The school bell jolts students from their desks, and hordes of them spill out of classrooms into the corridors and trudge to their next class. Teachers monitoring the hallway traffic recognize a few familiar faces, but most of the students are as anonymous as a straphanger with his face buried in the morning paper on a Manhattan subway.

Who are those students? What are their stories? Is that an average student who quietly goes to class and gets decent grades without attracting attention to himself? Or a recently transferred student struggling to find her way in an unfamiliar setting? An angry underachiever with a troubled home life who rarely shows up for classes?

The sad fact is that in too many schools, teachers and administrators can't answer those questions. And the inability to know a student and how he or she is coping with school and life can result in them falling through the cracks and drifting through years of wasted educational opportunity or worse. Among the 1,870 students walking the halls of Columbine High School in 1999 were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who didn't particularly make an impression — until they unleashed the horrific attack at the school in April of that year that resulted in 15 deaths.

There was plenty of blame to go around for the Columbine tragedy, but the subsequent investigation determined that many signs of potential trouble were evident, if someone at the school had known the students well enough to detect the path they were on. School violence as awful as Columbine is rare, but in the impersonal environment of many large schools across the United States, students can be anonymous and alienated from the school community.

In recent years, many educators have tried to combat the disconnectedness some students feel at school by encouraging the creation of smaller schools. Whether they are distinct smaller facilities, several autonomous schools within the same building, or a large school divided into smaller learning communities, the goal of the small-school movement is to create a more personalized setting where students and teachers develop close relationships and establish an atmosphere of trust.

Those smaller learning environments not only can lead to better student performance, but also can create environments with fewer incidents of vandalism, violence or other misbehavior.

Percentage of public schools that reported one or more criminal incidents to police 1996-97, by enrollment size

Enrollment size

Any incidents

Serious violent incidents

Rape or other type of sexual battery

Physical attack or fight with a weapon

Robbery

Theft or larceny

Vandalism

Physical attack or fight without a weapon

Less than 300

37.8

3.9

1.3

1.9

0.5

17.6

23.4

16.6

300-999

59.6

9.3

2.5

5.6

2.2

30.5

40.1

26.5

1,000 or more

89.1

32.9

11.4

20.4

15.8

68.0

61.6

67.0

Source: Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2002, National Center for Education Statistics

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“Small is inherently safer,” says Kathy Simon, co-executive director of the Coalition for Essential Schools, an advocate for establishing smaller schools. “If a student is sad, depressed or on the edge, teachers and classmates are more likely to notice in a smaller school.”

Getting to know you

Simon knows from her personal experience as a teacher in a large California high school that it is impossible for a teacher to form close relationships with all the students that shuffle in and out of her classroom period after period.

“With 160 students a day, there was no way I could keep track of how they were doing emotionally,” says Simon.

The definitions of what is a small school vary; some say high schools should have enrollments as low as 200, while others say 400 to 500 is acceptable. Large high schools of 1,000 or more can be divided into more manageable sections and derive some of the benefits found in smaller learning communities — collaboration, personalized learning, close relationships and a sense of belonging.

Studies have shown that students who develop close relationships with teachers and receive more personalized attention are more likely to stay in school, receive better grades and participate in school activities.

Schools that have established that more nurturing climate tend to have less trouble with vandalism, violence and student misconduct. Federal statistics back up that assertion. National Center for Education Statistics' figures from 1996-97 show that in schools with enrollment of less than 300 students, 3.9 percent of the schools reported serious violent incidents; where enrollments were 1,000 or more, 32.9 percent of schools reported serious violent incidents. (see chart, p. 22)

Percentage of public schools that reported they use various types of security measures at their schools 1999-2000

Enrollment size

Visitors must sign in

Closed campus for most students during lunch

Daily presence of police or security personnel

Video surveillance

One or more drug sweeps

Random metal detector checks on students

Students must pass through metal detectors each day

Less than 300

91

82

13

10

22

5

2

300-999

99

94

20

14

18

7

1

1,000 or more

99

87

75

32

37

20

4

Source: Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2002, National Center for Education Statistics

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The safer environment that results in a small-school setting shouldn't be considered an added benefit of the small-schools philosophy, says Van Schoales, vice president of the Colorado Children's Campaign and director of its Small High Schools Initiative. It's one of the key factors that allows students to perform better.

“Establishing an environment and culture of respect and relationships between adults and students and among students is a necessary condition for high academic achievement,” says. Schoales. “It's not just about being nice, kind and soft. When you talk to kids about their experiences in small schools, they say things like ‘I am cared for,’ ‘I am challenged,’ ‘people are in my face,’ and ‘I can't escape.’ Their sense is that their teachers are not going to let them get away with anything.”

Confronting costs

The benefits of small schools are abundant, supporters assert. Studies show students achieve at higher levels in smaller schools. The effect is especially true for low-income minority students.

“Mostly poor, mostly ethnic minority children have notably higher achievement in small learning environments,” according to a 2001 report, “New Small Learning Communities: Findings From Recent Literature,” by Kathleen Cotton of the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Ore.

