A couple of posts by Cal Teacher (here, here and here) have gotten me moved me to write about something I have been thinking about for a while - making high schools smaller either by a school within a school model or splitting them up. The Gates Foundation among other groups have been pushing this idea for a while. It sounds good to a lot of people but I'm not so sure about it.
Oh I agree that it many of today's large high schools it is easy to lose students. But small schools are too limited in their options for students. What do you do if there is a poor fit between a student and teacher (it happens) but there is no choice but for that student to have that teacher for a course they need or are interested in? What do you do if a student wants to try something, stretch themselves a bit, but that course is not offered at the school they are at? Transfer? Not always an option.
I went to a very large (over 5000 students) high school a long time ago in a city far far away. But I was never lost even though I was painfully shy and quiet. Why? Because the school had majors or concentrations. I traveled to some key courses (shop, drawing, and science courses tuned to my major) with a smaller cohort. I was at an engineering magnet so we all had shop and drawing classes but they were specific to out major course of studies after our second year. We split up, to some extent but not completely, for other courses like math, English and social studies. So we were a part of the wider school community while maintaining a membership in a smaller community of interest. It worked and worked well.
I think this model could be made to work in schools that are not magnets or special purpose schools as well. Perhaps the focus could be around sports? Or maybe vocational technical programs? Vo-tech students today need and take largely the same math, English and social studies courses other students take. They need to math for example. Perhaps music or performing arts could be a focus. Perhaps, as Cal Teacher suggests, they could be special advisory classes that keep the same students and teacher together for four years. There must be many more ways to build community in a school. The key is to make sure that everyone gets to be a part of a community that knows and values them. Somewhere where as the song goes "everyone knows your name."