Shrinking urban high schools to help students and teachers

LOS ANGELES – The first day of high school is an exciting and terrifying experience for any teenager.  The agonizing decision of what to wear, what friends will be there, what teachers will be like – it is a day for the memory books. 

Now imagine entering a high school where there are 4,800 students, a size that’s larger than many college campuses.  That is the reality for students at Garfield High School in Los Angeles.  This school on East Sixth Street is the home of the "Big Bad Bulldogs," and on a beautiful September day in Southern California, it is pulsing with youthful activity.  Garfield’s principal, Michael Summe, says it is a "formidable challenge" for the faculty of such a large high school to get to know the students within. 

One answer to trying to reduce the enormity of such a large school is the creation of small learning communities [watch video] .  Like many schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District, Garfield High School uses the small learning community model.  The concept is to concentrate on a population of a few hundred students, and allow the teachers in each small learning community to focus on those same students year after year.  It empowers teachers to work together as a team, so they can employ strategies for instruction, and concentrate on individual student needs. 

Embracing change

The idea of shrinking large high schools has been part of the U.S. school reform landscape since the 1990s. High schools across the nation and Los Angeles, including Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles, have embraced the change in an effort to make the high school experience – particularly on campuses with large enrollments – more personal for students.

The approach varies across the country, but at Garfield High School, the small learning community model employed is "wall to wall."  That means all students are placed in small learning communities from the moment they start high school, and will likely remain in the same small learning community for all four years.  That "wall to wall" approach can be a negative.  Garfield’s principal says he believes that "volunteerism is the soul of the whole thing," and that forcing small learning communities on teachers or students who are not willing volunteers is a concern. 

The Los Angeles Education Partnership is an independent, non-profit organization that has been focusing on public schools in the Los Angeles area for 25 years.  One of the programs that LAEP has championed is called Humanitas.  Right now there are 48 small learning communities that incorporate the Humanitas program, within 28 Los Angeles area high schools. The idea is that if a student is studying Greek literature, they would also be studying Greek history, and incorporating the same theme in Math and Science as well.  It provides an in-depth exploration of the arts and humanities.  It also encourages various ways of learning, bringing visual art and media literacy into the classroom.  

A haven for students and teachers alike

Humanitas’ Director Jane Patterson says that while small learning communities can be unsuccessful when forced on large schools as a comprehensive solution, she considers Humanitas a model for a thriving small learning community.  Humanitas focuses on integrated curriculum, where teams of teachers from different disciplines work together to create dynamic instruction based on themes.  LAEP’s data on Humanitas programs is positive, according to Patterson, in terms of measuring Humanitas student performance compared to peers on the same class schedule.  LAEP’s website reports "significant student outcomes as measured on the Degrees of Reading Power Test," and also on high school exit exams. 

At Garfield High School, the students in the Humanitas program are openly enthusiastic about their classes and teachers.  They claim it is empowering to enter a classroom where teachers know their names, and their learning needs.  Winifred Jones is a senior focusing on Arts in the Humanitas program, who claims that being in the program has given her teachers a better idea of her personality and the way she learns best. 

The Humanitas program has been motivational for many of the teachers at Garfield High School as well.  History teacher Griselda Solis claims that she has done some of her "best, most professional work" since she’s been involved in the Humanitas small learning community.  She says it is important to know in depth what is going on with her students, socially as well as educationally.  Solis says the kids know she lives in their neighborhood, and cares about whose dog is sick or whose mom isn’t doing well.  Because she understands their personal concerns, she says it creates a more trusting atmosphere in the classroom.

Not a ‘one size fits all’ approach

Michael Leavy teaches humanities at Garfield.  He says he enjoys the team aspect of the Humanitas program, which has given him a chance to confer with other teachers about individual students.  However, he hopes that the school’s goal of integrating more of the curriculum will take place.    He says small learning communities are not a "one size fits all approach."  

Patterson, LAEP’s director, is well aware of that and is working closely with the school administrators to focus more on the team-teaching and team-learning approach of the program.  Jane Patterson says it is "instruction that drives everything, requiring communication among teachers" that proves to be so valuable in improving student performance.

When you imagine a high school student’s entry into a world as large as Garfield High, you can understand the need to reduce the enormity.  Familiar faces matter when you are trying to adapt socially and educationally.   For teachers and students willing to participate in small learning communities, especially involving interdisciplinary studies like the Humanitas program, you can’t help but notice the excitement.


  1. Desentupimento says:

    Good movie.

  2. As schools disappear, I don’t know how kids will be able to get the right education.

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