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School organization: Fact sheet

When students lose interest in school, the results can be devastating. We know from research that academic failure and student disengagement can go hand in hand, and are the strongest predictors for dropping out of school altogether.

So making students feel like they are part of school has crucial benefits. Can the way schools are organized increase students’ connection to school? Thankfully, the answer is yes. Research consistently points to two answers: Moving toward smaller schools, and reducing the number and impact of transitions.

  • Small schools work. Thirty-five years of research shows students in small schools were more satisfied, more academically productive, more likely to participate in school activities, better behaved, and less likely to drop out. Lee, Smith and Croninger found the optimal high school size to be 600 to 900 students.
  • However, small schools are “not the fail-safe magic bullet which reform seekers continue to hope for” (Raywid). There has to be accompanying changes in instruction in order to improve outcomes.
  • Reducing the number of transitions students go through helps. Alspaugh and Harting established in 1995 that there is a decline in student achievement during the transition year from elementary school to the next level. Alspaugh’s later work revealed that additional transitions were associated with additional achievement losses. And, as the number of transitions increased, so did the high school dropout rate.
  • The “transition effect” has two important exceptions. First, with or without a change of schools, student achievement and behavior changes between eighth and ninth grades. Second, in some cases transitions benefit students. Surprisingly, students who have strong ties to their peers and make a transition to another school have significantly better grades than their popular peers who remain in the same school. On the other end of the social scale, students who are isolated in eighth grade become significantly more connected to school in ninth grade if they change schools.
  • Special configurations targeting struggling students can help, too. Common configurations include ninth grade academies and early college high schools. Grade 8.5, night schools in malls, and extended time to complete high school are new strategies that show promise, but haven’t had enough time to produce results.
  • To succeed in virtual schools, students must have good study skills and be self-directed, but they still need support from parents, teachers and other students during the class.

When properly implemented, small schools and fewer transitions result in:

  • Lower dropout rates. Lee and Burkam demonstrated that high schools with less than 600 students had the smallest dropout rates.
  • Better academic and non-academic outcomes. Reducing transitions improved student outcomes; for instance, at grades six and seven, students in K–12 schools and elementary schools had better results than their peers who moved to a new school.
  • Better attendance rates. Researchers have consistently found that schools with fewer students have higher attendance rates.
  • Safer schools. Larger schools have more serious acts of violence than smaller schools.
  • Alleviated institutional practices. Smaller schools help alleviate tracking practices sometimes found in larger schools, such as inflexible tracking practices.
  • Higher student extracurricular participation. Students’ participation in extracurricular activities diminished at a steady rate as school size increased.

As school boards consider implementing these strategies, here are some areas of discussion.

  • Autonomy vs. accountability. Many small schools are designed with non-traditional structures. Those involved in running these unique schools tend to do better when they can operate somewhat independently, but they must remain accountable to the public. School boards and their communities must consider how to maintain the same standard of rigor at all schools.
  • Protecting innovation without isolating innovators.  A school-within-a-school needs to maintain its own identity, or it will re-merge into the larger school. Innovators who implement these and other strategies will need to work around policies or restrictions that don’t relate to them, yet retain their connection with the district when they need support.
  • Logistics. Will small schools start incrementally or in one “big bang”? Who makes the decisions about everything from staffing to instructional approach? How many new buildings, governing bodies, school buses, or other resources will be required? While the logistics may be complicated, at least one report has shown that the process is worth the work.

This summary is based on a review conducted for the Center for Public Education by researchers at Edvantia, an education research and development not-for-profit corporation founded in 1966. The references for the research are located on a separate web page.

Posted: September 4, 2008

©Center for Public Education

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