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BIG BUILDINGS, SMALL SCHOOLS: Report Suggests New Ways to Make Large Schools More Conducive to Learning

On January 20, the Boston-based nonprofit organization Jobs for the Future (JFF) released Big Buildings, Small Schools: Using a Small Schools Strategy for High School Reform, a report that addresses ways for school districts to divide large high schools into multiple small schools that provide their students with the benefits of a smaller, closer-knit community. The small schools that the report envisions may be housed in one building, but they are quite distinct from one another. They share no departments or special programs, which distinguishes them from the “small learning communities” within schools that were a popular reform measure in the 1980s.

While large schools resist division into completely separate entities, the report contends, such radical division is necessary if students are to reap the benefits of small size. The report notes that evidence of the advantages of small size is based on research into small schools, not small learning communities.

Big Buildings, Small Schools addresses the concrete elements of creating small schools, from community relations and leadership to physical capacities and labor relations. Report authors Lili Allen and Adria Steinberg, both of Jobs for the Future, outline the choices that districts face in effecting structural school transformation, focusing on two major questions: Should a school transform at once or over time? Should schools control their own transformation from within, enlist outside partners such as community groups, or accept outside leadership, typically a charter management organization?

Districts’ choices should depend on their particular circumstances, the report concludes. What is right for one school is not right for every other. Case studies of completed school transformations in Boston, New York, and Oakland and Sacramento, California, illustrate this point.

The report assumes that creating small schools is desirable. Yet it notes the limits of what school size transformation can achieve. Small schools alone do not necessarily provide their students with better educations. Rather, the report explains, “conversion [to small schools or communities] offers a potentially powerful opportunity for a ‘defining moment’ of change-an opportunity to provide the most fertile conditions for excellent teaching and learning.”

The complete report is available at:


Senate Confirms Secretary-Designee Margaret Spellings


On January 20, the U.S. Senate confirmed Margaret Spellings by voice vote as the new U.S. secretary of education. That evening she was sworn in by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card in a private ceremony. Spellings is the nation’s eighth education secretary and only the second woman to hold the post. Shirley Hufstedler, who was named by President Jimmy Carter, was the first.

Last week, Spellings appointed David Dunn as chief of staff for the Department of Education. Prior to his appointment, Dunn was special assistant to President Bush for domestic policy at the White House Domestic Policy Council, where he handled all areas of education policy from early childhood through higher education.


Frost Starts New Venture: Education Priorities


Susan Frost, former President of the Alliance for Excellent Education, has started a new education policy and advocacy consulting firm that will focus on helping organizations set policy priorities and move education action agendas at the federal, state, and local levels.

“I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with some of the best education advocates in the country to make education a national priority and help every child have the right to an excellent education,” Frost said. “I look forward to continuing that work in new venues as elected officials, educators, business and community leaders, and child advocates face the challenge of raising student achievement and graduation rates for all students.”

Frost can be reached at Education Priorities, 800 25th Street, NW Suite 1004, Washington, D.C. or via email at


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