Schools attempt to think smaller
By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Gorrie Elementary School principal Susan Foster can tell you the name of almost every child who attends her school in South Tampa.
And when those students are struggling in reading, writing or math, she usually knows that, too.
"We feel like none of the students falls through the cracks," Foster said. "I love having a small school."
Foster's school, which has an enrollment of 500 students, is an anomaly in Florida, which has the largest schools in the nation.
But Gorrie will be joined by other small-by-design schools when Hillsborough County departs from its usual approach and opens seven small schools in the next three years. The first three open this fall.
School districts are facing a state deadline that requires them to construct smaller schools or organize their campuses into smaller environments. Several districts, including Pinellas County's, are trying to add a little smallness by reconfiguring existing schools.
"When it's small, you tend to know people's names," said Pinellas assistant superintendent Catherine Fleeger, whose district is applying for a federal grant to transform five high schools. "That personalizes things. Students are not just in essence numbers, but individuals."
By 2003, districts will be required to cap elementary schools at 500 students, middle schools at 700 and high schools at 900.
But pending legislation could raise those numbers to 900 students for middle schools and 1,200 for high schools. Districts could apply for exemptions based on cost and other factors.
"The way the law is now, it's going to be financially impossible for larger, overcrowded school districts to implement," said Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, the bill's sponsor. "It's a wonderful goal. It's just not financially feasible."
Despite an abundance of research showing that smaller is better when it comes to school size, Florida's schools have remained stubbornly large.
The average elementary school in Florida has 768 students, compared with a national average of 482. And the average secondary school in the state has 1,483 students, almost twice the national average of 786.
Most schools in the Tampa Bay area mirror those figures.
With little land and lots of children, districts have traditionally built large schools to stretch their construction dollars.
"We don't like to build large schools, a single high school with 4,000 to 5,000 kids," said Michael Rapp, director of planning of Pasco County schools, whose average high school has 1,900 students. "But I don't think we can afford to build a high school with 900 to 1,200 kids in it."
Most educators debate the issue of small schools from two perspectives: financial and educational.
Although the benefits of small schools are well-documented, they say, the money is not there to keep them that way.
Graydon Howe, director of plant operations in Hernando County, said small schools "fly in the face of every economic concern you can imagine."
You need more of them, which increases construction and land costs, he said. Utilities, transportation and personnel costs also rise.
"It goes with all that do-gooder thinking, small neighborhoods with picket fencing," said Howe, who has been designing schools since 1960. "That's wonderful, but that isn't reality."
Getting on the priority list
Many parents would like to see their children in a small school. But just like teachers, they believe school size is less important than class size.
A new survey from Public Agenda, paid for by the pro-small school Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, found that 47 percent of parents and 70 percent of teachers believe small classes are more important than school size. Forty-three percent of parents and 23 percent of teachers said the two are equally important.
Gil Schmerler doesn't agree.
As the chairman of the department of educational leadership at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City, he said small class size is a priority, but small schools might be the "first determinant of success. A small school implies more than just a small facility."
Research shows that children attend class more often in small schools, participate more in extracurricular activities, act out less and feel safer. And their parents are usually more involved.
The downside to small schools is their inability to offer as many specialized classes.
A 2000 study of Chicago's small school movement by Bank Street concluded that smaller schools improve student performance, teacher relationships and parent satisfaction.
That said, the majority of schools nationwide are large.
"Even though most people recognize the benefits of smallness, it hasn't gotten on to anyone's top priority list," Schmerler said.
In an ideal world, all schools would be small like the seven new schools on the horizon in Hillsborough, said Bill Person, the district's director of pupil assignment.
"Most educators will agree, a small school is optimum," he said. "But I'm talking instructionally, not financially."
Over the past several years, Hillsborough has grown by an average of 4,000 students a year, driving the need for larger schools.
The main reason the three new elementary schools will only have a capacity of 500 students, half the usual size, is that land where they are being built is scarce.
Hillsborough deputy superintendent Jim Hamilton said he hasn't seen much of a difference between small and large schools.
"We have schools of every size doing great, and schools of every size that could improve," he said.
Pinellas officials, however, are hoping a new approach will personalize the student experience at Dixie Hollins, Gibbs, Lakewood, Northeast and Pinellas Park high schools.
On Tuesday, the Pinellas School Board is expected to approve a $2.5-million, three-year federal grant request to provide those high schools with smaller environments. Under the proposal, groups of teachers would work with a set group of students.
Fleeger said the teachers and the students will get to know each other more and teachers will be able to quickly identify academic problems.
"We have for many years known the value of trying to create these small learning communities," she said. "Now we're trying to create adults that know students . . . and students on that team who feel like a family."
-- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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