Designing small urban high shools

The growing evidence for the benefits of small schools, especially for the achievement of low-income and minority students, has stimulated reforms in many cities. Researchers Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University, and Jacqueline Ancess and Susanna Wichterle Ort, Teachers College, Columbia University, report on one such reform: a seven-year study of the Coalition Campus Schools Project in New York City.

Eleven new schools were created to replace two failing comprehensive high schools. These small schools were created as part of a network of reform-oriented schools within the context of a systemwide reform. One goal of the project was to determine if new schools can be created on the basis of successful designs rather than by relying primarily on the efforts of strong, charismatic leaders. Almost immediately these smaller schools demonstrated significantly better attendance and fewer behavior problems. Over time they showed higher achievement in reading and writing, and higher graduation and college-going rates. These schools achieved this in spite of serving a more educationally disadvantaged population of students.

Previous research with small schools reveals that, other things being equal, smaller schools produce higher achievement, less violence, more positive feelings about school and more participation in school activities. The outcomes are even more pronounced for low-achieving children. In addition, smaller schools do not necessarily cost more to operate, and since they graduate a much higher percentage of students, the cost per graduate is less. However, not all small schools a re successful. Some school-within-school strategies have reinforced academic stratification, producing greater success for some students and less for others.

Wholesale reform like that of the Coalition Campus Schools Project is a complex undertaking. Initially, the new schools were located in temporary premises until the old school building was renovated. Some schools had to move twice within the first year. It took three years to get all of the 11 schools started. Because their student bodies were mostly composed of students who had been rejected by other schools, these new schools had a much greater proportion of low-income, low-achieving, and limited English-proficient students than the citywide average. Coalition schools serve all students in the regular classroom with resource support as needed.

The Coalition Campus Schools incorporated many features shown to increase achievement and commitment to school. These small learning communities were organized around a common academic core . The design was derived from successful schools founded in the 1980s, such as Central Park East in Harlem, directed by Deborah Meier. Staff at these older, successful alternative schools mentored the teachers at the new schools. The Coalition of Essential Schools provided technical assistance efforts and direct support for developing curriculum and school policy, securing space and supplies and negotiating with the Board of Education. These alternative schools were exempted from many regulations that govern other public schools in New York. Regents exams were not mandatory, and teachers unions relaxed rules for these schools so they could function in innovative ways.

Each high school serves approximately 450 students with interdisciplinary teams of teachers working with 40 to 80 students. Teachers use a college-preparatory core curriculum framed by “habits of mind” such as weighing evidence, addressing multiple perspectives, making connections, speculating on alternatives , and assessing the value of the ideas studied. Class periods last 90 minutes or more. These small schools serve a variety of populations, but all were urban and poor. One school serves a population of 100 percent limited English – proficient students.

Outcomes in the first three years

School attendance and behavior improved dramatically in the first year. But the high levels of educational need were more difficult to address. Schools used small advisory groups and long blocks of learning time to provide intensive work on needed skills. The schools struggled with students who previously had experienced little or no success, many of whom lacked motivation. Some schools had high rates of student transfer in the first year. but most students who stayed demonstrated substantial success. Gains in reading and writing skills by students with limited English were significantly higher than citywide averages. The strong emphasis on extensive writing and revision in these schools led to much higher scores on reading and writing achievements.

Five-year outcomes

Both graduation and college-going rates exceeded citywide averages, and dropout rates were half those of more advantaged populations in city schools. Among first-year graduates, college attendance was 86 percent, and the following year, college attendance reached 91 percent in coalition schools. Although a much higher percentage of students in coalition schools took the SAT, scores were about the same as those in other high-poverty schools.

Factors for success

Several factors were consistently seen to affect the success of the coalition schools. These included small size; close ties between and among teachers and students; a carefully constructed curriculum aimed at specific proficiencies; explicit teaching of academic skills; teachers’ ability to adapt instruction to students’ needs; a school-wide performance assessment system; the creation of flexible supports to ensure student learning; and skilled teachers who collaborated in planning and problem solving. Teachers in these coalition schools must volunteer time beyond normal school hours. Their willingness to do this is a hiring contingency. There is a rigorous, school-operated selection process that enables schools to develop a compatible and dedicated staff .

