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It's not the Size of the School, It's the Size of the Learning Communities

By Bob Pearlman, Senior Educational Consultant, Fielding Nair International
January, 2017

By the late 1990s the American comprehensive high school had grown larger and larger, many with 2000 to 4000 or more students, and came under increased scrutiny and critique by researchers(1) and policymakers for their impersonal nature. A robust movement emerged to break up these large high schools and redesign them as smaller learning communities or complexes of small schools. The National Association of Secondary School Principals’ (NASSP) 1996 Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution and its follow-up Breaking Ranks II, a 2004 hands-on guide, recommended the transformation of high schools to “academically rigorous, personalized learning environment that leads to improved student performance.” This movement was strongly fueled in the 2000s by the US DOE’s Smaller Learning Communities grant program and by the funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

However, experience has shown that it is not the size of the school that is the critical factor in school redesign. Instead, it is the size of the learning communities within the school building that is critical for personalization and cross-classroom collaboration.

Regardless of overall enrollment, secondary school facilities throughout the world comprise a large set of classrooms augmented by specialty facilities (labs, art rooms, physical education spaces, etc.). In typical high schools the classroom areas show no special organization to enable cross-classroom collaboration and the classroom themselves are rarely contiguous to extended learning spaces or breakout areas.

Starting in the late 1990s, however, many high schools re-organized themselves as a set of small learning communities and academies, or as a complex of small schools. The Hawai’i State Department of Education was an early leader of such high school redesign (see Hawai’i Academies and Smaller Learning Communities).

Most often redesign meant dividing a large high school into 4 or more separate areas where a cohort of students took a majority of their classes. Facilities planners did their best to reuse existing buildings (adaptive reuse), retrofitting separate wings through color coding and other enhancements, but there was only so much that could be achieved in existing buildings. Starting in the early 2000s, however, many new high schools were designed and built to purpose as a set of small learning communities and academies, or as a complex of small schools, including Hawaii’s Kapolei High School (see Kapolei HS profile). The massive $18 billion building program of the Los Angeles Unified School District, as a school board policy, built its new high and middle schools around smaller learning communities or as complexes of small schools.

We see this pattern through the United States, whether it is a small school of 400-600 students, or a large high school of 1500 to 3000 students. In each instance the high school is designed and organized as a set of multiple grade-level small learning communities and grade 10-12 or 11-12 SLCs or academies. Typically, these small learning communities and academies comprise 100 to 150 students for each year group. Why is this the appropriate and ideal cohort size?

Fielding Nair International (FNI) has significant experience in designing 21st century schools since 2003. FNI replaces the traditional double-loaded corridor classroom structure with clusters of small learning communities of 150 students and a set of 4-6 collaborating teachers. FNI

Learning Communities (LCs) feature not classrooms but Learning Studios clustered around common areas for collaborative student work.

Above: Learning Community design at Fisher STEAM Middle School, Greenville, SC

FNI leaders Randall Fielding and Prakash Nair have written about this learning community size in numerous articles and books. In Best Practice in Action: Six Essential Elements that Define Educational Facility Design,(2) Fielding writes:

Thoughtful design of the site and facility enhances the sense of belonging by proving spaces for a layered hierarchy of groups, including:
• Individual-scale spaces—from a rocking chair or cubby storage space for a pre-kindergartener, to a personal workstation for a middle or senior school student
• “Family or extended family” scale spaces accommodating advisory groups, home units, or project teams of 10, 15 or 20
• Small learning communities of 100 to 150
• Neighborhoods of two or more small learning communities
• Multiple small learning communities and neighborhoods across campus

In the 2009 revised 2nd edition of The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21st Century Schools(3), Nair, Fielding, and Lackney write that “The old standard building block of a school was the classroom unit. A new standard has emerged strongly since the last publication of this book: The Small Learning Community (SLC).”

