"The one-size-fits-all factory assembly-line high school is perfect for producing credentialed students, but often falls short of meeting the needs of all students."
Instead of having a single high school model, we really need multiple models and multiple sizes of high schools to meet the educational needs of all students. Small redesign high schools are one option for personalizing education for all students.
What are some advantages of small high schools? From my experiences of being an administrator in a small high school of 100 to 135 students, here's some things I've personally experienced:
1. Smaller high schools can be more flexible. When your master schedule doesn't work for everybody, you can change it. When the length of your school day is a problem, you can change it. When there's an issue that parents are concerned about, you can find a new way of approaching the problem that satisfies their concerns. Why is it written in stone that you must stay on the same master schedule of 4 period-day, 2 semesters every year? Why not be flexible and change your number of periods and schedule to meet the needs of students? With small high schools, everything is on the table and nothing is sacred, making them much more flexible.
2. Smaller high schools can be more responsive to all student needs. In our high school, I often tell potential students that they will be unable to hide in our school. Because of the smaller numbers of students,our staff can more quickly and strategically respond to any kind of crisis, whether that be an academic or a personal crisis a student is having. In a word, we get to know every single one of our students. We know our students as people, not as student ID numbers or test scores. While it is perhaps efficient to know and classify students as numbers and test scores, doing so, means you create cold, impersonal places where efficiency rules at the expense of personalization. Small high schools are nimble enough to respond to students as individuals, not as numbers.
3. In my experience, small high schools are easier to transform into places where diversity is valued and creativity thrives. Large assembly-line high schools are about "controlling" students as they progress through the credentialing system. They have to be to keep the machine running. Students move about the building by bells. They are given very little unstructured time. These schools are about making sure all students conform to the factory's norms so everything runs smoothly and efficiently. Time-on-task means carrying out what the school has determined is productive, not necessarily exploration, inquiry and creativity. In smaller high schools it is easier to have a culture that allows students to think and be independent and critical. That means that students cannot only be themselves, but also value diversity. On the other hand, large assembly-line factories aren't designed to tolerate diversity of thought and creativity. In those schools, creativity becomes a victim of a credentialing system that values conformity above all else. "Just get'em through the system with all the right parts in place."
When school districts stubbornly hold on to the idea of large, assembly-line credentialing high schools as the only way of doing school, we are going to continue to fail to meet the needs of all students. While we might continue to increase the number of students stamped with a graduate credential, we will never meet the needs of all students. Those we stamp with appropriate credentials may or may not be outfitted with the tools they need to be successful in life. We need many models of high schools, not one that is the cheapest and most efficient way to deliver graduate credentials to students.