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School organization: At a glance

We can all recognize engaged students. They have an intrinsic motivation and a palpable connection to school. Teachers know and care about them, and, consequently, they care about school. When schools are able to cultivate this type of engagement, we see children who keep their natural curiosity and are excited about coming to school.

But when students are disengaged, 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.

Those who design schools have tried many configurations to see if a particular environment helps nurture strong student-school relationships that keep students on track to graduate. Efforts to create a more personal learning environment have often led to creating smaller learning communities. To minimize chances of students falling through the cracks, other designs focus on key transitions such as modifying schools’ grade spans through ninth grade academies, K–8 schools, middle schools, and early college high schools.

Do any of these strategies work? Does changing the environment really make a difference in how students experience school?

Thankfully, the answer is yes. Research shows that moving away from consolidated schools and toward smaller community schools, or at least schools-within-schools, makes academic, social, and financial sense. Reducing the number of school transitions students have to make (e.g., K–8 schools) often strengthens students’ connection to school and reduces the dropout rate. If properly implemented, both of these organizational structures result in:

  • Closer teacher-student relationships.
  • Better recognition of students’ academic needs.
  • Fewer stresses from transitions between schools.
  • Safer school environments.
  • Equal access to rigorous courses for all students.

Small schools make a difference

The push toward smaller schools has been around for many years. The reasons range from better administrative coordination to accommodating specific populations. In 1996, researcher Mary Anne Raywid reviewed thirty-five years of literature on small schools and found that, whatever the initiating impulse, studies reported that students were “more satisfied,” “more academically productive,” more likely to participate in school activities, better behaved, and less likely to drop out.

And the benefits of smaller schools persist. From 1995–1997, researchers Lee, Smith, and Croninger investigated how the structure of secondary schools affected learning, and extended the study using NELS to see if the positive effects persisted throughout high school. Their findings? School size emerged consistently as a factor that affected student outcomes, and the optimal high school size was 600 to 900 students. Academically, this is large enough for a varied curriculum, but avoids the institutional practices sometimes found in large schools, such as inflexible tracking assignments. Socially, schools this size are able to support collegial relationships among teachers and personalized learning environments for students.

How many students go to schools that fit this category? It depends on the state, since high school size varies considerably by state. In 2004, on average, 29 percent of U.S. public  high school students attended high schools that enrolled fewer than 900 students (see Data First) . The percentages ranged from a low of 9 percent in Maryland to highs of 72 percent and 74 percent in North Dakota and Arkansas, respectively. In 2000, average high school size ranged from around 200 in the Dakotas to a high of more than 1,400 in Hawaii and Florida, making the average size of a U.S. high school 752. (See this table to find the average high school size in your state: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2001/overview/table05.asp)

Logistic decisions are local decisions

However, small schools are “not the fail-safe magic bullet which reform seekers continue to hope for” (Raywid 1996). How they are organized and run makes a difference. In the ten years following Raywid’s comprehensive review, Fouts and Associates conducted and reviewed research on small learning communities in high schools, much of which was supported by the Gates Foundation. This research “found affective differences in the school environments but no clear impact on student learning” (Fouts et al 2006). The report notes that simply making structural changes does not necessarily affect instruction or student outcomes. The small learning community must be a means to improve students’ engagement, not an end in itself.

Logistically, there are many different ways to create small schools. All approaches have tradeoffs to consider, and the deciding factor varies from district to district. When Allen and Steinberg reviewed the methods used by schools and districts from New York City to Sacramento, they found a great variety of local contexts that affected educators’ decisions (2004). Here is a quick description of a few of the questions and tradeoffs school board members might face.

The question On one hand... On the other hand...
Should we establish schools-within-schools or separate smaller schools? Schools-within-schools can produce good results, but can result in "boutique" schools that take the best students and are resented by the larger school. Separate smaller schools require more logistical decisions, but gives all students a chance.
Should we have an incremental or "big bang" approach? An incremental approach allows more time to plan and eases the transition for students and staff, but it can also take longer to get change started and allow more time for resistance to grow. A "big bang" approach makes it very clear to staff, students, and the community that change is happening and they need to support it, but it requires a significant amount of work in a short amount of time and offers less time to bring around those who are undecided.
Should school districts decide to retain all control or delegate some control to other community organizations? Keeping control entirely within the district gets the process started more quickly and makes some logistical issues easier, but existing contracts and relationships can constrict reforms. this approach gives more freedom to implement reforms, but can create labor tensions; if control is partially outsourced, defining the relationship with the community partner can be difficult.

