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School size, particularly with regard to high schools, is an issue of strong interest and concern among education reformers, teachers, parents and policymakers. Hundreds of high schools across the nation, in both urban and suburban districts, have populations exceeding 2,500 students. In the 1999-2000 school year, roughly one in six students in the nation attended a large city school. The anonymity and alienation such large schools can produce have been blamed for a variety of problems, from chronically low levels of student achievement to acts of student violence.

Over the past decade, many communities across the country sought to address these problems by creating smaller high schools in a variety of formats, including establishing freestanding small schools and breaking large schools into a group of a smaller "schools within schools." As more small schools were created, a corresponding body of research has grown.

Researchers have not come to a clear agreement as to what enrollment size constitutes a "small" school. Some choose not to select a precise definition while others have selected enrollment ranges anywhere from 200 to 900 students. Similarly unresolved is the question of when, if ever, a school can be too small. Despite these uncertainties, researchers have reached broad consensus on several key issues, including:

  • Under the right conditions, as schools get smaller they produce stronger student performance as measured by attendance rates, test scores, extracurricular activity participation and graduation rates.

  • Smaller schools appear to promote greater levels of parent participation and satisfaction, and increase communication between parents and teachers.

  • Teachers in small schools generally feel they are in a better position to make a genuine difference in student learning than do teachers in larger schools.

  • There appears to be a particularly strong correlation between smaller school size and improved performance among poor students in urban school districts. These findings provide evidence that smaller schools can also help narrow the achievement gap between white/middle class/affluent students and ethnic minority and poor students.

  • Smaller schools provide a safer learning environment for students.
Despite their numerous potential advantages, researchers agree that small schools do not represent a "silver bullet" in education reform. Creation of effective small schools presents numerous pitfalls and difficulties, including:

  • Laws, regulations and policies designed with large schools in mind

  • Impatience for improved student achievement on the part of people outside the school

  • Staff who do not fully understand and accept why a school has been downsized

  • Increased demands on school staff's time and energy

  • Difficulties in maintaining long-term stability.
One of the most important research findings is that smaller schools tend to produce greater numbers of graduates. While not disputing the fact that larger schools are more cost effective on a per-pupil basis, researchers now argue that small schools can be more efficient when measured on a cost-per-graduate basis. This cost effectiveness is further enhanced by the substantial social costs associated with high school dropouts (including lower earnings, higher unemployment rates, greater reliance on welfare and increased rates of incarceration).

This Issue site provides a variety of information about small schools, including research summaries, selected readings, quick facts and links.

 

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