Smaller schools for better educations

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Better schools! This is the demand of parents and business. This is the promise of presidents, governors and mayors. This is the challenge of school district officials and administrators. Superintendents are expected to answer the demands, address the promises and meet the challenges in order for student learning to improve. The new superintendent of Fresno Unified School District, Michael Hanson, has focused on the restructuring of the district office. He has spent months evaluating and making changes. He has created 12 new administrative positions and placed the responsibility to increase student test scores on the shoulders of the new chief academic officer. Linda Hauser comes over from Clovis Unified School District and expectations are high. But is district-wide restructuring the way to go?

As someone who worked in the school reform movement in Chicago prior to coming to Fresno, I believe it is time Valley schools learn from other large urban districts. This is not about whether Hanson, Hauser and other district staff are deeply committed to improving student learning. This is about whether changing district-wide mandates and policies will have real effects. While district policies can facilitate school improvement, it takes site administrators, teachers and support staff to bring about real change. That is the lesson of Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.

Each of these cities has restructured education by rethinking the idea of school. What is a school? Most people would consider this a silly question because a school is a building (or set of buildings) on the corner of Palm and Bullard or Cedar and Tulare. It is where children and young adults go to learn. But, the school reform movement has turned the understanding of school on its head. School is not a physical place. Rather, it is a community of learners, and at the center of each community are relationships: parent-student, student-teacher, student-student, parent-teacher, teacher-administrator. If you improve these relationships, you strengthen the community and improve student learning.

How can we improve these relationships? The closest relationships take place in smaller units. As the circle expands, the relationships weaken because it becomes harder to give enough time and attention to everyone. Just as this is true at the personal level, so it is true at the school level. Large schools mean an expanded circle where some are left out. Large schools are places where students fall through the cracks. Improved student learning measured, in part, by test scores will come when fewer students fall through the cracks. District administrators must see school differently. It is time to encourage and facilitate smaller schools to create the space necessary to improve relationships.

How can the district afford to build the necessary schools? While physically smaller buildings could be planned for the future, it is possible to create smaller schools now without construction. Once the district and the community begin to see schools as communities of learners, then all becomes possible. The next step is to determine how to create smaller learning communities. We can look to Chicago, New York and Philadelphia for examples, but the answers already exist here. Roosevelt’s School of the Arts and Edison’s Computech are dynamic, vibrant examples. They work because students do not fall through the cracks. They work because close relationships are developed and nurtured. Yet, such smaller learning communities should not be limited to a few fortunate students. District administrators need to empower teachers and site administrators to create schools-within-schools for all students.

All schools can become places where teachers and students develop deeper relationships. These relationships will lead to improved student learning by increasing attendance and a sense of belonging, improving attitudes and behavior and reducing the number of students who fall through the cracks. Valley schools could begin now. While the district office could take the lead and provide support, the real work would be in the schools. Schools could be broken down. Groups of teachers could team together to create communities. At the start of next school year, students could arrive to find that they are now part of a school-within-a-school. The evidence here and throughout the country is compelling. Smaller is better.

Scott Key is a professor in the foundations, curriculum and teaching program at Fresno Pacific University’s School of Education. Before coming to FPU he was at the University of Illinois and a member of the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago.

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