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Schools find success in becoming smaller

Published Aug. 24, 2005

Debbie Fisher, a teacher at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg, has a problem her peers can only wish for:

After class, her students don't want to leave.

Fisher attributes their clinginess to an ongoing, federally funded project that she says is creating a small-school feel at Northeast, a typically big Florida school with 2,200 students.

In a smaller school, the students "become your children, they become attached," Fisher said. "That's a positive sign."

The Northeast High project is one of hundreds across the country and dozens in Florida that reflect the growing influence of the small-schools movement. Supporters hope the close-knit atmosphere of "smaller learning communities," such as those being developed at Northeast, will lead to academic gains _ especially in Florida, which is saddled with the biggest schools in the nation and among the worst drop-out rates.

Some small-school supporters say school size is a better predictor of academic success than even class size.

Class size is "so teacher dependent," said Michael Klonsky, an education professor who directs the Small Schools Workshop at the University of South Florida Sarasota. But school size "affects the whole culture of the school."

Despite all the attention paid to class size in Florida, the small-schools movement is quietly making inroads here, boosted by research that shows students in smaller schools attend more frequently, score better on standardized tests and are less likely to get into trouble.

Today, hundreds of supporters will gather at the Sirata Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach for the beginning of a three-day conference on small schools that includes visits to several big schools, including Northeast, that are undergoing conversions.

Small schools are "like the bar where everybody knows your name," said Klonsky, a former high school English teacher. "If you're in a place where everybody knows your name, you're going to do better."

Florida doesn't have the money to build truly small schools, not with its feverish population growth and reluctance to boost education spending. But more than a dozen Florida districts, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, are using federal grants to try the next best thing: schools within schools.

By funneling students into different academic programs on the same campus _ commonly called "smaller learning communities" _ administrators hope students and teachers will build the kind of one-on-one relationships so lacking in big schools.

With $5-million in federal grants, Pinellas is in the process of transforming 11 of its 17 high schools.

Northeast High, for example, now offers separate centers for finance, information technology, and hospitality and tourism, in addition to its previously established Academy of Transportation. Next year, a center for math and science will come online.

Tenth-graders choose a center, then take center-linked electives along with core classes.

The difference: They keep many of the same teachers and congregate with the same students, year after year.

"You end up having that bond," said Fisher, who directs the school's Center of Finance.

This year, the finance center has 90 students, a number Fisher said will grow rapidly in coming years. For now, the centers do not have enrollment caps, but such limits are inevitable, she said.

Eventually, every student at Northeast will be in a center.

Pinellas administrators won't be able to measure how effective the high school conversions have been for another year or two, but early results suggest there is a difference.

At Dixie Hollins High School, tardy rates have dropped more than 30 percent among ninth-graders this year, a year after the school clustered its classes as part of a program called Cornerstone. Now, said program director Jeannie Wallace, "they can't get lost."

Pinellas isn't the only place scaling down. The Sacramento, Calif., district has shifted entirely to small schools, and Chicago has embarked on a plan to create 100 new small schools in the next six years.

The movement has strong support from the federal government, which has handed out nearly $300-million in small-school grants since 2000, and from Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, whose foundation has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to create small schools.

Supporters say Florida can use all the help it can get.

Public schools in the Sunshine State remain the largest in the nation, despite the growth of charter schools, which tend to be smaller. According to federal statistics, Florida high schools average 1,565 students _ almost twice the national average.

But districts say there isn't much they can do: Faced with relentless growth, economies of scale force them to build big.

Now they must devote scarce resources to shrinking class sizes, too.

Many educators say the class-size and school-size movements both make sense, but in the battle for money and attention, class size has the upper hand.

In 1999, Florida lawmakers capped the size of new schools, but three years later, voters okayed the class-size amendment, which has forced the state to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new schools so classrooms are less crowded.

Quietly, the cap on school size was repealed.

Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 893-8873 or