Somebody that should get out more said there are bad small schools so it must be a bad idea (sounds like a Ravitch interpretation of a Raymond charter study). Not all small schools are good, but all good schools are small–a necessary but not sufficient condition. A small school gives a handful of responsible adults an chance to know the students, create an intentional culture, shape a dynamic and coherent curriculum, and change the course of a high need community.

It’s possible to do this stuff in a big school–it’s just really hard. Most big schools have a student developed culture. A few big schools have an adult culture, but they don’t serve low income students (ie, they are private, affluent, or just push out ‘kids that can’t’).

We return to the subject of big bad public schools. What to do with the monstrous buildings constructed in the last 30 years? I think we have conclusive evidence that if they are really bad the only solution is closing them and turn the space over to one or more school developers that can open and run great schools (there are 90 good examples of this in NYC alone). When Green Dot took over Locke High School in Los Angeles, they launched seven semi-autonomous small schools in an attempt to get to know and meet the needs of individual students, and to give themselves a chance of success.

The best home grown solution to big bad high schools I’ve seen was Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, KS. An academy and advisory structure was combined with a powerful instructional model that included a lot of performance feedback for teachers. It became the basis for First Things First, a school improvement provider. But like Talent Development, FTF stubbed their toe when trying to fix big bad LA high schools–just another indication of how difficult and important the Green Dot turn around effort is.

This turnaround stuff is hard. I’m worried about the number of weak DIY efforts we’ll see as a results of SIG and RttT grants. You have to change everything about a failing school simultaneously–a complicated project when 3000 kids will show up again in September.

School developers appreciate access to public facilities but know that sharing a building is at best a mixed blessing with all the commotion, tradition, and gravity it brings.

As I recently pointed out, all the new personalization technology will eventually allow us to rethink turnaround efforts and the rules of thumb that have driven a century of productive school development–in fact, they will allow us to rethink everything about this thing called school. Some will be fully virtual; some will meet a couple times a week; some will leverage community assets; most will blend the best of online learning and onsite support.

Nobody every said small was a silver bullet, it just gives well intentioned adults a fighting chance to build an environment that creates viable life options for kids.

Bronx Prep, New York City

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Tom Vander Ark
Tom Vander Ark is author of Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and Learn Capital and serves on the boards of 4.0 Schools, eduInnovation, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners and Bloomboard. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.

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