Chicago public schools have been going through a transformation designed to take the district’s mammoth high schools and turn them into more intimate, student-focused environments. Educators and administrators seem to love the concept. And deep-pocketed philanthropists think it’s a great idea too. Various groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation have invested $26 million to the small schools concept.
For urban areas like the Chicago Schools, there’s a lot of research to support the idea that teen learners do better in an environment where people know them and have regular contact with them. So over 20 of the Chicago Schools have been transformed to high schools that house 500 students or less. Elementary schools have a limit of 350 students.
The recent controversy is because the 2006 state test results for Chicago Schools did not show the expected rise in test scores that everyone hoped to see. But there were a lot of positive effects. Teachers report that the small schools have a climate that is better for teaching and learning. Drop-out rates are lower and graduation rates are higher in Chicago Schools that have switched to the new model. But what about the test scores? If academics aren’t affected are the smaller schools working?
My answer is- definitely. The fact that school climates are changing is a really big deal. Failing students in Chicago Schools usually live in low-income areas and have a history of school failure. So getting them to come to school, and to graduate is an important first step. And even if those students graduate with low test scores or low grades, the high school diploma and the options it opens up can be life changing. And an improved climate at the Chicago Schools will have long-term affects as well.
One of the biggest benefits of small Chicago Schools is that it fosters relationships between teachers, students, and parents. This closer communication helps the attendance rates because smaller schools are more likely to alert parents of student absences. Smaller schools could the best thing that the Chicago Schools have done in years. That doesn’t mean it’s the total solution, but it’s a great start.
As for why Chicago Schools didn’t show improvements on the Prairie State Assessment Test, well it actually makes sense. Keeping the low-achieving-would-be drop-outs in schools probably lowers test scores overall. But that’s OK, because they are where they need to be and getting a better chance at life than they would as drop-outs. Lifetime income for Chicago Schools students rises incrementally when they have a diploma.
All students in Chicago Schools, and all children in the world, thrive when given attention and when they feel that someone cares about what happens to them. Smaller schools simply make sense. I hope that the Chicago Schools have the sense to keep them around.