number of students, “large” became synonymous with “uncaring,” leading to a disastrous rise in dropout rates for many students, especially students of color (e.g., African American and Latino). Small schools are designed to counteract the unintended consequences of large, comprehensive high schools—leaving some students academically unprepared and socially isolated.

The American high school is one of the crowning achievements of the educational system. As the size of high schools increased, concern began to mount about student academic achievement and the development of social skills. Some students traditionally have required some alternative educational services (e.g., students with disabilities), but as high schools grew in size, it became apparent that the population of students in need of alternative services had progressively increased. High schools with student populations of 1,500 and more seem to fall victim to their own success. As schools tried to offer comprehensive services to more and more students, many students were often isolated from the mainstream and were unable to benefit from the large high school configuration.

Many have posed questions about the most effective manner in which to assist students in urban high schools in making academic and social gains. The lag in academic achievement in many large high schools (i.e., urban, suburban, and rural) in part was the impetus for school reform based on reconfiguring and, in some cases, reconstructing large schools into smaller schools (i.e., small schools movement) with the intent of paying attention to a small number of students to ensure that academic and social needs are meet.

Poverty, crime, lack of parental involvement, high student mobility, and seemingly perpetual slumps in student achievement are some of the problems identified as commonplace in large schools. High schools seem especially prone to problems, and not until the late twentieth century (with the onslaught of school reform efforts spawned by the release of A Nation at Risk) were concerns raised about the needs of students attending these large high schools. Many students, particularly students of color, do not make significant academic gains and, in many cases, ultimately fail. Students who fail at the high school level generally experience several unproductive outcomes: dropping out, teenage pregnancy, crime, and drug use.

There is an overwhelming notion that small schools benefit teachers and students in ways that are outside of the traditional curriculum. Some of these benefits are as follows: (a) Relationships between students and adults are strong and ongoing; (b) relationships with parents are strong and ongoing; (c) the school’s organization is flat, with broadly distributed leadership; (d) most small schools do not attempt to be comprehensive; (e) professional development is ongoing, embedded, and site-specific; (f) the school develops its own culture; and (g) smaller schools engage the community in educating young people.

The small schools movement is a reform effort aimed at redesigning the fundamental structure of large schools as well as implementing highly unique curricular compositions. Students and teachers cultivate distinct and more involved relationships because of the small number of total individuals present in the school. One of the most unique features of the schools is the organizational structure. Although a number of schools may occupy the same building, each school is a separate entity, with independent staff structures and decision-making abilities. The small school movement is still in its infancy. The idea that public education centers should respond to the academic and social needs of students in a nurturing environment is one of the more ambitious aspects of the larger school reform movement in American schools.


  1. McDonald, J. P. (2004). High school in the 21st century: Managing the core dilemma. In F. M. Hammack (Ed.), The comprehensive high school today (pp. 26–44). New York: Teachers College Press.
  2. Molnar, A. (Ed.). (2002). School reform proposals: The research evidence. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.
  3. Sizer, T. R. (1996). Horace’s hope: What works for the American high school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  4. Toch, T. (2003). High schools on a human scale: How small schools can transform American education. Boston: Beacon Press.
  5. Small Schools Workshop:

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