In his 2014 book, Blueprint for Tomorrow Redesigning Schools for Student-Centered Learning(4), Prakash Nair explains the origin of the recommended cohort size:

“There is growing consensus among educators that SLCs should include no more than 150 students—preferably fewer. In fact, there may be a scientific basis for this limitation. In his book The Tipping Point(5), Malcolm Gladwell refers to evolutionary biology as the reason why human beings have what he calls a “social-channel capacity” that limits the number of people they can effectively interact with. Gladwell quotes British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who contends that “the figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship.”

Gladwell’s book came out in 2000 as the SLC movement was emerging and heavily influenced educators throughout the country. Adult-Student relationships and personalization have been key goals of the movement to redesign high schools into SLCs and small schools(6). The 100 to 150 ideal SLC size is based first on Dunbar’s research but it also speaks to the ideal size of an interdisciplinary and collaborating teacher team of 4 to 6 core teachers.

Some SLCs and Career Academies comprise multiple grades, 9-12, 10-12, or 11-12, and exceed 150, however each year group is 100 to 150 students or less. This cohort size is validated in research and case studies of SLC implementation(7).

Thus, secondary schools of all sizes can consist of “multiple small learning communities and neighborhoods” or multiple Academies and SLCs which are themselves made up of clusters of Learning Communities. For example, the Global Indian International School (GIIS), in Punggol, Singapore, designed by FNI, features 24 learning communities for its 3800 students K-12.

Above: Global Indian International School (GIIS), in Punggol, Singapore

In practice, both in the United States and around the globe, new school buildings designed as small schools or complexes of small schools have done a much better job than large schools in preserving these Learning Community features.

These features of “multiple small learning communities and neighborhoods” can be seen in many FNI-designed buildings where the LC structure is being successfully implemented. Pictured below is the learning community layout at Bloomfield Hills High School, Bloomfield Hills, MI, and the Commons collaboration area of a learning community.

Above: Bloomfield Hills High School, Bloomfield Hills, MI

at Fisher STEAM Middle School, Greenville, SC. Fisher STEAM Middle School is 2015 CEFPI MacConnell Award winner. The MacConnell Award “recognizes an outstanding, comprehensive planning process, which results in educational facilities that serve the needs of students, staff, and the community, and facilitate student achievement.”

Above: Fisher STEAM Middle School, Greenville, SC

Many other FNI-designed schools of varying student enrollments feature learning communities, including Norma Rose Point School, Vancouver, British Columbia; Anne Frank Inspire Academy, San Antonio, TX; Roosevelt Elementary School, Medford, OR; P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School, Gainesville, FL; and The International School of Brussels, Brussels, Belgium.

(1) Raywid, M. A. (1996a). Taking stock: The movement to create mini-schools, schools-within-schools, and separate small schools. Urban Diversity Series No 108. New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, Teachers College, Columbia University. (ED 396 045). Also Cotton, K. (1996a). School size, school climate, and student performance. Close-up #20. Portland OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.
(2) Best Practice in Action: Six Essential Elements that Define Educational Facility Design, by Randall Fielding, CEFPI Planner, December 2006
(3) Small Learning Community Model, (Pages 33-45), in The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21st Century Schools, By Prakash Nair, Randall Fielding, and Jeffrey Lackney (DesignShare, Revised 3rd Edition - Dec. 2013, First Edition 2005).
(4) Prakash Nair, Blueprint for Tomorrow Redesigning Schools for Student-Centered Learning (Harvard Education Press, 2014) also covers The Small Learning Community, by Design. Pages 75-82.
(5) Gladwell, Malcolm. The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. Little, Brown, 2000.
(6) Creating Cultures for Learning: Supportive Relationships in New and Redesigned High Schools, American Institutes for Research and SRI International, April 2005, page 48.
(7) Bernstein, Lawrence, et al. “Implementation Study of Smaller Learning Communities. Final Report,” US Department of Education, 2008.
An Overview of Smaller Learning Communities in High Schools, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, 2001



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