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FACT OR FRICTION?: Challenges in Moving from Large, Comprehensive Schools to Smaller Schools

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"Given the complicated organization of high schools-built on years of state and federal policies . . . attempting to change one or two of the working parts quickly results in frustration and cynicism."

In an Education Week commentary, Larry Myatt, founder of Fenway High School, in Boston, draws upon his work in Boston and with educators in other cities and multistate networks to warn of nine “friction points”-places where the conversion from large to small high schools falters. (The complete list is shown below.)

Myatt writes that the movement to break down large, comprehensive high schools has certainly gained a great deal of momentum over last few years, but that people still clamor to see schools that do the job well. Research has shown that successful small schools provide greater personalization, increase adult accountability for the achievement of all students, and create better links among schools, families, community organizations, and institutions of higher education.

Why haven’t more of these schools emerged? According to Myatt, “Given the complicated organization of high schools-built on years of state and federal policies . . . attempting to change one or two of the working parts quickly results in frustration and cynicism.” At the same time, simply reorganizing a large school into smaller units or building a new, small school will not, in and of itself, dramatically increase student achievement. “Despite calls for ‘reform,’ most high schools continue to function as comfortable environments for adults, displaying few tangible changes in operations, values, priorities, professional culture, and, most important, teaching methods and student engagement,” Myatt argues.

By focusing on the issues that bog down reform and inhibit the successful formation of small schools, Myatt, who is also the director of the small schools leadership project for the Great Boston Principal Residency Network at Northeastern University, hopes to invigorate the debate around research-and-development initiatives that offer a range of possible solutions and alternatives.

Larry Myatt’s “Nine Friction Points in Moving to Smaller School Units”

 

1. Facilitating Teacher Talk: While research has shown that increased staff involvement and responsibility in smaller settings is crucial to improvement, Myatt notes that most teachers have little experience in making decisions about course offerings or student placement, nor in taking on other responsibilities that normally would fall to administrators. He argues that teachers need support in convening meetings, setting agendas, and interacting with collaborators outside the school.
2. Challenging the Cultural Glue: While large comprehensive high schools may have strayed from their intellectual vision, they still represent a “stronghold of identity” in communities. Football championships have been won and dances have been held at these schools, and relatives of today’s students make up the alumni. Myatt writes that priority needs to be given to turning schools into more than “buildings,” and an emphasis needs to be placed on collaboration between staff members and those outside the school to sustain strong relationships and “supports for achievement and lofty dreams.”
3. Horizontal Structures, Short-Lived Relationships: Myatt supports teacher-student “looping” that can prevent a student from undergoing seemingly endless, unconnected sequences of teachers, schedules, subject matter, and fellow students. “Looping” occurs when a teacher moves with his or her students to the next grade level rather than sending them to another teacher at the end of the school year.
4. Reprogramming Our Special Populations: “Moving to smaller schools cannot be the means through which we continue, or further entrench, [the practice of segregating] special populations in smaller learning communities ‘of their very own.’ ”
5. Reconsidering the Guidance Model: Myatt writes that guidance counselors often struggle to hold up under the load as small schools take on greater responsibility for the social and emotional lives of their students. He argues against the model of one student being interviewed while others wait for their “twice-yearly, twenty-minute life-after-high-school sessions.” Instead, “highly trained teacher/advisors” could take on a greater role in helping students prepare for post-high school decisions, while student-support counseling can help with some of the emotional issues.
6. Prisoners of the Infrastructure: How can teachers and administrators be faithful to instructional priorities when dealing with a nine-hundred-seat auditorium and only three hundred students? Myatt argues for preplanning for smaller schools, as cities replace or refit their aging school buildings.
7. Too Much Curriculum, Too Little Time: “How can I offer nine levels of math with a math faculty of four?”
8. Cohort Thinking vs. Human Nature: Myatt discusses steps that schools and districts have taken to deal with students’ individual styles, needs, strengths, and challenges.
9. Public Engagement Cannot Be an Add-On: “If we don’t win the hearts and minds of the people involved, things will stay as they are.”

The complete article is available at http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2005/04/06/30myatt.h24.html.

 

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