Choosing Small: The Essential Guide to Successful High School Conversion

reviewed by Laurie Ross - January 25, 2006

coverTitle: Choosing Small: The Essential Guide to Successful High School Conversion
Author(s): Jay Feldman, M. Lisette Lopez, and Katherine Simon
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787980277, Pages: 203, Year: 2006
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Choosing Small: The Essential Guide to Successful High School Conversion addresses the critical topic of how to convert large comprehensive high schools into small autonomous schools that provide rigorous, supported instruction to all students—whether they are on the verge of dropping out, high achieving, and everything in between.  The book is not just about getting schools smaller, but rather about how to transform the culture, roles, relationships, and practices of today’s high schools in a way that puts learning and instruction at the center of the conversion effort.  Although it is a guidebook, it does not offer a cookie-cutter approach to transformation.  On the contrary, the authors rightly emphasize that the creation of small schools must be grounded in the particular issues facing a school district and must be driven by a clear vision articulated by a wide range of stakeholders.

Through reference to the literature on small schools, inclusion of various organizations that support high school conversion, and extended quotations from principals, teachers, and external transformation coaches, the authors provide a framework for conversion—from planning to implementation to sustainability—and introduce many practical techniques that districts could use to facilitate the process.  In a straightforward manner, this book addresses the most critical and sometimes controversial topics in high school conversion, such as how small is small enough, do small schools need to be autonomous to be successful, how to integrate electives and AP classes, what is the most effective way to roll out new schools, how to involve the teachers’ union, and how districts should manage student and teacher assignment.

The book is organized into three sections and has an extensive appendix of resources.  Each section defines key aspects of the conversion process, poses excellent questions for districts to explore, reviews relevant research, and provides examples and stories of how other districts have dealt with each phase of the conversion.  From a layout perspective, the format is very effective—the wide margins are conducive to writing notes.  

Part One, entitled “Toward a Common Purpose,” makes the argument for small schools, outlines planning processes for small schools conversion, and clearly defines what autonomy means in relation to small school development.  Part Two, entitled “Founding Autonomous, Interconnected Schools,” addresses five key topics:  (1) forging a school vision, (2) developing new instructional practice, (3) fostering and supporting small school leadership, (4) pursuing personalization rather than comprehensiveness through a discussion on electives and AP courses, and (5) providing various models for sharing the building.  Part Three, entitled "Transition Planning," addresses how to roll out new schools (and provides an excellent review of key decision points in the roll-out process), student-choice options, and teacher-assignment issues.  

A major strength of this book is that, in a clear manner, it compiles an incredible wealth of resources to guide small school conversion.  The authors translate what can sound like academic concepts into concrete questions that teachers and other school personnel could ask.  For example, in chapter 2, “Leading the Process,” the reader is introduced to an organization called KnowledgeWorks that provides technical assistance and funding to converting schools in Ohio.  KnowledgeWorks requires that design teams create five products:  (1) Instructional Identity, (2) Communications and Marketing Plan, (3) Instructional Program, (4) Small School Strategic Plan, and (5) a Literacy Plan.  When discussing product 3, the authors don’t just talk about “personalizing instructional practice,” which is an often used word in the small schools field, they break it down to an “askable” question:  “Here’s how this child is doing today—so how do I change what I do to help make tomorrow’s performance better?” (p. 30).  

The book rightfully acknowledges how difficult the conversion process is, but continuously provides reminders about why conversion is so important and advice on how to stay motivated and committed to a small school vision.  An example of how they do this is their inclusion of The Small Schools Project listing of “seven things you can count on happening” in the first year of a new school (p. 36).  Knowing that “there will be cross-school tensions, ambivalence about leadership,” and so forth, while in the process will help small school teams feel that they are not alone and that they are on the right track.  

The authors are also clear about where they stand on important issues; however, they offer examples of districts that pursued other avenues.  For example, on the issue of whether districts should institute conversion through change in school policy or through the creation of waivers to existing policy, they favor policy change for sustainability reasons.  Yet, they do discuss conditions under which waivers might be preferable.  Other examples of important debates they take positions on include small schools versus small learning communities and site principals versus building managers.  

Because this book is so practical and straightforward, the reader may be left wanting more on the “how-to” details.  For example, the authors make reference to many tools and techniques that can be used in the planning process, such as “futures protocols” (p. 85), “learning walks” (p. 85), and “critical friends groups” (p. 89), but they do not provide guidance on how to go about implementing these processes.  Including instruction and blank templates for these tools would increase the likelihood that districts would use them.  It would also be intriguing and extremely useful to include actual dialogue among groups negotiating aspects of small school conversion.  For example, while the authors include text that could go into a proposal to a union on page 53, it would be powerful to see the actual dialogue that led to the creation of that text.  Integrating in-depth case studies of districts undergoing conversion could be an avenue to include such dialogue. Perhaps these topics could be addressed in a follow-up volume.

Through this book the reader truly should understand that high school conversion is not an event, but an ongoing paradigm shift in education that can be very challenging but ultimately rewarding for students, teachers, families, and school leaders.  Readers are reminded that high school conversion is necessary if we want today’s young people to succeed in our social, economic, and political world; therefore, decisions made in the change effort must be for the sake of educating all young people rather than just what is administratively easy.  This book discusses the issues that can thwart a conversion process (e.g., designing roll-out plans, managing teacher seniority in assignments, facilitating community involvement) and lays out non-negotiables for effective small schools (e.g., vision driven and student centered, and school transformation not reform).  

The bottom line is that Choosing Small: The Essential Guide to Successful High School Conversion is an important book with excellent advice for district and high school leaders, teachers, and, to some extent, community leaders, parents, and students.  Districts that have already started the conversion process will wish they had this book at the outset of their work, although they will find valuable advice on ways to get back on track.  There is no question that this book fills an important gap and will help push the small schools movement forward.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 25, 2006 ID Number: 12300, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 8:35:43 PM

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