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Volume 22, Number 5
September/October 2006

In Praise of the Comprehensive High School

We can learn from what small schools do well—but there are things big schools can do better


As an administrator in a large, comprehensive high school, I am often asked when—not if—we plan to break the school down into a number of small schools. Wouldn’t forming small schools help us to close the gap in achievement between our white students and our African American and Latino students? I’ve come to the conclusion that forming many small schools is not the primary answer to the challenges faced by Evanston Township High School (ETHS). But I think there’s a lot that schools like ETHS can learn from small schools.

Located in a multiracial suburb of Chicago, ETHS serves 3200 students. The student body is 48 percent white, 39 percent African American, 10 percent Latino, and 2 percent Asian. About a third of the students are low-income. The school is part of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN), a coalition of 25 multiracial, relatively affluent urban-suburban school districts across the nation that seek to ensure high academic achievement for students of color. Our commitment to narrowing the achievement gap requires us to pay careful attention to the research coming out of small schools. Nonetheless, my MSAN colleagues and I agree that dismantling schools like ours is not the place to start.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.