Monday, July 24, 2006

Too Small? Too Big? or Just Right?

Yesterday, the Seattle Times ran an article called "For schools, does size matter? It begins with a mention of Viewlands, one of the small elementary schools in Seattle that is currently on the closure list. The author suggests that while small schools are preferable, there is such a thing as being too small. And, similarly, while schools shouldn't be too big, desirable elementary school size is between 300 and 500 students.

A few resources to check out on this topic are:

- Small Schools Project, a website for the Gates Foundation-funded project

- "Bill Gates Guinea Pigs," a Seattle Weekly article on the small schools idea applied to high schools in Washington.

- "Are Small Schools Better", a research paper by non-profit WestEd, which includes this quote:

"...researchers focusing on the interaction between poverty and enrollment size offer a rule of thumb: The poorer the school, the smaller its size should be."


Charlie Mas said...

I think that there are some important facts that require statement.

First, a Small School isn't just any school with a certain number of students. Small Schools are small by design. There are very few Seattle Public Schools that are small by design, and none on the closure list.

Second, the enrollment number that defines a Small School is much higher than most folks in Seattle would imagine. Small Schools can have enrollments of up to 400. As the Seattle Times article described, we here in Seattle have a somewhat skewed scale of what a small school is. Nearly ALL of Seattle's public elementary schools are "small".

Third, it isn't enough that that enrollment just be below a certain number to be a Small School. Here is a definition of a Small School from the Small Schools project web site:

"At the Small Schools Project, we define small schools as those that share a set of common characteristics:

They are small. Few effective small schools serve more than 400 students, and many serve no more than 200 students.

They are small. They are autonomous. The school community—whether it shares a building, administrator, or some co-curricular activities with other schools—retains primary authority to make decisions affecting the important aspects of the school.

They are distinctive and focused rather than comprehensive. They do not try to be all things to all people.

They are personal. Every student is known by more than one adult, and every student has an advisor/advocate who works closely with her and her family to plan a personalized program. Student-family-advisor relationships are sustained over several years.

They are committed to equity in educational achievement by eliminating achievement gaps between groups of students while increasing the achievement levels of virtually all students.

They use multiple forms of assessment to report on student accomplishment and to guide their efforts to improve their own school.

They view parents as critical allies, and find significant ways to include them in the life of the school community.

They are schools of choice for both students and teachers, except in some rural areas, and are open, without bias, to any students in a community."

That doesn't sound at all like most of the schools on the closure list. It does, however, sound a lot like the description of alternative schools in Seattle.

Charlie Mas said...


Thanks to the Small Schools Project, we have a truer definition of Small Schools that definition goes far beyond simply low enrollment. Next time someone tells you that some Seattle Public School is a small school, you should judge the validity of that statement based more on the criteria from the Small Schools Project rather than the enrollment. Likewise, the next time someone tries to equate low enrollment with Small School, you should refute them.

I have heard a number of people, both lay people and education professionals, make this error.

Let me say it again, slower and clearer:

Low enrollment is not even CLOSE to being a defining characteristic of a Small School.

In Seattle, low enrollment, rather than an indicator of a successful small school, is more commonly an indicator of a struggling building that has been rejected by the community.

For evidence, let's review the performance data from Seattle neighborhood K-5 schools.

Of the 3 schools with enrollment under 200, the average Grade 4 math WASL pass rate was 34%.

Of the 24 schools with enrollment between 200 and 300, the average Grade 4 math WASL pass rate was 53%.

Of the 24 schools with enrollment between 300 and 350, the average Grade 4 math WASL pass rate was 50%.

Of the 11 schools with enrollment between 350 and 400, the average Grade 4 math WASL pass rate was 65%.

Of the 10 schools with enrollment over 400, the average Grade 4 math WASL pass rate was 69%.

Small Schools may boost academic achievement, but here in Seattle there is no data to support the premise that low enrollment has any benefit.