Studies also have found that at smaller schools, truancy and dropout rates are lower, students participate in extracurricular activities to a greater extent, parent involvement and satisfaction is higher, and teachers' attitudes are better.

So why wouldn't institutions shrink their schools to take advantage of these apparent benefits?

“Unfortunately, many people in position to make far-reaching decisions about school size base those decisions on the unexamined assumption that large schools reflect economies of scale,” Cotton stated in her report.

Small-school advocates counter that argument with a 1998 study of small schools in New York City that says if one compares the costs per student who graduates, small schools are more economical than larger schools.

Small schools often can operate less expensively when they are able to share existing facilities with other autonomous schools.

Fear factor

In the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy and other incidents of school violence, administrators have stepped up efforts to boost security on their campuses. But often, their solutions have been to add equipment and patrols rather than address the underlying culture of a school.

“Since Columbine, there has been a lot of movement the other way — to install metal detectors, video cameras, bring in security guards,” says Simon. “They do help prevent the most horrible kinds of crime, but they don't get at the root problem.”

Schoales says that trying to bring about a change in the way a school functions is a more daunting task; it's less complicated to install equipment.

“The problem is that for the policymakers, it's easier to quantify the results you get from solutions,” he says.

But the heightening of physical security sends a message to students.

“Kids take those physical deterrents as reasons to be anxious and nervous,” says Joan Shaughnessy, unit director for the Serving Smaller Learning Communities Project of the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory.

Schoales adds, “A school that has an intense security structure, with police, metal detectors, cameras — it will lead to more of a prison-like atmosphere.”

Deborah Meier, an educator who has founded small schools in New York City and Boston, argues that educators need to take a broader view of what it means to create a safe school environment.

“Creating safety for kids with a diversity of histories and goals means more than just making them physically safe — it includes helping them to feel safe from ridicule and embarrassment,” says Meier in her book, In Schools We Trust.

Small isn't enough

Small-school advocates are quick to point out that merely having fewer numbers of students in a facility isn't enough to transform a school into a safe and welcoming environment conducive to learning. The teachers, parents and others involved with a school have to embrace the changes that are necessary to build a sense of community.

“It's not going to work if it doesn't take hold in the heart and soul of the school,” says Shaughnessy.

But the qualities that improve student performance and create a more safe, connected environment — personalized learning, closer relationships between students and teachers and among students — are easier to develop in a smaller setting.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has donated millions of dollars to help districts across the nation create small high schools, identifies several principles that help make a small school a high-achieving school:

  • A common focus that unites students and staff.

  • High expectations for all students and performance-based assessments to measure progress.

  • A personalized environment designed to promote sustained student relationships.

  • A safe, ethical and studious setting that emphasizes respect and responsibility.

  • An environment that gives teachers time to collaborate and strengthen their skills.

  • A performance-based environment in which students are promoted to the next instructional level only when they have achieved competency.

  • A school that integrates technology as a tool into both the teaching and learning environments.

Simon says that creating a small school, or at least creating some of the small-school elements that improve the learning environment, is within the grasp of most school districts. She recommends that administrators exploring whether to create smaller schools should visit campuses that have successfully established a small-school environment.

“School administrators don't have to re-invent the wheel,” she says.”


SIDEBAR: Seeking smaller schools in Utah

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Alpine (Utah) school district, David Cox experiences the frustration of working in a building with 850 students.

“You don't know all of the teachers,” he says. “It's difficult to coordinate activities. As a teacher, you're basically doing your own thing.”

So, in his other job as a representative in the Utah Legislature, Cox introduced a bill that would give districts in the state financial motivation to build smaller schools.

“There have been lots of studies that have found that the most important thing we could do to improve schools is to make them smaller,” says Cox, who maintains a website (www.smallerschools.com) to publicize his push for smaller schools and districts. “People say it saves money to build schools larger — but that's only if you're looking at the bottom line of the current year's budget and if you don't take into consideration all these other things.”

Those other factors include greater expense of transporting children and dealing with more behavioral problems in school, as well as the societal costs of students who become alienated from school, and become dropouts, develop drug and alcohol problems, or turn to crime.

Cox's proposed bill would force districts that accept capital funding from the state to build significantly smaller schools. The bill would limit elementary schools to 90 students per grade, middle and junior-high schools to 100 students per grade, and high schools to 300 students per grade.

Those guidelines would allow high schools with 1,200 students — far above what many small-school advocates consider an optimal enrollment. But more than 50 high schools in Utah exceed that enrollment — the largest at nearly 2,500. Cox wants to reverse the trend of larger schools before the state begins to see the 5,000-student high schools that can be found elsewhere in the nation.

“I don't want it to get that far,” he says.

But, at least for this year, his school-shrinking efforts have not gained any traction. Cox was unable to get the bill out of committee.

“Too many people think we can't afford to build smaller schools,” he says.