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Smaller Schools: A Safer Alternative
Part 1: Importance of Keeping Schools Small
More of this Feature
Part 2: Building the Small School Environment

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"I taught in an extremely large Middle/High School.... It's very sad that out of the 100 or so educators working at the school, I personally knew about 40. How can we discuss students we have in common when we don't even know each other?"
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Small School Resources
School Violence Article
School Violence Resources
Restructuring Schools

From Other Guides
School Reform: Size Matters
Bullying and School Violence

Written by Diane Walker
Updated by Melissa Kelly

Recent outbursts of violence such as that at Littleton and recently Santana have occurred only in large schools according to Michael Klonsky, director of the Small School Workshop at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Klonsky says violent outbursts are highly unlikely in a small school setting for two reasons:

  • First, school is a community where students feel a sense of belonging. Students, who are no longer lost in crowded conglomerate schools, thrive in a large family atmosphere.

  • Second, teachers and administrators know their students. Violent outbursts are unlikely in a small school, not only because students' needs are better met, but because caring adults have personal relationships with students and know what is going on with each of them.

Klonsky says the problem of school violence will not be solved with metal detectors or beefed up security. This is consistent with contentions of John Devine, author of Maximum Security: The culture of Violence in Inner City Schools, who argues that policing strategies are not only ineffective, but they divorce teachers from their ethical responsibilities.

Schools need to be made smaller.

School Boards that insist that conglomerate high schools are cost effective are wrong. Large schools are not more economical than small schools for two reasons:

  • large schools need larger administrative staffs, and

  • costs per student, when calculated using graduating students, are actually less in small schools than in large schools.

More important than savings however, research findings have shown repeatedly that small schools are less violent than large schools. It is heartbreaking that these findings have been known for years, but not acted upon. Further, smaller schools have been found to reduce the effects of poverty on academic achievement helping to narrow the gap between wealthier and poorer schools.

We've known small schools are safer than large schools for years.

Conclusions of the 1978 congressionally mandated report by the National Institute of Education describe a positive correlation between violence and school size. Additional studies have time and again confirmed the benefits of small schools over large. For example, Some of these studies appear to have been used as delaying tactics despite parents' dissatisfaction with conglomerate high schools, for funding has not matched research findings.

In light of Littleton, Columbine, Santana and Granite Hills, and an abundance of research showing the benefits of small schools, Klonsky wonders how school boards can propose schools with enrollments of 5000.

Arguments that small schools cannot not provide the same variety of offerings and activities as large schools can have not been supported. Klonsky adds that a minimal decrease in variety, if any has occurred, has been far outweighed by the many important benefits gained, particularly by disadvantaged youth.

Benefits of Small Schools

  • Higher student achievement

  • Students are more visible

  • Reduced violence and disruptive behavior

  • Improved attendance and graduation rates

  • Increased teacher satisfaction

  • Reduced effect of poverty on student achievement

Marie Hill, former professor at Tennessee State University and coauthor of Creating Safe Schools--What Principals Can Do, moderated this session on May 3, 1999. More on the videoconference can be found here.

Suggested Sizes and Configurations of Small Schools

Opinions about the ideal enrollment of small schools vary from 300 to 400, 600 to 1000 or 1200 to 1500 for high schools and 400 to 500 for middle schools.

Configurations vary from small schools and charter schools housed in free standing buildings to magnet programs, academies and multiple, autonomous small schools housed in the same building. The most effective programs are those which involve the entire student body in the small school experience.

What makes small schools work?

To reap benefits enjoyed by most small schools, Klonsky says optimum size is not as important as capturing two qualities:

  • Teachers have the ability to work together as a professional community.

  • Students are known and visible.
    Small schools are able to create programs in which adults have more consistent and meaningful contact with youth. This is especially important to females and disadvantaged students.

Next page > Building the Small School Environment > Page 1, 2

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