The education sector has seen many changes in the past years. Many of these changes if not all, are attempts by the stakeholders to better the education standard in the United States. These have seen even the central government and congress passing a bill that brought about the No Child Left Behind programs. However, no such approach has attracted the attention of almost everybody such as the small community school initiatives. Many scholars believe that the best approach to equal educational opportunities is through small and newly unit-like schools. This may explain why many district schools and education stakeholders are turning their focus to this approach that they say establishes a sense of belonging among the students, communities, and. This paper, therefore, goes further to analyze the actual relationship between the small community schools and the academic success of the students at risk of failure.
When the term equal opportunity for access to education is mentioned, the first thing that crosses the mind is the students at risk of failure in some lowly equipped schools vs. elite schools. Public schools, especially those in urban areas are expectedly congested, faced with high rates of violence that consequently leads to low graduation turnover. These ills have led many people to question the credibility and viability of the public education system in the United States.
To counter the barriers to success for these highly populated urban schools, different education stakeholders in the schools have adopted new strategies to improve the standards, that Ancess (2003), calls “urban dreamcatchers”, a term woven by Wove Webs’ “dreamcatchers” in reference to the Native American Great Lakes tribe of Ojibway’s way of protecting their young ones from remote harm. This strategy generally uses the principle of small units of students for an effective approach to the set goals, with believe and hope that small, and new schools will create a more fair, humane, and balanced environment for all learners. This is because “adults work better and students work better when they know each other” (Darling-Hammond, et al., 1993). However, Access points out that being small and humane alone can never be enough, and that this opportunity if used to develop a closer relationship between students, their teachers, and other stakeholders, will help to leverage the overall system for better intellectual development, achievement, and success. The approach should differentiate these schools from other schools that provide bad education to their students, and those that treat their students well but offer little in terms of education. However, Fullan (2001) offers his general argument related to this topic, implying that it is more of innovations for change in education, that if not well planned, can just remain “change” and not necessarily to the positive side. The point is that there is some success that is expected out of this new approach if the congress-passed law on No Child Left behind (NCLB) Act (2002) and Adequate Yearly Progress (ADY) is to be realized (Darling-Hammond, 1993).
The vision of the small community schools, just like any other organization, has been that of a belief possibilities statement that can be used to advance success. With the general belief that education is the best way of making a difference in the life of an individual and enhancing the countries democracy, any attempt to make education for all successful should not only be praised but supported at all costs. Many of these institutions have therefore stressed the need to promote the principle of a clear and concise vision that can be understood and practiced by all stakeholders, that is, to help and guide in the school design and development. Access states that whenever there are conflicts and disagreements, it’s the vision that would make the school community stay focused and on course. Physics teacher at International High School, David Hirschy explains that whenever they are in conflicts, they usually turn to the vision of the school to stay on course. Gail Lemelbaum of Urban Academy explains, “There is constant discussion about what kind of school we want to be, what kind of school we are, what sort of things we need to work on. I find that very, very helpful.” (Oakes & Darling-Hammond, 2009). The successes of these small schools are definitely enhanced by the ability and ease of implementing their visions. By being small or by starting small, the school communities are able to design an implementation plan with ease, grow slowly, and focus specifically on the community’s needs, culture, and credibility. This subsequently contains a structure that ensures safety, order, and stability that ensures effective teaching and learning. Through well-organized implementation, the school communities are in a position to discover new ideas that can help improve the programs of small schools, without using many resources. This was successfully applied in International High School, where some teachers asked one unit (cluster) of students (a subdivision of students) to develop an instrument for the instructional activity that could illustrate the scientific principle they studied. The tremendous success of this activity led the entire school to apply it across the board. Again a good implementation process can stabilize the departments since they have the time and emotional freedom to reflect, and risk-take.
The other aspect that attributes the success of small learning communities is seen in its size and the close proximity of the stakeholders and students. Due to their size, the community members are in a position to pay attention to each other, more so the founders who are able to set the strong based foundation for the institution’s progress and professional development of the community members. When they work close, teachers are able to find forums to share more as concerns the learning and teaching methodologies, thereby making it possible for them to learn from other’s successes and mistakes. As Greene (1995) puts it, “it can be easier for a small rather than large group of people to talk to one another frequently and informally as issues and problems arise.” This type of association, where people are free to talk both formally and informally enable the school community to build a foundation for growth since they are likely to discuss the real-life situation of teaching rather than theoretical or imagined approach. They are able to close the existing gaps between them, especially in their beliefs, rhetoric, as well as practice. If they discuss these inevitable differences, they are able to challenge one another thus converge at common ground for the benefit of the school goals and principles. This would go hand in hand with the building of a culture of interdependency and intellectual understanding. Darling-Hammond, et al (1993) says that “Starting these conversations early in the life of the school informally and formally at staff meetings establish a tradition of discourse, reflection, and professional development that can keep the school responsive and responsible”.
