Being small is not enough

A high school that is small in size is not enough to ensure student learning and post-high-school success. Ancess (2008) suggests that the four following characteristics are essential in an effective small school:

1. Caring Relationships – appear essential for student achievement. This includes relationships between students and teachers, as well as relationships among teachers. Students need unwavering teacher access, support and appropriately, teacher-imposed pressure for the learning process. Teachers and students need to get to know each other and have ongoing conversations that encourage learning. These conversations can be both formal, focused on learning, and informal, where the topics may be centered on a student’s life, problems, successes, or aspirations. As the bond between teacher and student develop, teachers can leverage the relationship to further encourage and persuade student growth. This can help students transcend their own perceived limitations.

Caring relationships among teachers, who need to work together in support of their students’ learning, should also develop as teachers share planning times, collaborate, and problem solve together. Teachers feel a sense of collective responsibility for their students’ learning. These caring relationships are characterized by interdependence, respect, and trust.

2. Unified School Community – The school needs to be a community where learning and relationships are valued. There should be shared educational beliefs, goals, rituals, commitments and norms. Professional development for teachers includes a focus on these further. The community works together to support students academically, socially, emotionally and spiritually. All adults are mentors and advisors in this process.

3. Strong Safety Net – Multiple systems can be set in place to safeguard student development. Through an advisory program, every student is assigned to an adult who takes responsibility for the student. This includes close communication with parents, access to community- and church-based support organizations, and a four-year sequence of activities that help prepare students for necessary post-high school decisions. Grade-level teams meet to share information and monitor student progress. Professional development opportunities help teachers strengthen this safety net by offering necessary guidance strategies in their work.

4. Intellectually Transformative Experiences – As students encounter success in school and produce high-quality, intellectually focused work, they gain a greater appreciation for their ability and future. They develop an interest in learning, which fosters, in turn, greater motivation for using their minds. Using their minds means “getting [students] to analyze, reason, mount a logical argument and defend it, solve problems, conduct research, negotiate conflicting perspectives, imagine possibilities, question their own and others’ assumptions, and use the power of their ideas to persuade others to change their opinions” (Ancess, 2008, p. 51). Teachers need to provide school tasks that are worthy of their engagement.


Ancess, J. (2008, May). Small alone is not enough. Educational Leadership 65(8); 48-53.


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