Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Looking back to 2001: Death of the Small Schools Movement

"There were two strategies going on at the same time which were diametrically opposed to each other." -- Bill Gerstein
A 2004 article by Beandrea Davis, in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, tracked the beginning of the end of the small schools movement to the Paul Vallas era in Chicago, circa 1995-2001. By 2004, this promising reform movement, led by teachers with support among parents and community activists, had met its match -- the so-called accountability wave of top-down, test-and-punish, mayor-controlled corporate "reform."

Before he was fired by Mayor Daley, Vallas had succeeded in replacing teacher-led, highly-autonomous small schools with privately managed charter schools and school re-design with school closings. It was a trend he would take to scale as CEO of Philadelphia Public Schools and later as school boss in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Davis quotes Vallas during a 2004 press briefing: "I really see charters as the way to create more small schools."  Vallas pointed out that he has more leeway to expand charter school options in Philadelphia than he did in Chicago.
Vallas's June 1995 appointment as CEO happened as the Chicago small autonomous schools movement, which emerged in the early 1990s, was starting to take off. Wanting to transform the city's large, impersonal, and often low-performing high schools by restructuring them into small, autonomous, community-centered schools, an alliance of educators, organizers, parents, and community members joined together... CPS insiders as well as outside partners with the district agree that conflict did arise between the Vallas administration's strong emphasis on improving student test scores in the short run and some advocates' efforts to promote small schools as a long-term school improvement strategy.
The Notebook article makes it clear that the early small schools and smaller learning communities were never envisioned as a panacea for "failing schools" the way that charter schools were later hyped. But rather as a teacher-led reform that could improve school climate, support teacher collaboration and professional development, and create better conditions for personalization and a sense of school community.

The story of the rise and fall of the modern small schools movement was developed more fully in  "Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society" by Michael and Susan Klonsky (Taylor & Francis, 2008).

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