Another strategy: Easing the transition

Moving towards smaller schools often means using another effective student engagement strategy: Reducing the number of transitions between schools. Research on grade configuration has shown that students in K–12 schools did better on measures of achievement and behavior (Franklin and Glascock 1998). And K–12 schools—in fact, any school with a larger grade span—tend to be smaller schools, with fewer students per grade.

Transition years can be rough. Alspaugh and Harting established in 1995 that there is a decline in 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. As the number of transitions increased, so did the high school dropout rate. In addition, the higher the grade level at the time of the transition, the higher the dropout rate, especially for boys (Alspaugh 1999). (For example, students in the Alspaugh study who transitioned to high school at ninth grade had a lower dropout rate than those who transitioned at tenth grade, and the lowest dropout rates were for schools with seventh through twelfth grade configurations.)

There’s an important exception. The move to high school seems to be the one inescapable transition. Researchers Weiss and Bearman (2007) found that with or without a change of schools, there are changes in student achievement and behavior between eighth and ninth grades.

Surprisingly, students who have strong ties to their peers and 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, and they are also significantly less likely to have trouble in school. Students who have been retained also benefit from making a transition. The researchers concluded, “The transition to high school can serve as a fresh start for some adolescents” (Weiss and Bearman 2007).

Special configurations for special populations

Ninth-grade academies have been around for several years. They help students at risk of dropping out to transition from middle school to high school. One model is a component of the Talent Development High School created by Johns Hopkins University. This model includes many different supports, such as extra help courses, on-site coaches, and an alternative Twilight School. Two reports showed that the Talent Development schools were safer, had fewer discipline problems, and better attendance (Philadelphia Education Fund, n.d.; Kemple, Herlihy, and Smith, 2005). Students in these schools earned more credits and were more likely to be promoted to tenth grade than their peers in comparison schools. Talent Development schools also graduated a higher percentage of students than the comparison schools, although only about one-third of students graduated on time.

Early college high schools focus on smoothing the transition between high school and college, often for students who are at risk of dropping out. These schools evolved from the middle college high school movement that began in the 1970s and give students the opportunity to earn up to two years of college credit while they complete their high school diplomas. Physical location is an important consideration in creating such schools because many students appreciate spending all day on a college campus. These students often feel they are getting better preparation for college and are more motivated to succeed in school than their peers in traditional high schools.  Both models stress academic rigor along with establishing good student-teacher relationships.

Emerging strategies in school organization

While researchers continue to look for definitive evidence to support how school organization can improve student outcomes, some recent trends in school organization are too new to have received much attention. Because of this, no conclusions can be drawn for how they assist student engagement, but they do bear watching.

Grade 8.5. This initiative was established by communities in South Carolina and Florida with the goal of combating high dropout rates among students transferring from eighth to ninth grades. Students who have been identified as at risk for dropping out while they transition into high school are selected to attend grade 8.5, which offers academic supports designed to keep students in school. Unlike traditional retention practices, students in grade 8.5 who perform well are enrolled in tenth grade the following fall. Students who are still struggling enter ninth grade  (Herald Online 2008, Winchester 2007).

Night schools in malls. To increase graduation rates in high schools, educators are also developing night schools and schools in malls, which provide additional opportunities for students who are at risk for dropping out. Educators are finding some students are having difficulties graduating within the four-year timeframe given. They hope these additional opportunities will help students meet graduation requirements on time (Gammil 2008).

Extended high schools. Realizing that some students are having a hard time graduating in four years, some school districts are considering increasing the time allowed to graduate to five years (Payne 2008). NCLB accountability standards consider students who do not graduate in four years as dropouts.

Distance learning/virtual schools

Virtual schools are the smallest schools of all and come with a promise of self-directed learning. While the total numbers are still relatively small, the format has experienced rapid growth. In just three years (2003–2006), student enrollment in virtual schools doubled to a current estimate of 700,000 students (Tucker 2007). But students use virtual schooling in all sorts of different ways. Some attend full-time virtual schools; some learn through a hybrid of virtual and traditional schooling, and some use virtual schools to supplement their regular schooling. “Blended learning,” which combines online and face-to-face learning in the same course, is an increasingly common model. (Greenway and Vanourek 2006, Rice 2006, SREB 2007, and Tucker 2007).

Relatively little research has been done on virtual K–12 schools, and most existing research has not used an experimental standard. Nevertheless, it does outline characteristics of successful students and virtual schools. Here's what we've learned so far: Students who have mastered independent study skills do best in virtual schools. When dropping out of an online class, a common reason students gave was that they couldn’t keep up with the course requirements (SREB 2007). Sometimes this was because the course was too difficult, but sometimes it was because of a lack of self-discipline. Roblyer and Marshall (2003), who constructed an instrument that accurately predicted students’ success in virtual courses 95 percent of the time, found four major factors of students' success, three of which factors correlated with independent study skills:

  • Achievement and self-esteem beliefs, which reflect students’ degree of self-motivation.
  • Responsibility and risk taking.
  • Technology skills and access.
  • Organization and self-regulation.

