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Some schools turning focus to smaller learning communities

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School districts in California are involved in the biggest building boom in history, thanks to voters' approval of more than $25 billion worth of school construction bonds during the past three years.

While some districts plan to build "big box" campuses capable of housing literally thousands of students, others have vowed to use their funding to build smaller campuses and to redesign existing schools into smaller learning communities.

"The thinking used to be that bigger was better, but that's not necessarily the case anymore," said Dr. Glenn Massengale, a former school district superintendent who serves as the K-12 practice leader for HMC Architects.

Indeed, while school districts in San Diego and across the nation spent more than 40 years making schools as big as they could, thinking their sheer size would give the facilities a longer shelf life, a growing body of research has found that students actually perform better in smaller learning environments.

"Researchers suggest it's best to design smaller schools, ideally with no more than 400 students, and to break up existing schools into smaller learning communities or groupings where teachers and students can more closely interact with one another, both socially and academically," Massengale said.

With this in mind, along with an $11 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the San Diego Unified School District hired HMC Architects to restructure three of its existing high schools into smaller learning communities last year. Working closely with school district teachers and administrators, HMC reconfigured Crawford, Kearny, and San Diego high schools into 14 separate academies during the summer of 2004. Each academy has about 400-500 students.

The restructuring was largely achieved by reorganizing the campuses into separate and distinct learning communities based on grade level or by creating separate academies that focus on specific areas of study, such as business, science and technology and communications. Each small learning community has its own entry and exit points, common areas and architectural design elements to heighten their unique sense of identity, although some facilities, such as cafeterias, libraries and gymnasiums, are shared.

Although it's too soon to fully measure the success of the reconfiguration of Crawford, Kearny, and San Diego high schools, the transformation of larger schools into smaller learning communities has been successful in many school districts nationwide. Additionally, researchers have found compelling evidence that students perform better in smaller learning environments.

A 2000 study by RAND found that states with the lowest student-teacher ratio in the early grades had the highest scores on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. The study was based on the performance of 2,500 students in 44 states using NAEP test data from 1990, 1992, 1994 and 1996.

Similarly, the American Youth Policy Forum concluded in 2000 that smaller schools prepare students for college as well as or better than larger schools on college related variables such as entrance examination scores, acceptance rates, attendance, grade point average and completion. Smaller schools also help close the achievement gap between students from higher income families, most white and Asian-American families and students from lower-income families, mostly African-American and Hispanic-American families, according to a 1998 report by Michael Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"Smaller student-teacher groups appear to bring better results because teachers get to know students individually and take an ongoing interest in their overall success," Massengale said, adding that smaller learning communities are needed not only to ensure that students complete high school, but to encourage students to reach their full academic potential throughout their school years.

Massengale said interest in small learning communities is also mounting as our population grows, as the workday lengthens as and parents' commuting times increase, all of which force families to rely on schools more than ever to provide a greater array of both educational and social support services.

Although HMC Architects is actively promoting the development of small learning communities in California, the concept is also being fueled by a number of public and private initiatives across the country. These include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed more than $600 million to start new small schools nationwide and to restructure existing large high schools into smaller learning communities, as well as the Smaller Learning Communities Initiative, a federal Department of Education effort that grants money to local education agencies to plan, develop and implement smaller learning communities.

Of course, student academic performance is influenced by more than architectural designs.

"Just changing the architectural arrangements in a school doesn't mean it's effective," said Raymond Pecheone, co-executive director of the School Redesign Network at Stanford University, whose mission is to support the redesign of large high schools into small learning communities. "But if you focus on the teaching and learning that supports small learning communities in conjunction with architectural designs that support collaboration and student achievement, then we have created a powerful environment for learning."

Looking to the future, Pecheone said he expects small learning community templates to be increasingly used by school districts in California and across the nation.

"I expect demand for small learning communities to just explode over the next couple of years," he said. "In the future, we're going to have a whole range of different school models designed to support powerful learning for all students and that will provide all students access to college and to the high performance jobs of the future."

Crider works in media relations for HMC Architects

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