It’s easier for small schools to uncover their potentials and make themselves unique and special through their programs. They can do this by identifying areas that make them different from others, especially some features that define them and make them distinct, just to boost the goal achievement. For example, New York City’s Community Service Academy instituted a community service internship program for its students, a program that highly assists the students of this institution with the practical aspects of their education. Such a program is only viable and possible with small instituted groups or schools (Darling-Hammond, et al., 1993). Through this it is easy for the institution to, learn what they are and how they came to be what they are, thus helping them push to a particular boundary of the institution’s rituals to balance between the innovativeness and traditional routines (McCartney, 2001).
This breed of schools is based on the principle of trust rather than rules and regulations between the community and other stakeholders (Ancess, 2003). With all the stakeholders coming from different backgrounds of culture and intellectual capability, there is bound to be strong diversity in opinion and visual ideas of how the structure should look like. The common vision will bring together diverse and help in community building. This calls for the development of a common ground for effective and timely communication channels. Due to their small nature, they can easily initiate a culture of sharing ideas, both formally and informally, thus consequently integrating all cultural and background differences. In addition, this initiative helps an internally and strongly built community school to connect with external people or organizations, thus establishing an extended family and reinforce the relationships with other like-minded schools that can attract external support. For a school to transform into a community, students, staff, and parents must be willing to develop a community-building mechanism. This calls for a well-structured mechanism for opportunities to help students, staff, teachers, and parents to get attached at the personal level. The teaching staff does have an opportunity to develop cohesiveness and care between themselves and towards the students and parents. Such privileges can only be enjoyed by small schools, which tend to find it easier structuring or restructuring the available opportunities for attachment development and professional sharing of information. This is in contrast to big schools which require big and occasional schedules that are never sufficient in bringing people together (Gutmann, 1987). It is noted that students normally want to develop a more cordial and close relationship with the adults as well as peers in the institution and externally, it is thus sufficient to conclude that this would be an easier process due to their small number, thereby increasing the chances of success. This is enhanced by specific arrangements such as a small student/teacher ratio, launching mechanisms like tutorials, and shared space between the students and their teachers (Oakes & Darling-Hammond, 2009). In this kind of setting, students are in a position to interact in all aspects such as academics, social and extra-curricula events thus bringing in the culture of belonging, togetherness in building the school culture and sense of family-like unit.
The parents have got the challenge of being pioneers in establishing a new school. Since they have a sense of belonging in such an institution, they are tasked with new challenges such as the writing of the new constitution and establishing the management committees, parents find themselves making a new route for their direct involvement in the school management. This kind of participation can be a useful tool in the long-term goals of the institution and creating a sense of belonging among the parents as accounted for by the parents of Manhattan East School. After all the attempts to have District Office repair the school’s leaking roofs and collapsing walls failed, they decided to come together with series of meetings that saw the problem solved as fast they could imagine. To date, parents still mention such incidence as the most trying moment for their involvement with the school directly as a stakeholder. Such feelings are likely to be passed on and inscribed in the memory of every parent.
Any new school with a clear and coherent vision to follow can never fail to get access to external connections with other like-minded people or individuals. As Prosise & Himes (1997) states, “Networks that connect new schools to other like-minded schools mitigate against the pain and vulnerability of isolation inherent in school starting and school keeping”. The small number of those involved does help the school and the management to pursue any innovative structure to development and progress. There are quite a number of networks that have proved beneficial to these small community schools with clear visions. Such networks as the Center for Collaborative Education and New Visions (New York), National Coalition Essential Schools are built to provide the schools with such technical areas as problem-solving skills and knowledge sharing techniques. This consequently widens the context of learning by initiating learning through sharing with mainly established schools as well as new ones (Ancess, 2003).
Public schools, urban areas are generally congested, due to high rates of enrolment but with poor graduation rates. These ills have led many people to question the credibility and viability of the public education system in the United States.
In general terms, some of the new changes that have occurred in the past years in an attempt to better the education standard in the United States have not been successful. Such programs as the No Child Left Behind monitored solely by Adequate Yearly Progress have received enough share of criticism for their failure to take into consideration the multifaceted education sector. As Fullan (2001) says, “Educational change, above all, is a people-related phenomenon for each and every individual.” This would explain why many district schools and education stakeholders are turning to small community schools that seem to bring a sense of belonging among the stakeholders. Another reason could be because its widely cited success with both parents, teachers, students, administrators, and the communities as a whole find it more viable and practicable. To solve the barriers to the success of public education in these populated urban schools, different education stakeholders in the schools have adopted new strategies to improve the standards. The principle of small units of students for an effective approach to the set goals, with belief and hope that small, and new schools have helped them create a more humane and balanced environment for students. This is in line with what scholars have found to be a better way of tackling inequality in education in the United States since “adults work better and students work better when they know each other” (Darling-Hammond, et al., 1993).
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