Smaller is better

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Those three words sum up stacks of studies that have produced one of the most solid findings in school research: All other things being equal, elementary schools with fewer than 350 children are likely to be more successful than larger ones. Children in small schools tend to have better attendance and higher test scores than their big-school counterparts, researchers have found. They’re more likely to participate in after-school activities and less likely to be truants, gang members or substance abusers. Instead, they report feeling more connected to and positive about their schools. These tendencies are especially striking for non-white students.

Small school size has a positive impact on adults, too. Principals of small schools tend to be more effective leaders. Their teachers form closer bonds with students and each other and are more committed to the school. They also tend to be more innovative with curriculum. And parents tend to be more involved in the school.

While the research behind these findings has been sophisticated, the reason for the favorable results is simple. Small schools are places, to borrow a TV theme song, where everybody knows your name—and then some.

Last year, Christina Aguilera joined 10 teachers at Piccolo Specialty School (enrollment 855) to form a small school-within-a-school. Before that, she says, “All I knew were the kids in my classroom. Once I became part of a small school, I felt like I belonged. Teachers can rely on each other for pretty much anything, [and] the children know every single teacher.” (See story.)

From the standpoint of school size, Chicago public school students are at a disadvantage. The average enrollment of a Chicago public elementary school (645) is nearly twice as large as the average enrollment of a Catholic school (345) or a public school in the suburbs (380), according to a 1994 report by small-school advocates. Fifty-three of the city’s 485 public elementary schools have more than 1,000 students; 55 have fewer than 350 students.

Ten years ago, small schools were more likely to be the result of happenstance than of design. With the advent of charter schools, schools-within-schools and teacher-created small schools, just the opposite is true today. Increasingly, educators are looking at reduced size as a strategy to boost achievement and implement schoolwide reform.

In the early 1990s, “we were sneaking into schools,” says Michael Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop, based at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “No one at the top wanted to see this change. They were afraid of change.”

The Workshop, which is working with 72 elementary and high schools in Chicago and a number of suburban and out-of-state districts, is one of several organizations striving to chop Chicago schools down to size. While the groups’ main focus is creating schools-within-schools, especially at the high school level, they also have fostered creation of small charter schools and teacher-led school spinoffs. The School Reform Board and Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas have been partners in this effort, cutting red tape and offering some funds. Still, small-schools advocates are pressing school officials for more support and understanding.

“Size is not enough, but I think it’s a big plus,” says Elena Savoy, who recently received an outstanding principal award for her work at Wildwood Elementary in Forest Glen. Since she became principal in 1990, reading scores at the small school (now 260 students) have doubled, and math scores have tripled. At the same time, the percentage of children coming from low- income homes rose from 25 percent to 83 percent.

“Size is important, but it’s equally important to have quality teachers, quality leaders and a good instructional program,” agrees Allen Bearden, director of the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center, which has helped create small schools.

While successful schools typically have good principal leadership, Chicago’s small-schools advocates follow a set of principles that emphasize teacher leadership. For them, the ideal small school has:

A self-selected faculty; that is, teachers with a common interest or philosophy who voluntarily decide to work together as a team. “There’s one word: chemistry,” says Dee Smith, a co-founder of Connections, a school-within-a-school at Piccolo. “It doesn’t mean we agree all the time. But if we don’t agree with someone, we don’t ‘down’ them.”

Complete or at least partial autonomy. A small school needs leeway to chart its own course in one or more of the following areas: curriculum development, gover-nance, personnel or budget. Founders of Ariel Community Academy opted to go all the way. Housed in a public park field- house, this spinoff school has its own budget, hires its own staff and, next fall will seat its first local school council.

A cohesive pedagogical approach. A small school’s curriculum must be coherent within and among grade levels. Mexican art and culture provide the curricular thread that binds Telpochcalli, a teacher-led spinoff school that started as a school-within-a-school at Spry Elementary.

An inclusive admissions policy. Income and academic ability are not to be used to select small-school students. If demand exceeds available space, small schools can elect to use lotteries or first-come, first-served strategies.

