Monday, December 4, 2017

Are schools really 'too small' to succeed?

Blaming school closings on small size is like shooting someone and then claiming they died from a lack of blood.
We started the Small Schools Workshop back in 1991 based on an abundance of research showing that smaller, more personalized learning environments served children and their families better and were generally safer than large mega-schools. Then we worked with teachers, schools and school districts across the country who wanted to rethink school design, curriculum, assessment, and issues of democracy and equity to create small learning environments as a critical force within the public school system.

Parents and educators created hundreds of new, highly-autonomous small, many of them teacher-led schools and restructured large high schools into smaller learning communities. This was back before the power philanthropists like Gates, Broad and Walton entered the picture and leveraged billions of dollars in grants to turn small-by-design schools into privately-run charters where unions were banned and teachers disempowered.

The Small Schools Movement, was just that -- a movement of teachers -- with close connection to parents and communities. It was the antithesis of today's so-called "choice" movement, where schools choose kids and test-scores rule the roost.

Smallering urban schools...From the beginning, we made it clear that these new schools and learning communities needed to be small by design, not by attrition. So I once again got that bizarro-world feeling when I read this headline in Sunday's Chicago Tribune:


The article barely scratches the surface of the historical issues facing Chicago's racially segregated and inequitable school system and is basically a defense of the Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his hand-picked school board for their latest round of school closings. Like the 50 closings in 2013, these latest are all in the black community and are being carried out under the banner of "under-utilization". Like their predecessors, the closed schools will leave thousands of students in limbo and neighborhoods blighted. They will also serve as an addition to the long list of reasons black families are leaving Chicago by the thousands.

According to the Trib:
In Chicago, where funding follows students, Tilden is one of more than a dozen shrinking neighborhood high schools that has been starved of resources, leaving students like Averett to prepare for their futures in largely empty buildings that can make dreaming big a daily struggle.
 Nearly all of these 17 high schools are deeply segregated, serving impoverished African-American and Latino students who already struggle to attend and graduate from college at comparable rates to their white or Asian peers. Yet many of these schools cannot offer what are considered basic classes elsewhere, including the bare trio of science courses that will soon be part of a new district graduation requirement.
Now, as many of these schools continue to shrink and Chicago approaches the end of a five-year school closing moratorium, civic and community leaders must weigh whether some of these buildings are too small to succeed.
The writers place the onus on the schools for being "too small to succeed" as if someone consciously chose 250 as the optimal capacity size for these high schools. Like this just happened and without even an attempt to question what "success" means under current conditions. It's as if surrounding these schools with privately-run, better-resourced charters and selective-enrollment schools had nothing to do with their decreasing populations.

And all that begs the deeper question of how these same schools went from being too big in the 1980s and '90s, to too small in just a couple of decades? Of course, they didn't just become small but were the product of planned isolation, disinvestment, and disempowerment of Chicago's black  communities.

There are many other reasons, including the out-migration of more than quarter-million African-Americans from Chicago in the past few decades. But none of them occurred just naturally. Most of the reasons are systemic and the result of policies of disinvestment, ie. closings of plants, factories and surrounding business, cuts in social services, closing of medical clinics and mental health facilities, and now schools.

The same monumental demographic shifts are happening in every major city in the country and are impacting investments and therefore measurable outcomes, often in dramatic ways.

So the question isn't whether some schools in disintegrating neighborhoods are now smaller. Of course they are. It's like shooting someone and then claiming they died from a lack of blood. Wealthy families pay a small fortune to get their kids into smaller, more personalized schools. Rather, it's about adequate and equitable funding and support for public schools and their communities during these times of rapid change.


  1. Excellent post today on small schools. Really puts the current discussion about south side high schools in a broader context.

  2. The scenario in Newark is similar in many respects. The Hispanic / Portuguese side of town has no charters. School closings are a common phenomenon in African American neghborhoods. The children being moved all over the place via One Newark are the poorest residents.

  3. A resounding "NO!" Destroying communities by closing community schools & moving kids all over the place is the nefarious plan & the cause of minority flight. Yesterday's Sun-Times article about Chief Ed. Officer Janice Jackson's "good news" (more magnets!--"all 3 serve predominantly low-income children, but no guarantees exist for current children in surrounding neighborhoods"; more "classical model" schools!--"both in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods")
    Further, "Magnets tend to be wealthier & whiter than CPS as a whole, as do classical schools."
    The Sun-Times article continues with Jackson reassuring,'"When some people hear magnet & classical & some of these other programs. there's some fear around that. We are here to support you."' "...parents at Jungman"(School, one of those being converted to a magnet)"flocked around its principal to make sure that they'd get to stay." One mom said,'"Everything that's free you have to be careful of."'


Agree? Disagree? Let me hear from you.