Small Is Beautiful

By Candice Anderson

When two students were shot on January 15th in a dispute at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Manhattan, the event spurred another highly visible discussion about public school safety. Shortly after the shootings, Schools Chancellor Harold Levy announced that his visit to the school had revealed a flaw in school security, and vowed to beef it up. But security systems can only go so far. The school's troubled history has been exacerbated by its size. King has 2,600 students.

Large schools are often impersonal places where young people slip by unnoticed. That such alienation has the potential to lead to violence has been well-documented. A study by the Bank Street College of Education found that this isolation and alienation can be eased in small schools.

"In small schools," says Deborah Meir, who has founded several small public schools in New York City, "we're more likely to pass on to students the habits of heart and mind that define an educated person -- not only formally, in lesson plans and pedagogical gimmicks, but in hallway exchanges, arguments about important matters, and resolution of ordinary differences. We're more likely to show kids in our daily discourse that grown-ups use reasoning and evidence to resolve issues."

In a school system responsible for educating 1.1 million students in more than 1,100 schools, the issue of size -- both of the overall system and of individual schools -- has been a central theme in the public debate about school improvement. Over the past nine years, the New York City schools have experienced a vast amount of growth as a result of immigration, with annual increases of 20,000 students a year between 1992 and 1998 and 5,000 annually between 1998 and 2000. Growing enrollment has led to larger and larger class sizes and overcrowding, particularly in high schools, which now operate at 112 percent of capacity.

Under the pressures of educating a diverse student body with an array of needs, New York City has had mixed results. During the 1999-2000 school year, only 50 percent of high school students graduated in four years and just 27 percent of these students graduated with a Regent's diploma. The graduation rate for students attending Martin Luther King Jr. High School, for example, was 38 percent, significantly lower than the already poor city average.

A year ago, Citizens Committee for Children, the advocacy group where I work, conducted a survey of 1,001 public high school students that found that those in smaller schools had more positive experiences than students in larger schools. This extended to their interactions with teachers, class size and preparation for the state Regent's examinations. For example, more than half of students in high schools with less than 2,000 youngsters said they would seek a teacher's help with school work, while only 28 percent of students in larger schools said they would. Almost 8 in 10 students in the smaller schools said they definitely expected to graduate, compared to just over two thirds of students in larger schools.

While many different factors combine to create successful schools, particularly in urban areas and among underprivileged children, small schools are likely to provide for an understanding of each child's background and educational needs and for more individual attention. Studies have found that smaller schools can reduce the negative effects of poverty on student achievement, helping to narrow the gap between students from less affluent communities and those from wealthier areas. Reports also find that small schools are more effective at graduating students than larger ones.

Further, small schools are less expensive -- when results are taken into account. Smaller schools spend more per youngster, but more students graduate. A study by the Institute for Education and Social Policy found that it costs $49,554 to educate a student who graduates in four years from a New York City high school with 600 or fewer students, as opposed to $49,578 at a school with 2,000 or more students. The study concluded, "Though these smaller schools have somewhat higher costs per student, their much higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates produce among the lowest costs per graduate in the entire system."

Large schools offer less desirable working conditions for teachers who are forced to focus more on behavior management than on helping students to learn. Given the current teacher shortage, and the state requirement that all New York City teachers be certified by September 2003, efforts to improve collegiality and increase teacher professionalism and satisfaction should provide another motivation to invest in smaller schools.

The Board of Education's High School Reform Project, which is designed to transform large, low performing high schools into smaller ones, is an encouraging step. However, the school system must make smaller schools and improved learning communities a priority. Because securing space for new free-standing small schools is difficult in New York City, several small schools can be located in one large facility. Research on schools within a school suggests that, if they have autonomy and strong management, these schools can deliver many of the same benefits as small free-standing schools.

Candice Anderson is on the staff at Citizens' Committee for Children, a NYC advocacy group.

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