Big Schools Reborn in Small World
Michael Dobbs | Washington Post | Nov. 28, 2003
NEW YORK -- On the outside, the Julia Richman Education Complex looks like a typical large high school in any American city. But behind the anonymous red brick facade, a transformation has taken place that could herald a revolution in urban education.
There is no public address system, and no bells announce the end of class. The metal detectors that once guarded school entrances have disappeared, along with cages for particularly violent students. Vandalism is largely a problem of the past, and fights in the hallways are equally rare. The number of students graduating and going on to college has shot up.
What has made all these changes possible -- and the reason Julia Richman has become a model for high school reform across the country -- is that it is no longer one enormous school. The sprawling, five-story building houses six small schools, each with its own distinct identity.
"Julia Richman is the best example in the United States of the conversion of a failing large high school into a multiplex of successful small schools," said Tom Vander Ark, executive director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which recently announced a $51 million grant to support the creation of small schools in New York City. "It's a real turnaround story."
Over the past few years, New York, the nation's largest school system, has become a pioneer of the "small is better" philosophy in education, and is leading the way in the search for alternatives to huge, dysfunctional schools that churn out vast numbers of dropouts. Studies suggest that small schools have significantly lower dropout rates than big schools, face fewer disciplinary problems and produce improved academic performance, particularly among traditionally hard-to-educate students.
Thanks in part to the support of philanthropic groups such as the Gates Foundation, the New York model is being emulated in dozens of other schools in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Milwaukee and other cities.
Although the small-school movement has yet to make substantial inroads in the Washington area, some local schools have received Gates grants. The best example is the Maya Angelou Public Charter School in Northwest Washington, most of whose 100 or so students have dropped out of other schools.
One way of creating small schools is to build them from scratch, as happened at Maya Angelou. Another is to do what Julia Richman did, beginning a decade ago, and remodel an existing building to accommodate several small schools. None of the four high schools in the "education complex" serves more than 400 students, and some are considerably smaller. The building also houses an elementary school and a junior high.
"The teachers know us all individually, and we know them," said Mica Baum, 16, who transferred to Julia Richman from an arts school in the Bronx that served 4,000 students. "We respect the school, because we feel that this is a place that really is for kids. The teachers really seem interested in what we have to say."
Breaking up a large high school is a lot more difficult in practice than it is in theory. Some small schools are merely "big schools in drag," according to Michelle Fine, a social psychologist at City University of New York, who has studied the movement. If a school is simply divided into smaller units, the new schools are likely to replicate the mistakes of the old school.
"Small schools are not a panacea," said Clara Hemphill, author of consumer guides to New York City's best public schools. "About three-quarters of them work. A quarter of them don't. What makes a school work is vision and a sense of community, and you can't impose that from afar."
Hemphill cites the example of Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, which is undergoing its third reorganization in less than a decade. In an attempt to foster a spirit of community, the old school was broken up into three new schools that focus on science, humanities and business. But little was done to change the culture of the school. Security guards still monitored the halls, teachers felt impotent and troublemakers slipped from one part of the building to another.
Julia Richman, which is on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, avoided these problems, thanks in part to a total redesign. When the old school was closed in 1993, its students were dispersed and sent to new schools. The six new schools that form the Julia Richman Education Complex were "hothoused" in temporary buildings elsewhere and started off as distinct schools. Each school has a high degree of autonomy over matters such as curriculum, educational philosophy and hiring of teachers.
The Urban Academy, which offers college-type seminars for 120 students who have transferred from other New York schools, shares a floor with Ella Baker, an elementary school for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. One floor above is a junior high for autistic children, and on the floor above that is Manhattan International High School, which serves children of recent immigrants.
Other schools in the complex include Talent Unlimited, which specializes in the performing arts, and Vanguard High, for children with learning disabilities. There is also a day care center for children of the students, who come from all over New York City, many traveling an hour each way.
Each school has its own space but also has access to common areas, such as the auditorium, the gymnasium, the library and the cafeteria. Sports teams draw students from all over the building. A building committee, made up of the six principals and chaired by an elected building manager, adjudicates disputes.
"When I first came here, few people thought it would work," said Alan Krull, principal of Manhattan International, which shares a floor with
Vanguard High. "But we stay out of their space, and they stay out of ours."
It is difficult to compare the performance of the Julia Richman schools, which cater to specialized groups of students, with that of other schools in New York City. According to New York data, attendance rates at Manhattan International were 10 percent higher than in similar schools, and suspensions of students for disciplinary offenses were dramatically lower. The dropout rate at Manhattan International between the ninth and 12th grades was 11.8 percent, compared with a citywide dropout rate of 20.2 percent.
The primary advantage of small schools, according to their champions, is their human scale. Teachers and students know one another and form strong personal relationships. Studies have shown that small schools are slightly more expensive than large schools: New York City spent an average of $10,166 per student at Manhattan International in 2002, compared with $9,348 elsewhere. The cost per graduate, however, is typically lower at small schools because fewer students drop out.
Named after New York's first female school superintendent, Julia Richman High was founded in 1922 as an elite girls school. Standards dropped sharply in the 1970s and '80s as the school expanded to accept boys and girls from all parts of the city. By the time of the breakup in 1993, there was "absolute chaos," according to John Broderick, the school's janitor.
"There was graffiti everywhere," he said. "Urinals were being pulled off the walls. The morale of the staff was very, very low."
At first, says Broderick, a no-nonsense Irish American, he was "very, very skeptical" about the idea of alternative schools, and did not welcome the prospect of dealing with six principals. But he discovered that discipline was much easier to maintain when teachers know exactly "who is who."
At Urban Academy, which has gone furthest in rethinking traditional notions of education, teachers and students call one another by their first names. Students may bring food and drink into class. Teachers are waging a campaign against the system of high-stakes testing mandated by the federal government and the state of New York on the grounds that it is a distraction from more creative pursuits.
"We want teaching, not test prep," reads a banner in a corridor filled with overstuffed chairs for students to lounge in between classes.
On a recent morning, students in one classroom were debating the question "Should fast food be banned?" as part of a series of seminars and writing projects designed to hone their powers of argument. Next door, a teacher was leading a discussion about how to research the history of ancient Rome.
"The real benefit of a small school is that you can change everything," said Ann Cook, co-principal of Urban, which does not even sort its students into grades in the belief that college-style seminars are more intellectually challenging. "The whole idea is to engage kids in new and effective ways. If we turn these schools into test preparation centers, we might as well go home."
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