On June 12, the Education Collaborative for International Schools (ECIS) hosted a virtual event titled Decoding Brilliance: Unveiling the Magic of Intentionally Small Schools. Jeremy Majeski, Principal at Frankfurt International School’s Wiesbaden Campus and committee chair of the Intentionally Small Schools Special Interest Group, moderated the discussion, and Dr. Stuart Grauer was the guest speaker.

Throughout the conversation, Dr. Grauer shared research and insights on small schools. He highlighted six small school topics:

“As I dug into small schools research, which almost did not exist, I discovered early on three ignored facts:

  1. Schools and school districts in the US have grown steadily in size for well over 120 years, and with no research base related to size.
  2. Since the 1960s in the US, teachers have been consistently expressing their desire for smaller learning communities.
  3. With little research base, smaller learning communities are routinely perceived and treated as ‘less’ by virtue of their size, especially by districts wanting to consolidate schools, when, in fact, they often offer more in essential areas.”

Dr. Grauer addressed the question of: “What is a small school?” in detail:

“Some schools love to claim that if their school has a theme, magnet or charter, or if it has some Harkness tables, that makes them effectively small. Small schools often easily have a theme, so people claim if they have a theme or a magnet they are doing the work of small schools. They are not.

Small schools can more easily use local resources and have permeable boundaries, so people will claim their school is small because they use local resources. That’s not small.

Small schools can jump in vans and travel about more, and they ought to if they can, so schools with travel and service programs will claim they do what small schools do.

Small schools tend to have smaller classes, hence any school with a couple overgrown Harkness tables might claim it is small. 

…What I love about small schools most is what I call ‘eye-to-eye.’ If the school has to configure a lot of the classes into rows rather than seminar circles or workstations, it’s probably not a small school. 

Size is the single, real defining factor. Small schools are defined by size, whether they utilize the advantages of small size or not. If they know the advantages, they are more likely to use them, but they are still small even if they sit in rows and do standardized tests all day. My role with the Small Schools Coalition is not to show educators what they can do that makes them small, but to show your small school what you can do to make you excel and receive unique, extraordinary benefits only your size school can receive.

Once classes get over 12 to 14 students, and once campuses contain more than somewhere between 150 and 250 people, things change. If you exceed 300, you start to not be a small school anymore. 400 is not small, unless maybe you are in a public district with thousands in all other schools.

Thresholds matter. In California, in the ’90s, we had the class size reduction act. We spent a billion dollars adding trailers to campuses all over the state so classes could be reduced in size. As the classes dropped from 35 to 28 what we saw was this: absolutely nothing. Because until you drop below 15 and can have a conversation where everyone is eye-to-eye and included, with no back rows, it’s not a small class. The law did not address school or campus size.

A small school is not small if it consists of 400 or more students, and approaching that size, only if it does things just right. According to Gregory’s research, education is optimal at close to half that size, and extensive literature review has shown me that at around 300 students and sometimes less, many small school advantages diminish. I actually like to count the number of people on campus rather than the number of students. Because the size of the community is what really matters.

What we know about group size, organizational dynamics, and behavior in social networks is, of course, not confined to schools. There is a ton of great work in anthropology, sociology, history, and organizational development. To date, however, this research has been mainly disregarded as a part of school design and organization. 

Consider: the typical community in ancient hunter-gatherer societies had almost 120 people, around the average number of friends on Facebook: in starting out on our research into small school size, we were fascinated at these historical bookends. When Malcolm Gladwell came out with The Tipping Point, there was an instant outpouring of attention focused on all kinds of organizational group sizes. 

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell used data from a British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, who had found an upward limit for groups focused on sharing values and cooperation. Dunbar set the approximate parameters of between 100 and 230 as the maximum number of meaningful social connections individuals can cognitively handle: the best size for a successful ‘village.’ Dunbar, selecting a sensible middle number, called this ‘the rule of 150.’ Dunbar’s Number. Typically, at 150, Dunbar believed, people don’t need institutionalized hierarchies — people naturally specialize, as we need them to. There is social mobility, a sense of meritocracy, and a maximized sense of belonging. 

Mature communities such as Amish and Hutterite — even most military companies around the world — seem to follow the same rule. 

Gladwell and others believed that, beyond Dunbar’s Number — above around 150 — the human mind must resort to some combination of ranking, stereotyping, clique identities, etc., in order to understand and sort out so many people and their roles and relationships. People get stratified and put into boxes as institutions or communities grow. This is why inclusion works better in small diverse groups than large. 

Humans tend to have personal thresholds on the number of others they can acknowledge. High school environments which are intimate can succeed at minimizing the amount of bullying, social threat, or disunity. Gladwell furthered that 150 would also be the best size for schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods, because small schools are best equipped socially to counteract what he called the ‘poisonous atmosphere of their surrounding neighborhoods.’ Small schools are the most resistant to division and alienation (Tribalism). 

Continuing Dunbar’s work, Bernard and Killworth estimated 231 as the optimum size of a person’s social network, which of course matched Dunbar’s upper end; they had used university campuses as their locations (Wasserman & Faust). 231 people could sustain a social network within one degree of separation, according to Buchanan.

Deborah Meier famously pioneered small schools. Her Central Park East Secondary School, starting in 1984, broke down schools of over 1,000; capped at 450 students, Meier reported clear gains in student safety and performance at the time of its first graduating class in 1991 and got the MacArthur Genius Award. In a personal communication with me, Deb eventually defined ‘smallness’ as between 300 to 400 students for urban public schools. Hence, with enrollments of 450, the famous Central Park East experiment was not ‘small,’ but merely ‘smaller’ than anything public in New York City; it eventually folded. 

That reminds me of the tragedy of Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation small school disaster. The well-intentioned Gates Foundation put small schools on the map a few years ago, and then wiped them off. The Gates-funded small schools were declared a resounding success when they started out, with numbers running less than 400 students. There was excitement everywhere and lots more interest and funding. As the Gates schools in their excitement allowed their student bodies to creep up to 500, they were still labeled and evaluated as ‘small schools.’ They naturally lost their impact, and the whole initiative failed. Because of the enormous influence of Gates, the small schools movement was dealt a devastating blow and died of attribution bias. Small schools succeeded. Schools of 500 failed.

Researchers, policymakers, and the public must recognize that to label schools over ~300 students (and absolutely more than 400) ‘small’ comes with real risk in terms of public perception and potentially ignores the key benefits. 

As described in the story about the Gates Foundation initiative, insisting that a school is not small is just as important as identifying it as small, if we are going to make progress.

Torrey Pines, a large, suburban high school in San Diego County, serves one of the nation’s wealthiest zip codes. In the 1990s, the school added a large wing that brought its student body to over 3,000. In the same district, a local ‘school of choice’ was designed for a maximum of around 1300 students — hardly intimate. This so-called school of choice was routinely being referred to as ‘a small school,’ not because it was intimate or safe, but because it was so much more so than its much larger neighbor. 

This was the same time as when I started promoting our own small school model in that area. There was wide public misunderstanding, we were an open target, and it both damaged our business and forced us to be smarter, so I know how frustrating it can be when you do your amazing work and people are obfuscating it.

Based on group size and social network research, my intuition suggests that small schools with fewer than 150-231 students can foster a sense of belonging and minimize social threats.

Small schools benefits are another webinar, but in a quick summation: in true small schools, students are absent less, drop out at nearly half the rate, have higher grade point averages, and improve reading scores by almost a half-year grade equivalency more than large schools.”


To explore more research on small schools, please visit the Small Schools Coalition Research Library.

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