The“bigger is better” philosophy of schools made its appearance on the national horizon more than 50 years ago. America surged under post-World War II economy and opportunity. The GI Bill offered, for the first time, the option for higher educational opportunities to millions of American veterans. About 1952, the initial influx of Baby Boomers turned 6 years of age and began to flood the public school system. We were a nation on the move, and the direction of that move was, definitively, upward. An expanding economy paired with the tenfold increase of Americans with higher education degrees generated a powerful synergy. One result was the demand for a wider array of K–12 resources, a broader range of courses, more electives, and, of course, winning athletic teams. It was a strategy that, at the time, seemed to offer a gateway into a more personalized and powerful K–12 education. The megaschool was born, it grew quickly, and it was enthusiastically embraced. In direct response, America’s long-standing neighborhood schools began to dwindle.
Though everything we know about education tells us that small, community-accessible schools function best (and the research behind this notion is both vast and conclusive), shrinking education dollars have, nonetheless, perpetuated further consolidation and a subsequent flood of “big box” campuses across our nation’s landscape. On the surface, it appears to be the most cost-efficient balance between education for all and financially demanding times.
Cents Don’t Always Make Sense
But the cost of education is not only measured by dollars. The high price of cost-saving consolidation is especially evident in America’s urban high schools. Steadily rising dropout rates in tandem with steadily dropping test scores indicate a substantial loss to the ultimate health of our nation and our economy. The equation is simple, timeless, and inevitably true: When we lose our children, we lose our future.
It’s no epiphany to anyone older than 20 that the teenage years are filled with a struggle for identity and an often desperate search for connection. Too many students moving through the mega-box mill of education feel disenfranchised. Studies on dropouts in U.S. schools reveal two pervasive themes: Students who opted out of education believed they were faceless and knew they were bored.
Savvy and thoughtful educators are finding their way back to the simple truth that education, at its core, is a very human business. It always has been. It always will be. In today’s pressure cooker, standardized, one-requirement-fits-all environment, approaching the education of our students through a human lens can be a brave—and risky—choice for both teachers and administrators. Those who choose to do so quickly realize that it often means teaching against the tide. But educators who embrace that call quickly realize the greater benefit. We must make time to connect with our students. Then and only then does what we have to offer them, as teachers and guides, begin to matter.
It is this reality that launched the Small Schools Initiative. The small school movement, which is strongly researched-based, embraces the idea that many high schools are simply too large to enable teachers and administrators to connect with each student, to build community within the school, and to keep students interested in learning. The movement holds that an optimum student body is composed of 300–400 students. It is further held that schools should establish and share common interests and goals in order to cultivate a sense of connectedness among the students. Small schools are also founded in choice; that is, students may choose which small school they would like to attend. The result is more individual attention from teachers and a deeper connection with peers.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation opened the way in the late 1990s with the framework and funding of the Small Schools Initiative. The foundation’s concept was simple and profound: the establishment of (a number of small) schools within a (large, existing) school (campus)—not merely communities but actual schools, each powered up with its respective visions, administrators, faculties, concentrations, and entrance requirements. Willing to take a risk in order to find a better way, the foundation poured more than a billion dollars into the re-creation of large-scale high schools in Boston, Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, and other urban areas. The idea caught on, and it inspired both state and local educational agencies.
Inspired by the Model
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