Tunison and Noonan (2001) describe a similar reaction to virtual learning: Students appreciated the ability to direct their own learning, but struggled with time management and technology problems. In all cases, students participating in virtual schools needed support—from parents, from an engaged adult supervisor, and from online discussion with fellow students (Rice 2006).

Finally, Greenway and Vanourek (2006) caution policymakers and administrators to pay attention to the practice, not the technology, and to avoid applying “conventional bureaucratic protocols designed for physical schools.”

The results

The organizational strategies described represent ways to reach out to students and make their learning more personal—more accessible, more understandable, and more tailored to their interests and needs. Students have responded to these strategies by becoming more engaged, more interested, and more successful.

Lower dropout rates. Researchers have consistently found that students who attend smaller schools tend to drop out at a lower rate than students who attend larger schools. For example, in the High School Effectiveness Study on tenth through twelfth graders, Lee and Burkam (2001) demonstrated that schools with 600 students or less had the smallest dropout rates.

Better academic and non-academic outcomes. Transitions between schools can have major effects on student outcomes. For most settings, the fewer transitions, the better; for instance, at grades six and seven, students in K–12 unit schools and elementary schools had better results than their middle/junior high peers. The transition from grade eight to nine is the only one that stayed constant. Smaller schools may help reduce the number of transitions necessary.

Better attendance rates. Researchers have consistently found that schools with fewer students have higher attendance rates among their students. In small schools, teachers often have better access to students and can encourage students to attend class more frequently and stay in school. Smaller schools also tend to have smaller class sizes, allowing for more individualized instruction, which can increase student engagement. (Urban Institute Education Policy Center 2007, Kahne, Sporte, de la Torre, and Easton 2006, Clark, Hager, and Nokolova 2006)

Safer schools. Verdugo and Schneider (1999) did preliminary work that found that larger schools have more serious acts of violence than smaller schools. Smaller schools tend to be able to maintain discipline better and to foster a greater sense of security among students.

Alleviated institutional practices. Smaller schools help to alleviate institutional practices sometimes found in larger schools, such as inflexible tracking practices. Ability grouping that locks students into dead-end academic tracks can fail to provide students with the credentials or the knowledge needed (Jimerson 2006).

Student extracurricular participation. Participation in school activities is a key motivator for students to increase their engagement in school. Researchers have found that students’ participation in extracurricular activities diminished at a steady rate as school size increased (Crosnoe, Kirkpatrick, and Elder 2004).

What school districts can do

The research is strongly in favor of creating smaller schools and reducing transitions. But putting these solutions into place brings challenges. Although logistical decisions are often local decisions, hereare some areas to consider. 

Autonomy vs. accountability. Nontraditional organizations such as virtual schools and early college high schools may need to operate somewhat independently of the system(s) that support them. However, as parts of the public education system, they must be accountable. Finding the flexibility to enable nontraditional structures to be effective, while still keeping them accountable, is something school board members and administrators need to negotiate—and that may be an ongoing process.

Protecting innovation without isolating innovators. The bureaucracies designed for traditional schools often don't fit innovative schools. The innovators who implement these schools may need to work around policies or restrictions that don’t relate to them (e.g., school uniforms, prescribed texts, or curriculum guides), yet retain their connection with management when they need support. Similarly, a school-within-a-school needs a way to maintain its separate identity and operate by its specific rules, or it will eventually re-merge into the larger school. Administrators and policymakers need to be aware of and respect the differences of the innovation, or the investment required to implement it will be lost.

Equity. When one large school becomes several small schools, each with a different theme, educators must consider how to maintain the same standards of rigor at all schools—in other words, avoid falling back into tracked programs. Likewise, when a school-within-a-school is established, educators must consider how students in the larger school can gain the advantages of the smaller school’s opportunities.

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? The logistics may be complicated, but at least one report has shown that the process is worth the work.

The authors of this report include researchers, educators, and builders. Together they examined data to answer questions about construction, student outcomes, building maintenance, and community benefits. Here’s the good news: On all counts, the authors found that moving away from consolidated schools and toward smaller community schools, or at least schools-within-schools, makes academic, social, and financial sense (Lawrenceet al 2002).


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. For more information, see School organization: full report. All references for the research cited in this guide are listed on a separate web page.

Posted September 4, 2008

©Center for Public Education

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