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Two girls in a classroom

A new report by the U's Humphrey Institute highlights some of the most effective and innovative district and charter public schools in the united States.

Smaller schools and shared facilities

By Julie Lund

From eNews, May 29, 2008

A recent report by senior fellow Joe Nathan and Sheena Thao of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs concludes that, in general, smaller schools produce higher graduation rates and test scores, fewer discipline problems, and a safer environment than large schools serving similar students.

"We wanted to highlight some of the most effective and innovative district and charter public schools in the country," says Nathan. "Our intent is to share ideas from the finest small schools and schools that share facilities because, in many cases, these schools are much more successful and satisfying places for teachers and students. The very best of these schools have eliminated achievement gaps between students of different races and economic backgrounds."

Along with research on small schools and shared facilities, the report "Smaller, Safer, Saner, Successful Schools" (a revision of the 2001 report of the same name) offers 22 brief case studies of outstanding district and charter public schools in 11 states. The examples come from urban, suburban, and rural areas.

A survey of 16,000 public school districts found that they spent about $25.3 billion in 2006 on school construction. Although the tendency over the past two decades has been to build larger schools, the report points out that tragedies, such as the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, indicate that there are problems as well as strengths when communities create large public schools.

The report refutes the traditional argument that, even if large schools are not more effective, they are cheaper. The report cites several examples of small schools that are cost-effective and "cost no more per pupil than large schools built in the same district."

The study describes the value of schools sharing space with organizations such as museums, social service organizations, and senior citizen organizations. Research cited in the report concludes that "15 out of 20 initiatives [in shared space that were] studied reported improvement in student academic achievement," as measured by improved grades and scores on proficiency tests.

"The major benefit of colocation is improved learning opportunities for students," says Nathan. "Shared facilities also support expanded services for students and their families, particularly social services. The benefits spread from the young people to their parents."

"We hope this report is useful and encouraging," he adds. "It's designed to help people see what some of the most successful schools are doing."

The report was produced under contract from the Minnesota Department of Education, has been praised in a Star Tribune editorial and selected for instructional use by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Copies of the report are available at Minnesota libraries or from the center's Web site.