Guest Commentary: Small schools get results

[Editor’s note: Irvine is working as a consultant with the Marco Island parent’s group in an effort to open an exemplary charter high school on Marco Island in Fall 2011.]

Over the past 15 years, research has demonstrated small schools are superior to large schools in narrowing the achievement gap, in creating a safer school environment, and in creating a more supportive school life for students. Yet, the U.S. Department of Education reports 70 percent of students attend high schools enrolling more than 1,000 students, and nearly half attend schools where enrollment tops 1,500.

Consistent with this national trend, there are seven large public high schools with student populations ranging from 1,447 to 2,131 in Collier County, according to the Florida Department of Education. There are currently more than 80 volunteers who have obtained more than 300 signatures on a petition to bring the benefits of a small learning community through a charter high school on Marco Island.

Between 1940 and 1990, the number of public schools in the United States declined 69 percent despite a 70 percent increase in the nation’s population, according to education researcher Kathleen Cotton. The Annie E. Casey Foundation calls this consolidation, “One of the United States’ most widespread reform movements.” After seven decades of watching schools grow larger, more impersonal, and more violent, educators and policy makers are taking note of the good things that can happen within smaller communities of learners.

40 years of research

Over the past 40 years, research has shown small schools have higher academic achievement, higher levels of extracurricular participation and parent involvement, and fewer incidents of discipline and violence.

According to Kathleen Cotton’s review of 31 studies on the relationship between small schools and academic achievement, students’ performance in small schools was equal to or better than students’ performance in their larger school counterparts. According to Cotton, “Students [in smaller schools] take more responsibility for their own learning; their learning activities are more individualized, experiential, and relevant to the outside world; classes are generally smaller, and scheduling is much more flexible.”

The U.S. Department of Education cites important connections between small schools and teacher collegiality, personalized student-teacher relationships, and individualization, saying, “Small schools are more likely to create and sustain conditions conducive to improving student outcomes.”

According to University of Oregon Education Professor Karen Irmsher, “Small school size encourages teachers to innovate and students to participate, resulting in greater commitment from both groups.”

Smaller learning environments also allow for flexible scheduling. Block scheduling allows teachers more flexibility in their instructional activities, including: Individualization and differentiation; inter-disciplinary, project-based learning; and a greater depth of study through authentic learning experiences in the real world.

Millions of reasons

Interest in the success of small schools is high. The U.S. Department of Education has made millions of dollars available to large high schools to create Small Learning Communities (SLCs) within the buildings they already inhabit.

The Carnegie Foundation, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Anneberg Challenge, the Joyce Foundation, the Pew charitable Trust, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and others have also contributed millions of dollars for reforms that include school downsizing.

“Not surprisingly, one of the immediate results of small-school restructuring is a reduction in violent or disruptive behavior on the part of students. Small school teachers report a reduction in the number and seriousness of disciplinary infractions, which may be attributed to greater sense of ownership of school by children.” — Michael and Susan Klonsky

To read the complete ‘Small schools get results’ article go to

Lynne Irvine is a M.A. Candidate in Educational Leadership at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont studying the role of leaders in creating exemplary public charter schools nationally. Lynne has worked as a fine arts educator, a consultant for gifted and talented, a school administrator, a sustainable designer, an author, a community activist, and a parent volunteer at a Montessori Primary School and an Arts-Integration charter school for her children Jake, 17, and Jenna, 14.

For more information on the Marco Island charter high school initiative, contact Jane Watt at

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