Some advocates also recommend that students and teachers stay in the same groups for up to three years. “You get cohesion over time,” explains John Ayers, president of Leadership for Quality Education (LQE), a corporate group that administers the umbrella Small Schools Coalition. Known to educators as “looping,” this practice has been used to good effect in some not-so-small schools as well.

“Small schools in their best form feel more like communities than bureaucracies,” says Ayers.

Today, Chicago has about 125 small schools formed under one or more of the principles. Some have fewer than 50 students; others exceed 300 students. They include scores of schools-within-a-school, 25 spinoff or new schools and 5 small charter schools.

Each is distinctive. Peacemakers and peace organizations are the focus of Peace School, a school-within-a-school at Spry Elementary; last year’s curricular theme was the United Nations. Science, technology and multi-cultural studies are the centerpiece at Dr. Mae C. Jemison School, a K-4 school-within-a-school at Esmond Elementary. Woodlawn Community School reflects the desire of a group of homeowners, churches and civic groups “to build an urban community from the inside out,” says co-founder Lorne Cress-Love, whose family has lived in Woodlawn for more than 45 years. “The school becomes responsible to the community; the community becomes responsible to the school. It’s a two-way street.”

Chicago’s small-schools advocates got their inspiration in New York City, where the movement began almost 25 years ago. In 1991, Alexander Polikoff, head of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI), visited several small schools in Harlem and was won over. Soon after, BPI brought to Chicago a New York expert to meet with teachers, principals and school reform groups in Chicago. “That really kicked off the small schools effort in Chicago,” Polikoff says. “We said, ‘Hey, this is good stuff.’ Logically, it made good sense.”

Polikoff then began working with University of Illinois faculty member William Ayers—his children had attended a small school in Harlem—to lead informal meetings with teachers and principals interested in setting up schools-within-schools. In 1992, Ayers, the brother of LQE’s John Ayers, got a $150,000 foundation grant to open the Small Schools Workshop, a laboratory to study and create small schools in Chicago.

Meanwhile, several teachers at Dumas Elementary School in Woodlawn were looking to form their own school because their progressive instructional methods clashed with those of other faculty members. With the help of outside groups such as BPI and the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center, they successfully lobbied the

School Board and then-Supt. Ted Kimbrough to approve creation of Foundations. (See CATALYST, December 1992.) Now one of three independent small schools housed in what used to be Cregier Vocational High School, Foundations represents both the growth and the challenges of the small-schools movement in Chicago. (See story.)

BPI then started sponsoring teacher and principal trips to New York. Martha Silva-Vera, principal of Philip Sheridan Elementary in South Chicago, came back a believer, too. “I thought to myself, ‘I need to bring this to my building,'” she recalls. Today, the school building’s 1,600 students are distributed among 12 small schools.

In 1994, Polikoff and other reformers delivered a report entitled “Small Schools for Chicago” to then-Supt. Argie Johnson. Citing the abundance of research in favor of small schools, the report requested formal backing from the School Board and administration, including the designation of staff to help those who wanted to set them up.

The report was signed by 13 influential groups, including the University of Chicago’s Center for School Improvement, Chicago Panel on School Policy, Chicago Urban League, Designs for Change and Golden Apple Foundation.

Johnson, who was recruited from New York City, set up a task force of central office staff, principals and community leaders. In November 1994, the task force hosted a workshop for interested teachers, principals, parents and local school council members. Soon Mayor Richard M. Daley was espousing small schools, as well.

Shortly after Daley named the School Reform Board, Polikoff called on Gery Chico, the president, to promote his cause. One of the board’s first resolutions was in support of small schools. In its first 100 days, it solicited proposals from educators and civic leaders who were interested in starting their own schools. There were 100 applicants and 24 winners, each of which received a $10,000 planning grant and money to pay for furniture, books, equipment and space rehabilitation.

In 1996, the General Assembly approved creation of 45 charter schools—15 each in Chicago, the Chicago suburbs and Downstate. The Reform Board ran with the idea, filling nearly all of its quota in 20 months. Board president Chico is even talking about requesting an increase in the limit.

