California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II
Generally, a small learning community (SLC) is any individualized learning unit within a larger school setting. Schedules allow students and teachers to meet together often. Frequently a SLC shares a specific location within the school. Combinations of small learning communities, teacher teams, and vertical looping are used to create learning environments where students and teachers come to know and care about one another.1 The rationale behind SLCs comes from both research and common sense as far back as the turn of the twentieth century.
In 1888, Harvard University president Charles Eliot was concerned about the number of students who were dropping out after eighth grade. He proposed a change in the educational experience for young adolescents with more rigorous curriculum and opportunities to have enrichment and vocational classes. This instigated discussions among educators and the result was the start of a new school configuration: junior high school. The first one opened up in 1910 in Berkeley, CA.2 This school was designed to be flexible for individual attention and for interdisciplinary instruction. In essence, the vision was to use the elements of SLCs.
Unfortunately, junior high schools slipped into an organizational structure that mimicked that of the high school. Most junior high teachers were prepared in programs that supported high school-like curriculum, instruction, and organization. Without structures and practices tied to young adolescent development and without specialized preparation for teachers, the junior high school did not survive.3 In the 1960s, William Alexander and Emmitt Williams proposed the formation of a new school configuration for young adolescents—the middle school. The middle school movement recognized that young adolescents are not simply older elementary school students nor younger high school students, but that there are dramatic changes that occur during this time of life requiring a radically different and unique approach to education. In line with this important insight, they saw the need for providing special instructional, curricular, and administrative changes in the way that was developmentally responsive for young adolescents. Among those changes were the establishment of a mentor relationship between teachers and student, the creation of small communities of learners, and the implementation of a flexible interdisciplinary curriculum that encourages active and personalized learning.4
Research as proven since the 1960’s that students do better socially and academically when they feel safe and valued as members of a community. Kathleen Cotton found that student affiliation with the school community increases when students participate in small learning communities.5 A 2006 compilation of research about small schools found that when socioeconomic factors are controlled, children in smaller schools:
Similar findings have been made through many studies aimed at finding early warning signs to prevent high school drop out. The creation of small learning communities with teacher teams who share responsibility together for a group of students is a crucial component in reform efforts. There
is growing evidence that such reforms are associated with higher rates of attendance, higher rates of course passing, and higher rates of high school graduation. 7
To foster the positive aspects of a small school, many larger schools create smaller schools-within-schools or SLCs. However, size in and of itself does not constitute a successful small learning community. To be successful, a SLC provides a safe and secure learning environment where students feel known and valued by peers and staff.
Toby Johnson Middle School, Elk Grove Unified School District, a 2006 Schools to Watch™-Taking Center Stage Model School
To compensate for a large student population (1,475), Toby Johnson's staff members subdivided the campus into smaller learning communities called teams. Each team carries the name of a local university and serves 210 grade-level students. The teams include six teachers, a counselor, and an administrator who work with the same set of students for two years (looping). The team advisory program allows all students to have one of their core teachers advising, monitoring, and encouraging their social and academic progress.
In weekly team meetings, teachers talk about who is not doing well and where that student needs help. They also share what is working. They challenge each other to find out what students like and do not like and get to know their students' families. The two-year connection is a catalyst for teachers to hold seventh-grade students academically and behaviorally accountable because the students will be returning to their team for another year.
SLCs provide opportunities for meaningful participation,8 encouraging students to take responsibility for learning. For more information, refer to the section on meaningful participation in Recommendation 4—Relevance. To learn responsibility, students engage as partners with their teachers to write individual learning plans (ILPs) and set goals based on what was difficult for them in earlier grades and what they would like to accomplish in school. Teachers help students set goals that are consistent with grade-level standards. Advisory programs link adults with students during their time at the school so students are free to discuss issues that concern them.
Goleta Valley Junior High School, Santa Barbara High School District
After noticing an increase in bullying, fighting, suspensions, and racial segregation, Goleta Junior High’s faculty used research on small learning communities to design a four-house system of teaming. Teachers involved students in designing the plan, which ultimately resulted in an improved school climate, a decrease in bullying and suspensions, and a significant rise in the school’s API score.
The houses foster student bonding through friendly competitions with the other houses, involving community support, leadership opportunities, and other various activities.
Mulholland Middle School, Los Angeles Unified School District
Teachers and students are clustered in both house teams and academies. For example, the school offers a police academy, communications-technology academy, and a multicultural academy, in addition to both a humanities house and school for advanced studies houses.
According to the 2001 Taking Center Stage, interdisciplinary team teaching fosters SLCs by building relationships so students feel connected. Experienced teachers report the following benefits of SLCs:
Alvarado Intermediate School, Rowland Unified School District, a 2004 Schools to Watch™-Taking Center Stage Model School
One of the purposes of Alvarado’s interdisciplinary teams is to have students from diverse backgrounds and abilities work together in friendly competition against other teams in achieving positive goals for the school. Alvarado’s interdisciplinary teams create heterogeneous groupings across students’ academic abilities, English acquisition levels, special education needs, grade levels, and gender ratios. In addition, teaming students in small communities supports learning and relationships. Teams collectively earn points for friendly competitions. Each week, the team with the most points gets to fly its flag on the flag staff below the American and California flags. Small learning communities create a strong sense of belonging and pride.
Millikan Middle School and Performing Arts Magnet, Los Angeles Unified School District, a 2005 Schools to Watch™-Taking Center Stage Model School
Designed as a performing arts magnet school, Millikan clusters non-magnet students in other interest-based small learning communities that are called academies (Outside Source).
According to Breaking Ranks in the Middle: Strategies for Leading Middle School Reform (Outside Source), a supportive environment is essential for attaining high achievement by all students. Providing students with opportunities to develop a sense of belonging to the school, a sense of ownership over the direction of one’s learning, and the ability to recognize options and to make choices based on one’s own understanding of the options are all strategies that help middle grades schools achieve their reform goals.12
Castaic Middle School, Castaic Union Elementary School District, a 2003 Schools to Watch™-Taking Center Stage Model School
Castaic Middle School features small learning communities within a six period day that includes an additional 17-minute advisory period.
Quality Middle Grades Foster Relationships
Relationships with Peers
California Department of Education
1430 N Street
Sacramento, CA 95814