Redistribute Classrooms, Not Students

Students do better in small schools or, as they are sometimes called, learning communities. Research strongly supports the idea, as does common sense. If every child is known by an adult or a group of adults, it is less likely that he or she will slip through the cracks, be ignored or fail.

What is a small school? One advocate suggests schools that do not exceed 50. To most of us, that’s an unrealistic concept, but one can generally say that when an elementary school exceeds 300, a middle school exceeds 600 and a high school is above 800 students, it can no longer be considered a small school.

That is where the concept of smaller learning communities comes into play. I have worked on elementary schools housing as many as 750 students but designed so that 150 of those students occupy a“pod” — an area of the school that belongs to them — where the teachers work as a team, where each of the students is known to several adults.

By the same token, a middle school broken into teams of 100 students and four or five teachers creates a small learning community, whatever the overall size of the building. For high schools,“Breaking Ranks,” the report of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, looked to create small learning units of no more than 400.

Breaking It Down
High schools are a particular problem for those who believe there is value in creating smaller learning units. Many towns and villages across the United States have built a high school to accommodate their students — all of their students. It is the high school of the community, with all that means in terms of student and alumni loyalty, athletic programs, annual plays and concerts, and much more. No one wants a second school.

The trouble is, as the population grows, the high school grows, too. New wings are added to accommodate an increasing number of students. Today, as the understanding of the value of smaller schools comes to the fore, many communities have high schools with student bodies exceeding 2,000. How can one create smaller learning communities within these large high schools?

I have been working with staff, parents and students in a number of these larger high schools seeking to find ways to create smaller units. There is a lot of discussion of terminology — houses, academies and career paths are some of the units that are suggested — but there is also one overall objective: To give a group of students and teachers a place within the overall school building that is their own, a place where they can spend virtually all of their day and still get the full range of courses every high school graduate must complete.

One of the key problems in trying to break a large high school into smaller units is the location of facilities and staff. If all the English classrooms or social studies classrooms are located in a single wing of the building, all students must travel to those classrooms.

But classrooms are classrooms. If the teachers are redistributed throughout the school, so that English teachers are next to social studies and math and language teachers, students no longer need to traverse the whole building to get to their various classes; they can be scheduled to take those classes in a relatively small area, perhaps moving up and down a corridor among teachers and students they know.

The exception occurs when one thinks of rooms with specialized facilities. Since every student must take science every year, if all the science labs are together in one section of a large high school, no matter how one tries to form small learning communities, all students are going to have to travel. If science facilities could be distributed around a school, it would be much easier to create small learning communities.

So why can’t science facilities be distributed around a high school? I put that question to architect Jim Biehle, recognized by most as the leading authority on high school science facilities.

The answer is, they can be. And, they can support the concept of smaller learning communities, but it takes some planning. I’ll report on some of the ideas Biehle and I discussed in next month’s column.

BY PAUL ABRAMSON Abramson Is education industry analyst for School Planning & Management and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, Educational Consultants, located in Larchmont, N.Y. contact him at .

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."