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A Study in Size 

Three years ago, San Francisco launched an experiment with a new kind of school. It worked. So why isn't the district pursuing it?

Wednesday, May 3 2006
Travis Fenech struts down the hallway of the June Jordan School for Equity in the Excelsior, copping the self-assured swagger of a rapper. His pants hang several inches below his waist, and a black leather jacket blankets his upper body. The curls of his dirty blond hair, which he's been growing out for months, are matted down in the front and frizzed out in back. The look conveys the devil-may-care attitude adopted by Fenech, his friends, and most other 16-year-old American boys.

Fenech enters his advisory period (like homeroom), greeting each classmate with "What up?" and an inverted handshake, then sits near the back. It's the Friday before spring break — not a heavy academic day — so most of the 11th-graders are working on the mock college applications due at 4 p.m. Fenech pulls a piece of paper out from his mess of a backpack.

"This is my freshman year," he says, pointing past the transcript's columns of grades (mostly B's and C's) to another string of numbers: 6, 8, 6, 10, 8, 30. Those figures represent, class by class, Fenech's absences during his first semester at John O'Connell High School of Technology in the Mission District. Fenech says the numbers vastly underestimate how much school he missed. The problem was so bad that his father, Charles Fenech, a longtime truck driver, considered taking on a second job to cover the cost of sending Travis to military school.

Instead, Fenech transferred to June Jordan, one of a few small-by-design public schools in the San Francisco Unified School District, across the street from his house. Small-by-design schools limit their size to about 100 students per grade (as compared to as much as 650 per grade at traditional S.F. schools), which enables administrators to more easily adapt the curriculum to the kids and creates a tight-knit community of parents, teachers, and students. Fenech may not have earned a place on the June Jordan honor roll, but he's missed only one school day in the last year and a half, has a B average, and plans to attend college.

When June Jordan opened three years ago, small-by-design schools were viewed by some as yet another flavor-of-the-month experiment in San Francisco, though they were encouraged by millions of dollars in grants from the Gates Foundation and others. Despite decades of research showing the benefits of fewer students per school, many local parents and SFUSD administrators were skeptical, suffering from a sort of reform fatigue.

June Jordan and its ilk got less autonomy and thinner budgets than small-by-design schools in other cities, but the pilot project worked. Students like Fenech, who might have fallen through the cracks and dropped out at a larger school, have thrived, and June Jordan's low-income, minority students are outperforming most of their peers statewide. Yet SFUSD still hasn't figured out how to capitalize on that success, leaving frustrated parents asking: If we've finally found something that seems to help, why aren't we pursuing it? The answer is a typical San Francisco mix of distraction, misplaced priorities, and bureaucratic inertia.

The modern small schools movement began about 20 years ago, as disparate groups of teachers and parents searched for ways to fix struggling, big-city school districts. They had different ideas about how and what to teach, but wanted the autonomy to break out of a one-size-fits-all district-wide curriculum and increase student interest and involvement. Based on the available academic research, small schools seemed like a promising method for making change on a limited scale. Two distinct types emerged: autonomous small-by-design schools (like June Jordan) and schools-within-a-school, in which larger schools were reorganized into distinct entities housed in the same complex.

Small schools are different from charter schools, though they're often confused (and frequently overlap). Charter schools are funded directly by the state, rather than through the local school district. This gives their administrators near-total control over everything from academics to budgeting for facilities. Yet they don't inherently limit themselves by size. Small-by-design schools almost always have fewer than 100 students per grade, which gives administrators slightly more power over academics and student life than at a traditional large school, which is almost entirely controlled by the district. Plus, it's easier to build consensus and spark unconventional ideas — and put them into practice — among a smaller group of teachers and families. They can be in-district public schools (like June Jordan), public charter schools (like Leadership High School in the Excelsior), or even private schools.

In the early years of the small schools movement, most states did not allow charter schools, so teachers and parents focused on lobbying for change within their local districts. Eventually, cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston opened several small schools, and the movement spread throughout the 1990s. By 2000, there were about 3,000 small schools nationwide. Not all of them succeeded, but they did produce a compelling body of research showing that, in the majority of cases, small schools improve student grades, test scores, attendance, and safety, and reduce levels of violent behavior and drug abuse. This data drew interest from private corporations (nonprofit and for-profit), which brought a more top-down, businesslike philosophy to what was once a grassroots effort.

The Gates Foundation has been the largest donor, granting more than $1 billion toward high schools during the last six years and helping to create more than 1,900 new small schools across America. In Oakland, $35 million from the foundation has supported a district revamp, with 28 small-by-design schools opening since 2001 and a dozen more starting up this fall.

By comparison, San Francisco's Secondary School Redesign Initiative — a five-year-old plan to create small schools aimed at helping low-performing students — has run a much slower course. The Gates Foundation gave $1 million to the S.F. Schools Alliance (the nonprofit that bundles grants for SFUSD) for the 2003-2004 school year, most of which went toward the founding of June Jordan and Aim High Academy, a small-by-design middle school. Over the last three years, it also funded the redesign of Mission High School and Balboa High School as "small learning communities" (i.e., schools-within-a-school), the aborted expansion of Gloria R. Davis into a hybrid middle/high school, and other youth-related projects. There are no other small-by-design schools within the district — only small charter and private schools outside it — and no concrete plans for any new ones.

About The Author

Ryan Blitstein


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