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Want smaller high schools? The public's not so sure

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"Shrink the schools" has become a rallying cry in certain education-reform circles. Spurred by the view that smaller schools can help more students stay on track, districts from Chicago to Oakland, Calif., are setting up small schools or splitting giant ones into more-personalized "learning communities." They're backed up by millions of dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other philanthropic groups.

Still, most public high school students, parents, and teachers aren't ready to list school size as a top priority, according to a recent report by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, New York-based research group.

Entitled "Sizing things Up" (www.publicagenda.org/specials/smallschools/smallschools.htm), it is based on focus groups and national surveys that tap into perceptions about the importance of school size. It compared people's experiences in small high schools (fewer than 500 students) and large ones (more than 1,500), and found that each type has certain advantages. Here's a sampling of key results:

Parents: Fifty-five percent of parents whose children attend a large school said that students "fall[ing] through the cracks" was a very or somewhat serious problem, compared with 30 percent at small schools. A similar difference surfaced in relation to dropout rates.

Parents of students in small schools were more likely to think that staff would know and try to help if a child were going through a tough time. And more of them said that "students learn to speak and write well, with proper pronunciation and grammar."

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