Small size and personalization

Everyone knows one another in these schools. Students report that their new schools have a family feeling and that students feel very close to their teachers. Researchers found strong relationships between and among students and faculty. Students linked their achievement to their caring relationships with teachers. Teachers’ commitment to students’ learning was a common theme. Students said teachers “know your potential and keep pushing you.”

Resource allocations emphasize core instructional functions, so all schools have created smaller student loads, longer class periods and interdisciplinary courses. Advisement groups also promote personalization. Advisors stay in touch with parents and have daily conversations with each student about how they are doing. The advisor takes the major responsibility for tracking student behavior and achievement, following each advisee’s performance in all classes.

Coherent and Purposeful Curriculum

These schools are explicit about their goal to send all graduates to college with skills that will enable them to succeed there. Most of the assignments reviewed by researchers required the production of analytic work — research papers and projects, demonstrations and discussion of problems, experiments and data collection organized to answer open-ended questions. Extensive reading and writing were expected in all of the schools. Large end-of-course projects required oral defenses. Work gets critiqued and students have to rewrite, showing references and evidence to prove their thesis. One school requires an autobiography in ninth grade that emphasizes writing skills. In tenth grade students participate in an intercultural project that teaches them research skills. They are taught how to do a bibliography, use multiple forms of documentation, and write reports in various formats. In all 11 schools, students must enroll in a course at a local college before leaving high school. Because of the varying levels of academic need, some students take more than four years to graduate.

Adaptive Instruction

Several instructional themes emerged from this research, including explicit teaching of academic skills, use of multiple instructional strategies to ensure success, and connection to students’ own experiences to support understanding and motivation.

A key element of instruction in these schools is careful scaffolding for the learning of complex skills. They explicitly teach students how to study, how to approach academic tasks, what criteria will be applied to their work, and how to evaluate their own and others’ work. They are taught how a library works, and how to do research and are introduced to the habits of mind and rubrics that will be used to assess their work from grade to grade. All schools offer structured supports in reading and writing as part of courses in ninth and tenth grades and as part of a resource class for students who need additional support.

Curriculum in these schools often incorporates real-life applications to help sustain students’ interest and involvement in difficult tasks. All of the schools place students in external learning experiences such as internships and community service activities that occur during the regular school day and are accompanied by seminars to help students process what they are learning.


The effort to push students further in their thinking is another theme heard in interviews and observed in these classrooms. All the schools require that students complete a set of seven or more portfolios for graduation. Traditional tests can also be included in the portfolios. These portfolios are both for evaluation and for learning. The student must defend their work to a panel of teachers. These teachers probe the student’s thinking, asking for evidence supporting key ideas. Although personally supportive, this evaluation process is often substantively critical.

Collaborative Planning and Professional Development

The faculty at these schools is dedicated and highly skilled. Many of the schools are connected to preservice and inservice programs run by local universities (New York University, Columbia Teachers College and the Bank Street School). Both collaboration and staff development are built into all the schools’ schedules. Well-developed collegial environments and close relationships with students draw many more teachers to apply than there are spaces, so schools can be selective in their hiring. Teachers meet in teams for several hours weekly to examine students’ progress, figure out how to adjust their instruction, and mentor new staff . Teachers report that they hold each other accountable for their goals. They plan together, discuss kids together, observe each other and support each other’s development.

Summary Comments

Darling-Hammond et al. report that a surprising aspect of their findings was the consistency in practices and outcomes across the coalition schools. In their experience, the extent to which these schools were able to develop sophisticated designs and practices and manage a range of difficult problems is unusual. Several organizations supported the development of these schools, and these researchers believe their success was due to the partnership with the successful schools and mentoring by expert principals and teachers. In addition, the National Coalition of Essential Schools ran interference for them with a variety of agencies and provided models for developing curriculum materials, teachings strategies, and assessments. The Coalition also helped find additional funding to support professional development and student services.

“Reinventing High School Outcomes of the Coalition Campus Schools Project” American Educational Research Journal, Volume 39, Number 3, Fall 2002, pp. 639-673.

December 2002/January 2003 Volume 16 Number 1

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