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Small Schools, Part 1: Smaller Learning Communities

The idea isn't new, but recently the small schools movement has surged forward, largely through the efforts of one of the world's wealthiest private philanthropists.

Bill Gates: The idea is to create an environment where there's a strong relationship between students and teachers.

That's none other than Bill Gates, co-founder of the software giant Microsoft, speaking to NPR last spring. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed more than half a billion dollars to help school districts across the country to create hundreds of small high schools, most housed in a section of an already-existing school. The smaller school, Gates is convinced, is better suited to meet the educational needs of today's kids.

Bill Gates: It's a school that has a cohesiveness and doesn't have quite the size where kids get lost.

Each has its own curriculum, its own principal... and a student body generally limited to 400 or fewer kids, rather than the typical 2000. Cleveland schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has long embraced the concept. Upon hearing this fall that Cleveland would receive 2 million dollars to create small schools, Byrd-Bennett lauded what to her is a giant step forward in district-wide reform.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett: Where the peer pressure is greatest in high school, we know we'll have an opportunity to get our arms around our children, to let them know that they are special, that they are important, that the adults in those buildings recognize them and are committed to making sure they are successful.

Byrd-Bennett and others say what's been missing in large conventional high schools is the potential for more kids to make meaningful connections with adults. To be sure, they say, motivated, success-oriented kids do that already, but it's too easy for those less so to just blend into the crowd, to sit anonymously in the back of the room and not be engaged in their education. Gerard Lesley, one of several leading the conversion of East High School into 4 smaller schools, says those are the kids that fall through the cracks, and the small schools concept aims to pull them in.

Gerard Lesley: Every adult in this school will have a group of students that they are responsible for their academic success.

And in Cleveland, he says, that means everybody, from principals and teachers to cafeteria workers to custodians.

Gerard Lesley: I think every adult has something to offer a student. Many are looking for guidance and I think that one being working in the building already those have already basically demonstrated a love of children, a need to work with children in that venue and in fact they want to work in the district.

Cleveland is among 11 school districts statewide involved in what's known as the Ohio Small Schools Initiative, spearheaded by the Knowledgeworks Foundation based in Cincinnati. The foundation has committed about $41 million to the effort - a little more than half of it Gates money. Other area districts planning small schools include East Cleveland, Euclid and Lorain. But it's the Cleveland Municipal School District that has caught the attention of the Gates Foundation, says Harold Brown, Program Director at Knowledgeworks.

Harold Brown: Cleveland is very attractive on the national scene. It's a major city. It has extraordinary leadership both in Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Mayor Jane Campbell, strong education supporters, but the most interesting thing about Cleveland is Barbara Byrd-Bennett and her team have determined that small high schools is the strategy for Cleveland high schools.

So far Knowledgeworks has funded the conversion of four of Cleveland's comprehensive high schools into 15 to 20 smaller ones. Brown says if they're successful the Gates Foundation will likely put up money to convert the remaining five, setting Cleveland up to become a sort of national laboratory for small schools. CEO Byrd-Bennett considers the district well-suited.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett: In New York it's a bit more of a checkerboard. There are spots of places that are doing the high school transformation to smaller schools. Similarly in Chicago, there are parts of it, in Los Angeles there are parts of it. I think what we're looking for and are proud to be a part of is how do you do this in an entire system? And given we're on of the large urban school districts - clearly not the size of Chicago or New York - but we are large enough to ratchet this up to scale.

Not everyone is so gung ho about the small schools idea. Some teachers - and even administrators - in Cleveland and elsewhere worry that tight deadlines imposed by Knowledgeworks might be more than they can handle.

Anonymous: Things are moving so quickly, there's frustration on the teachers' part.

And, after all the planning and adjusting, will it really make a difference? More on that tomorrow as our story continues. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3.