Now, though, the administration’s small-schools thrust is aimed more at high school reorganization—creating freshman-sophomore academies, for example—than at creating free-standing small schools.

Creating a small school is more difficult and chancy than simply building a small school building and installing a top-notch principal.

Schools-within-schools can breed elitism and professional rivalry among teachers. “It’s a very difficult balance that you’ve got to main-tain,” says a former principal who has reserva-tions about schools-within-schools. “A school that is fragmented is one that doesn’t work.”

There’s also the practical problem of assembling contiguous classrooms.

Chicago’s newly built schools don’t fully accommodate schools-within-schools either. Amanda Rivera, who hopes to organize the soon-to-open Ames School in Logan Square as a cluster of small schools, notes that all the office and meeting space is on the first floor. She would like to have had these amenities distributed throughout the building so small-schools teachers could meet near their classrooms.

Space is an even greater problem for teachers and activists who want to create free-standing schools. With a few exceptions, they’ve had to look outside the school system or persuade a school with unused classrooms to let them in. The teachers who formed Education in Action searched for months for acceptable space. In one instance, BPI intervened on behalf of Education in Action at an underused school. “It became clear to me that the principal did not want children from other neighborhoods, from other cultures, at her school,” says Jeanne Nowaczewski, an attorney who directs BPI’s public education project.

Small-schools teachers also find themselves with administrative responsibilities they may not be prepared to handle. “I had a lot of reservations about being a lead teacher,” says Christina Aguilera of Piccolo’s dual-language small school. “It’s a very weighty responsibility.”

To comply with state law, the board assigned certified principals to groups of free-standing, teacher-led schools. Errol Frank oversees two small schools operating at difference sites—an arrangement dubbed a scatterplex. Sylvia Gibson is principal of the three small schools housed in the old Cregier High School, now called the Cregier multiplex. It’s no easy task, Gibson says. “When you have three separate schools, you have three separate cultures. I juggle three different hats at one time.”

Small-school advocates would like the administration to provide fledgling schools with more help and to recognize it takes time for teachers to grow into their new roles. “It took 10 years in East Harlem,” Polikoff notes.

Specifically, BPI wants the board to design new schools with small schools in mind, to cultivate lead teachers, to secure space for new small schools and to provide the money for any needed renovation.

Board President Gery Chico says small school initiatives are just as important to the board today as they were two years ago. “I’m not aware of anyone who’s wanted to do one that’s been turned down,” he says. Charter schools give small-school proponents greater freedom to build the type of schools they want, Chico adds.

However, Chico says no one has broached the topic of aligning new school designs with small-school needs. “Nobody has asked us to do this. This is not ‘Field of Dreams’—if you build it, they will come. It’s not responsible government to build on a ‘spec’ basis.”

Despite the extra work and obstacles, about 200 people showed up one Saturday in March for a daylong small-schools conference. About 25 percent were considering starting a small school of their own.

In the first study of Chicago’s small-schools effort, the Chicago Panel on School Policy took a snapshot of 23 schools in their first year, looking mainly at operational issues. “Small schools were making a difference overall,” says Executive Director Barbara Buell. “They were having impact. Joint learning and teaching was going on. There was a sense of understanding and purpose.”

Beginning with this year’s testing, central office will report scores for all types of small schools, including schools-within-a-school, according to Olivia Watkins, who oversees the board’s small-school initiatives.

And The Joyce Foundation is funding an ambitious evaluation—a $738,000, 28-month study of 100 Chicago small schools by New York’s Bank Street College of Education. “They really were interested in finding out if the small schools strategy is a viable one for Chicago,” says lead researcher Patricia Wasley, who is dean of Bank Street’s graduate school. The study will track test scores, attendance rates and graduation levels. Researchers also plan to observe classes, interview teachers and students, and hold focus groups.

“Our objective is to get a measure of the connection between school size and achievement and see if anything comes up,” Wasley says.