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SMALL SCHOOLS: A Catalyst for Education Reform and Improvement

In model schools around the country, personalized learning plans, reading coaches, and successful teacher recruitment initiatives are already in place. Almost without exception, the most successful programs are found in small learning communities. While a small learning community is not a “silver bullet” for education reform, it is an important tool to ensure that the Framework for an Excellent Education is successful in raising student achievement.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 70 percent of American high school students attend schools with enrollments of 1,000 or more students, and nearly 50 percent of high school students attend schools in which the student population is over 1,500. By expanding the current Smaller Learning Communities program, the federal government could allow millions of students to attend schools that are safer, more nurturing, and much more likely to improve student learning.

Time and again, research has found that small schools are an effective and cost-efficient way to improve student achievement and other outcomes for youth. Small schools personalize and contextualize students’ education experience and facilitate the implementation of other effective strategies. These schools are successful not because of their small size, but because small size allows strong principals to implement positive changes, including innovative programs, alternative teaching methods, and individualized attention for students. A growing body of research shows that small schools, defined as 400 to 800 students, combat student alienation and enable teachers to learn students’ individual cognitive and developmental needs and offer personalized assistance. In Texas, for example, 53 high schools with large concentrations of poor students are among the highest achieving (top 25 percent) in the state. Of these 53 schools, 48 have fewer than 600 students.

Although it would seem as though small schools are more expensive to operate than large schools, the added benefits of small schools appear to outweigh the costs. A 1999 report by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that when calculating the costs to taxpayers per graduate, rather than by student, small schools were actually less expensive than large ones because of their lower dropout and higher graduation rates.

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