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Small Learning Communities

Many high schools across the nation are adopting smaller learning communities (SLCs). Perhaps the best-known national SLC initiative was spearheaded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which began its SLC Initiative in 2001, funding the development of SLCs to increase graduation rates and college readiness. SLCs are schools of up to 400 students, created either by building new limited size schools or by converting comprehensive high schools into multiple communities.

Related Research Base

Proponents argue that SLCs will increase graduation rates and college readiness because of increased student engagement, more teacher involvement, and smaller class sizes designed to reach more learners. However, the research demonstrates that the impact of SLCs is neither definitive nor clear, and simply creating SLCs does not necessarily improve student outcomes. A 1996 synthesis of the research concluded that students in small schools do at least equally well and often better than students in traditional comprehensive high schools.[1] More recent studies have shown a more complex situation. Although some studies have found improved engagement and graduation rates, they have not assessed other important variables, such as parent involvement or teacher quality; other studies have revealed middling rigor in core subjects and attainment of lower quality diplomas.

A study of the New Century High Schools in New York City found that students dropped out less frequently and graduated on time at much higher rates than did their peers citywide. They also had higher daily attendance. New Century students were more likely to earn "local" diplomas instead of Regents or advanced diplomas; however, New York State students entering grade 9 in 2008 will be required to earn Regents diplomas to graduate.[2]

Urban Institute researchers found that test scores and attendance rates were higher for students in Baltimore's innovation high schools (small neighborhood high schools converted from large high schools) than in the city's comprehensive or newly formed neighborhood high schools. Students in innovation and neighborhood schools also showed more stability in their enrollment than their counterparts in comprehensive schools. These findings remained after controlling for students' backgrounds and previous achievements, even though students at innovation schools were more academically advantaged than their peers in other schools before entering high school. It is important to note that student motivation, parent involvement, and access to information, as well as teacher quality, were not assessed.[3]

A series of studies, completed in 2005, of schools receiving Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation support through the SLC Initiative showed that these new and redesigned schools successfully engaged students, and that both students and teachers created a positive learning environment. They also identified weaknesses in the quality of student work and achievement in mathematics, although students did equally well or better than students in comprehensive high schools in English/language arts.[4] The take-away information from this series of evaluations pointed to the fact that SLCs can be essential to higher quality high schools, but they are not in and of themselves sufficient to bring about sustained improvements in learning.

The Department of Education supports the creation of SLCs across the country by giving grants to local education agencies. Abt Associates conducted an implementation study, published in 2008, of 119 SLC federal grantees funded in 2000 and surveyed in the spring of 2002 and again in the fall of 2003. The study found that most SLCs are freshman or career academies and that the student population demographics of freshman or career academies do not represent the demographics of the school as a whole. SLCs increased their partnerships within the community, and 82% worked with an external partner. There was a statistically significant increase in 9th-grade students promoted to 10th grade, increased extracurricular participation, and a decrease in school violence. The data suggest an increase in the percentage of graduates who plan to go college, although it is unclear if this is part of a larger national trend. The study found no trends in academic attainment [5].

A 2008 MDRC, randomized controlled trial study of Career Academies, well-known for their small settings, found that students who had attended Career Academies earned an average of 11% more per year in wages than students who attended traditional high schools. Young men benefitted the most, with a 17% increase in wage earnings. The study also found that neither graduation rates nor postsecondary attendance rates were higher at Career Academies, but Career Academies produced higher rates of young people living independently with children and a spouse or partner, and that longer-term earnings were associated with personalized support, a key component of SLCs [6].

Lessons Learned

By compiling more than 100 reports and updates on grants from the SLC Initiative, researchers at Fouts & Associates, L.L.C., created a list of evaluation findings and highlights to ensure that implementing SLCs has a better chance of resulting in improved student outcomes. Successful conversion to SLCs requires:

  • High expectations of all students—Schools that had the greatest success tracked students' achievement, giving local data to support the conversion, and had teachers who believed all students were capable of high achievement.
  • Viewing SLCs as a means to an end, not an end unto themselves—Structural changes are not enough; educators must concentrate on the reasons for converting the school and on the philosophy behind the change.
  • Planning for the changes in working environment and career paths of teachers—Teachers must support the goals and methods of SLCs to make the transformation effective, and teachers must understand and accept the changes to nature of their work.
  • Support from the school district—Administrators must support not only the structural changes attempted but also the educational experience the changes will create.
  • Community support—Without community awareness and support, the transformation is difficult to sustain.
  • Planning for specific issues—As schools go through various stages of the conversion process, they need to prepare for issues surrounding the following topics as they arise: Phase-in approach vs. full implementation approach; thematic SLCs vs. generic SLCs; International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement courses; contiguous space; and student crossovers.[7]

[1] Cotton, K. (1996, December). Affective and social benefits of small-scale schooling. ERIC Digest, Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. EDO-RC-96-5. Available online at

[2] Foley, E., Klinge, A., & Reisner, E. (2007). Evaluation of New Century High Schools: Profile of an initiative to create and sustain small, successful high schools. Washington, DC: Policy Studies Associates. Available online at

[3] Smerdon, B., & Cohen, J. (2007). Baltimore City's High School Reform Initiative: Schools, students, and outcomes. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. Available online at:

[4] The National Evaluation of High School Transformation. (2005). Executive summary: Evaluation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's high school grants, 2001-2004. Washington, DC: author. Available online at:

[5] Bernstein, L., Millsap, M.A., Schimmenti, J., & Page, L. (2008). Implementation Study of Smaller Learning Communities, Final Report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education,Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service. Available online at:

[6] Kemple, J., & Willner, C. (2008). Career Academies: Long-Term Impacts on Labor Market Outcomes, Educational Achievement, and Transitions to Adulthood. Washington, DC: MDRC. Available online at:

[7] Fouts, J. T., Baker, D. B., Brown, C. J., & Riley, S. C. (2006). Leading the conversion process: Lessons learned and recommendations for converting to small learning communities. Tuscon, AZ: Author. Available online at: