- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2001

Parents and teachers think smaller high schools could offer a host of benefits, including easier identification of troubled students and increased parental involvement, but they don't consider it key to education reform.
Despite increasing dialogue from education leaders and juvenile-justice researchers about the importance of creating smaller schools, particularly after deadly violence at Colorado's Columbine High School, 62 percent of parents and 59 percent of teachers said as long as a school isn't overcrowded, its enrollment is irrelevant, according to a study released today.
In fact, just 32 percent of parents said they'd given "a lot of thought" to the idea that breaking up large schools might improve academic achievement, said the study by the New York-based nonprofit organization Public Agenda.
"This is a serious awareness issue," said Public Agenda President Deborah Wadsworth. "For those who believe that this is an important antidote to fixing what's wrong with schools today, there's a real need to explain why."
The report is based on telephone interviews with 801 parents of public high school students and a national mail survey of 920 public high school teachers. The research was conducted in May and June 2001 and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given money to help school districts improve student performance by designing smaller schools.
The Public Agenda study comes at a time when large school districts, including New York and Chicago, are already decreasing enrollment at high schools. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in August kicked off a five-year $18.2 million program to break up low-performing schools into smaller units that operate independently.
The Chicago plan, which is funded by the Gates Foundation and other philanthropists, came after research determined that students in small schools were better behaved and stronger academically. Teachers, according to the school system's study, also said they were more effective in smaller schools and, thus, more inclined to stay in the profession.
Chicago is breaking up four to six large high schools and will reopen them as two smaller schools within the same buildings.
Small schools were defined as those with 500 or fewer students. Nationwide, more than 70 percent of high school students attend schools with more than 1,000 students, half of whom attend schools with more than 1,500 pupils.
Like the Gates Foundation, Congress is also considering offering additional money to districts that create smaller schools, Mrs. Wadsworth said.
But parents and teachers don't consider this as a priority, she said.
At least half of parents and teachers surveyed said they think making schools smaller is too costly and impractical, Public Agenda found. Forty-nine percent of teachers surveyed said the idea would face great opposition in their communities.
A majority of parents and teachers also said larger schools are more diverse and offer students a greater variety of courses.
Another study by Public Agenda, planned to be released later this year, will compare the views of students to their teachers and parents on this issue, Mrs. Wadsworth said.
"As you begin to talk with people, the actual list of priorities of most important ways in which schools can be fixed, creating smaller schools seems to be not uppermost on parents lists of concerns," she said.
"For teachers, what is most interesting is that for many of them, small classrooms are far more important than small schools."

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