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November 12, 2007

revisiting the argument for small schools

In the Washington Post, Lonnae O'Neal Parker has written a fine series about Jonathan Lewis, a young man who graduated last year from Washington's Coolidge High School--barely, years late, after scraping through the required courses. He is smart and he has supportive parents, but he rarely attended class or completed assignments, and he aimed for D's.

Jonathan walks toward the cafeteria doors. A question follows him: If you want to make your mother proud, if you know you can do the work, if you swear to everybody you see that you want to graduate, why don't you go to class?

Jonathan stares silently for a few moments.

"I don't know," he says quietly. "I really don't know."

With due humility about my ignorance of Jonathan's situation, I'd propose an answer. The whole structure of a school like Coolidge is inappropriate for his social and economic context. It's a huge high school, with numerous classes and cliques of students and corridors longer than football fields (as Parker observed). The onus is really on individuals to get to class and to concentrate. That is very difficult if most of the other students are not focused; there are too many distractions and temptations, too little order.

So why do large high schools work in other contexts, such as affluent suburbs? And why did Coolidge itself work better when Jonathan's mother attended it, 30 years ago? Because there used to be a social contract in which working class people had dignified and stable jobs. Their children could also obtain those jobs without college diplomas--sometimes without even graduating from high school. Because most adults had working-class jobs, there was a general atmosphere of order and respect for authority in the community. It was easy for kids to envision concretely the benefits they would obtain from completing school. There was crime and academic failure, but it was marginal, not prominent.

We have a social contract today, and it is not without merit. If you obtain skills for the business and professional world and credentials to demonstrate those skills, you have wide opportunities. Sex, skin color, and age are less profound obstacles than they once were. But it's a long way from Coolidge High School to the professional world; the curriculum is much to easy to prepare students for college, and there are few role models in the community. Thus it's pretty much unrealistic that most teenagers will be self-disciplined enough to delay gratification and get themselves through a school like Coolidge. Even if they do, the benefits will be hard to see.

That's why, despite mixed evaluation studies, I remain interested in the new small high schools that provide one coherent, specialized curriculum for all their students. In a small high school that was focused on media, or engineering, or cooking, Jonathan wouldn't have to choose between the halls and a classroom. There would basically be no halls. The school would be an organized work environment with limited numbers of teachers and students who all knew one another and had tasks to accomplish together. The gap between this place and the professional work world would be much smaller.

November 12, 2007 9:43 AM | category: education policy | Comments


I agree with your description of the social contract and the value of small schools. I worked with a young man who gained good skills from Marriott Hospitality High School Charter School and his family. He's now doing well at Brown.

What kind of public involvement investment will it take for smaller high schools to emerge?

November 13, 2007 1:13 AM | Comments (1) | posted by Scott D

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