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Stanford Report, March 20, 2002

Smaller schools serve students more effectively, educators say


California ranks third lowest nationwide in student achievement tests, roughly alongside Mississippi and Alabama. The state also ranks 38th in per pupil expenditures, a figure that drops to 42nd when cost of living is taken into consideration, according to Professor Linda Darling-Hammond.

Faced with such dismal statistics, and the gargantuan task of fixing what critics call a broken system riddled with inequities, some educators have turned to supporting the development of small schools. Unlike large, "warehouse" schools with thousands of students and the system of anonymity they perpetuate, small schools with 300 to 600 pupils are more likely to solve problems because they cannot be hidden and ignored, Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor in the School of Education, said.

  School of Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond argued that large schools, which were developed to meet the demands of an industrialized society, no longer serve the needs of today's students. Photo: L.A. Cicero

Proponents of the small school movement spoke March 11 at the School of Education's semi-annual Cubberley Lecture about why they have launched new schools in the Bay Area and the challenges they face in being successful.

Darling-Hammond moderated the discussion, which included Chris Bischof, director of Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto; Nicky Ramos-Beban, co-director of East Palo Alto High School; and Steve Jubb, executive director of the nonprofit Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES).

The speakers, all university alumni, also are graduates of the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP), which grants a master's degree and a teaching credential.

Darling-Hammond, an expert in teacher education, explained how the public school system in the United States developed during the last century to respond to the needs of an industrializing society. From a rural one-room schoolhouse model, an urban school bureaucracy was created to educate the masses -- 5 percent for "thinking work" and the remainder for rote work and semi-skilled labor. In this setting, efficiency was gained by increasing the size of schools and using a "platoon" system where students went to a different part of a school every 45 minutes to study a different subject taught by a different teacher. Students were placed in grades according to an age-based system adopted from a Prussian model.

"This system, which grew out of the factory model system -- where teachers would stamp kids as they passed by on a conveyor belt -- really was done to deal with a large-scale problem" of educating masses of people, Darling-Hammond said. Relationships between students and teachers did not matter, she added.

Although there have been adaptations and modifications, the system has remained substantially unchanged over the last century. However, the mission of schools has changed, Darling-Hammond said, and today they must prepare about 70 percent of a very diverse population for "thinking" work. Despite this need, the system continues to cream off only 20 to 25 percent of students for a college education.

"If we're going to do the job that society now expects of us -- teaching all kids to a high standard -- we have to invent new schools," Darling-Hammond said. "We have to invent a way to do this that allows us to know students well, to teach them [at] high levels, to deal with the effects of inequality in society and create something more equitable and thoughtful," she added.

All else being equal, students fare better in smaller schools than larger schools because they receive a more personalized education, the panelists said.

Jubb learned that something was "dreadfully wrong" with the public school system when he became a high school teacher in Richmond in 1986. "It wasn't the people I was with," he said. "The kids were the same bright kids. The parents weren't keeping the good kids at home and sending us the tough ones. The system seemed completely stacked up against the kids and the adults."

Jubb said the system's failure is reflected in school dropout rates. In some Oakland schools, out of 700 to 1,000 students entering 9th grade, only 175 to 200 graduate. "The system is designed for failure," he said.

A few weeks after being named "teacher of the year" in 1991, Jubb was laid off for budgetary reasons. That experience prompted him to move into policy work, advocating for systemic reform at local and state levels. As head of BayCES, Jubb is responsible for helping to start up to 32 new elementary, middle and high schools during the next five years in Oakland, Emeryville, Berkeley and San Francisco.

"Our mission is to recruit, support and develop leaders to create small, equitable schools," he said. Although smaller is not inherently better, he explained, a manageable school size allows teachers to focus more effectively on students and work together with parents. In May 2000, the Oakland Unified School District's board passed the New Small Autonomous Schools Policy, which emphasizes serving neighborhoods where existing schools are overcrowded. As a result, Jubb said, six new small schools have opened in Oakland and more are planned. Moving to a small school model makes it harder to ignore problems, he said: "Every issue has a name and it walks on two feet."

Bischof and Ramos-Beban have firsthand experience in the challenges of starting and running small schools. In 1996, Bischof decided to start Eastside Prep because East Palo Alto had no high school of its own. Ravenswood High was closed in 1976 as a result of a court desegregation order and, since then, students have been bused out of the community to towns with very different demographics. "It was clear that there was a real void in the community and a real burden placed on students," he said. "It was really frustrating to see many students struggle and not be successful. Students were not graduating from high school, let alone college. It was hard to see how a community could be self-sustaining when a majority of students didn't finish high school."

Eastside is a private school supported by grants and fundraising that is free to its 100 students. So far, all of its graduates have gone on to attend college. Small class sizes of about 16 students and personalized attention from teachers have been critical to the school's success, Bischof said. Furthermore, students must be committed to working long hours. The payoff has been positive, he said, because students and teachers know one another well. "That allows for a sense of belonging and a sense of connection to the school," he said.

Ramos-Beban wanted to work in a small school after teaching in large public schools for 10 years. East Palo Alto High opened in the Ravenswood City School District last September, and today it serves 81 freshmen from East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, where it is located. The school will add a class annually until it is a full high school. Unlike her experience at large schools, Ramos-Beban said, she now knows her students well. "We can really dig in deep," she said. "If you want to know what makes a kid tick, you have to ask questions, go to their homes."

Ramos-Beban explained that small schools can have more control over their own budgets and fundraising. That is critical in California, where the state spends about $5,500 per student -- compared to $8,000 in New York state. Eastside Prep, in contrast, spends $15,000 per pupil. "Unfortunately, most public high schools don't have time for fundraising," she said. "In a small school, you can bring the fundraisers in and show them what you're doing."

With limited resources and staffs, the panelists said, small schools must focus clearly on what they will offer their students. "You can't be all things to all people," Jubb said. At the same time, a smaller setting allows more students to take on leadership roles in extracurricular activities, Bischof said. Teachers also are expected to be more flexible. "All the teachers wear very different hats," Bischof said. "But it's amazing. In our staff meetings, we spend at least 75 percent of the time talking about individual students. That would never take place in a bigger school. You see tangible results because you know all the students."

Ramos-Beban said no one formula exists for creating a successful school. "All schools look different," she said. "And they should if we're going to serve all students who look different and think differently."