A couple of months ago, in this column, I commented on what appeared to be a failing attempt to create small schools within an existing large high school in a district in Washington. Without knowing much about the actual situation, but reading the remarks of administrators in the district, it appeared that the program in place was little more than the old“schools within a school” concept that flourished, and died, some 30 years ago.

In the Washington district, only freshmen and sophomores were truly in a small school, juniors and seniors took courses and teachers throughout the entire high school building, and no physical space was marked out as the“territory” of the smaller learning units. The same thing was true 30 years earlier except that then even freshmen and sophomores were scheduled throughout the building — only their guidance counselors and an assistant principal were stationed in a specific school.

From that experience, I suggested that at least four physical conditions had to be in place for it to be possible to successfully break a large high school into small units. Each small school had to have its own entrance, its own toilet facilities, its own administrative center and its own cafeteria/commons. (Other important factors include separate faculty, a buy-in to the concept by faculty and something that distinguishes each school, perhaps a theme or an approach to teaching and learning.)

A Small School Guide

Recently, I received a copy of a booklet published by New Visions for Public Schools, an education reform organization dedicated to improving the quality of education in New York City’s schools. The booklet, “From Large School Buildings to Small School Campuses: Orchestrating the Shift,” tells of the efforts that have been made in 21 of New York City’s large high schools to break them into smaller units.

With 21 different buildings involved, it is obvious that there are no “cookie cutter” means to create a small school, but the booklet shows a process that was used to develop a “footprint” for each small unit, a footprint being defined as “the minimum space resources that each small school needs for teaching and learning.”

A section on establishing autonomous territory noted that cost constraints may require that specialty spaces (gymnasium, auditorium, library, science labs, etc.) be outside the territory of individual schools but then goes on to enumerate ideas for creating separation including visual branding and dedicated stairwells. Methods for making shared space more useful and less threatening are also discussed. All the concepts are demonstrated in case histories.

In one building, stairwells were designated for each small school to keep them separate. Separate entrances may not be practical, but stairwells can serve a similar purpose.

Similarly, barriers were used in key places to maintain school separation and identity, and paint was used to identify specific schools. In another school, science labs were dispersed among the individual small schools so that students did not have to wander the building. There was an expense involved, but the safety of children and the importance of science as a basic area of study made it imperative that science labs be within each small school.

Because of my own prejudice, I noted that cafeterias were considered shared spaces, not assigned to individual schools. I hope at some point this is rethought — if central kitchens can serve food at many schools around a district, why can’t a single kitchen serve individual cafeterias for each small community? But, as an alternative, each school might be provided with its own gathering place or commons, whether food is served there or not. Students who bring their lunch could eat it there, and others might bring their lunches back from the common serving lines to eat in the relative calm of their own school’s space.

Creating small learning communities within large high schools takes more than a declaration of intent. It takes commitment and agreement among faculty, administrators, students and parents. It takes a period of planning, it takes decisions about what can and cannot be shared and separated, and it takes physical changes to make the implementation work. The New Visions booklet is a valuable guide for anyone considering creating small schools within a large one. It can be downloaded 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."