Friday, November 13, 2009

Small by design v. small by nature

One of my first awakenings at the Education Writers' Association small-high schools seminar earlier this week was a key difference for us to remember in Ontario. You can be a small school by design, or you can be a small school by nature.
All of the high schools -- a mix of public and public-charter -- we visited during the seminar were small by design. Meaning the district or the charter board purposely planned out the administrative, instructional and in two cases, physical design of the school to be small.
Look at Kearney High Educational Complex-- formerly a composite high school with approximately 2,000 students. It was closed and reorganized into four 'small' schools of 400 or so students. It includes the Construction Tech Academy (this site was loading very slowly...), the School of Digital Media and Design, the School of International Business and the School of Science, Connections and Technology. All schools have project-based (or, "experiential" as we might call it in Ontario) learning, advisories for students and other small-school concepts.
Similarly, at High Tech High, the first school and campus were purposely designed to have no more than 400-500 students, including the project-based learning and administrative and teacher organization to bring small-school concepts into play. These were replicated on the same campus as the first school with the High Tech High International and High Tech High Media Arts schools.
All of these schools are different from many of our small schools in Ontario, which are 'small by nature.' Our schools are small by nature mainly due to two factors:
  1. These are schools that, by geographic, financial or other circumstance, were built small. These are the campuses that physically were never meant to accommodate more than 400-600 students from the moment the foundation was poured and the walls started to rise. Other than this physical characteristic, there's nothing else that inherently exists in these schools from the small-school model.
  2. The other 'small by nature' school is the one that regardless of what physical size it was built to accommodate, has a small population due to the demographic changes of the past decade or so. Population shifts (from established to newer neighbourhoods, or through urban renewal) and our declining birth and fertility rates have created these 'small' schools.
So when, in accommodation reviews I've covered, or ones I've posted about here, advocates trot out the 'small schools' card and throw the small-school movement out as a reason why their 'small by nature' school should continue without changes, we need to be aware they're throwing dust into our eyes. For the most part, the small-school benefits have happened in these schools by circumstance, not through planned implementation. Some of the small-school concepts -- those not in place across district boards or the province (more on this in a subsequent post) -- used in the schools we visited in San Diego don't exist in 'small by nature' schools. Why? They're composite public high schools with small populations, not really 'small schools.'
We need to remain cognizant of that difference -- small by design v. small by nature. Each produces different schools and very different environments.


RetDir said...

ER - that is an incredibly important distinction, and an absolutely valid one. Small by design allows for the program distinction that you talk about. Small by nature means a composite program that either ends up being diluted to the extent that it can't be excellent for every student (and often is only good for all, at best) or which is excellent for some and therefore mediocre at best for the rest. It also becomes a program that is enormously affected by the quality of the teachers in the building. Small by nature elementary schools (at least K - 6) can be good for everyone, particularly if they con be supplemented with specialized classrooms in central locations, but also are affected by the quality staff issue.
As you mention charter schools in the blog entry (and although I know that wasn't why you were there) did you gain any insights into how that is playing out in San Diego? That's an issue I find particularly challenging to get a handle on, as the arguments and research tend to be ideologically biased on both sides of the issue (freedom of choice versus the destruction of public education). It's the educational equivalent of the debating abortion.

Anonymous said...

In states and province where charter schools have become the fabric of the landscape of education, no destruction of the public system occurred.

In the USA it's not the rich who are benefiting most from charters it's the low-income, minorities looking to set up their own charters and it's a movement that's often(not always) led by educators.

We needn't look to America to the success of charter schools.

The ideology proved to be a very concrete success in Alberta.

Please visit the Society for Quality Education website for a homemade Canadian take on charter schools.

Education Reporter said...

The one difficulty I had during this entire seminar is where I think the balance between choice and equity should lie.

Of the three schools, only Lincoln could really be considered a neighbourhood school-- but even it has an astounding number of feeder schools and if memory serves not all feeder school students end up at Lincoln.

Kearney and HTH were both very selective schools. Entry was by application at Kearney, and by zip-code lottery at HTH. Now I went through a high school program (French immersion) that was based on a proficiency entry requirement, so I get the concept of applying to a specific high school program. I still don't think applying to attend an entire high school is that equitable. Particularly a school you've designed to be small-- so you cap enrolment and then you to a certain extent control who gets in.

Nor, despite how they tried to sell it to us at HTH, is the zip-code lottery system any better, IMO. While striving to achieve a demographic reflective of San Diego County, HTH is whiter and richer than the San Diego Unified School District as a whole. If your zip code is oversubscribed at the school, your application won't even be looked at regardless of your merits.
For a publicly funded school, I don't get that and would go as far as to say I don't agree-- regardless of how it feeds into school choice and what that element does to school systems.


Education Reporter said...

Oh, one more quick thing-- yes, Anon: 01:08 Nov. 14, I agree. It's not the rich who've benefited most from high school reform in the U.S. Then I would argue there is some, if not enough, evidence to say the rich aren't participating in the high school reform because their kids are in private schools.

Or, they're in suburban schools, where several seminar attendees said there is little will to reform and little attention being paid as to why.

I feel fairly safe in saying many large U.S. urban centres are far more gentrified than in Canada, and far more impacted by urban decay as the well-to-do run for the suburbs and leave dilapidated urban cores in their wake.