Earlier this week our principal initiated a discussion at the School Site Council on Small Learning Communities (SLC’s). His thinking was that we’ve been doing them for six years, and take them for granted, but that it’s important to reflect on their usefulness periodically.

I think his point is well-taken, and we had a very good discussion at the meeting. I also realized that I’ve never really shared in this blog about how our school is organized into Small Learning Communities, and how I (and the vast majority of our teachers, students, parents and administrators) believe that it’s a critical piece of our schools’ success.

The idea of SLC’s is to create “schools within schools.” We have a total population of 2200 students that are divided into seven Small Learning Communities of about 300 students and twenty teachers (very roughly) each. Those students and teachers — for the most part — stay together year after year. There are some “global” classes where students from different SLC’s take classes together, but all English, Math, Social Studies and Biology classes are taught exclusively within these SLC’s. Students also take one class each year that specifically relates to the theme of that SLC (Information Technology — which is where I teach — Construction & Design; International & Environmental Studies; Medical & Health Sciences; Public Services; Law & Social Justice; and Arts & Communications). Also, for the most part, the SLC’s are physically-located in different sections of the school. Each SLC has their own counselor, and the teachers and counselor meet as a group twice-a-month for an hour-and-a-half (academic departments meeting twice-a-month and all faculty meet every-other month). Each SLC also has a “Lead Teacher” who functions as a de facto teacher/administrator and who handles student scheduling for that SLC and has other responsibilities.

The benefits behind this organization are almost too numerous to mention. Really, no student falls through the cracks. There’s plenty of research (I share much of it in my upcoming book, English Language Learners: Teaching Strategies That Work, that highlights the importance of relationships in learning, and SLC’s are a huge asset in developing those. I not only interact with my students in class, but I see them all day as they walk to different classes, and I’ll maintain that communication for all of their four years at school. If a student is having some challenges one day in the morning, I can let his/her next teachers know since they’re only a few feet away. If a student did something particularly noteworthy that morning, I can let other teachers know so they can make comments to the student throughout the day. At every SLC meeting, we discuss students and can develop joint interventions. And, of course, students themselves can develop more solid relationships with their peers.

There are many schools that use SLC’s, though not all necessarily maintain the same level of “purity” (keeping so many classes with only students from that SLC). It can be expensive. It costs our school nearly $1 million above what we get from the standard funding formulas this year (which were obviously reduced from previous years). Those funds have come in the past from restructuring grants the district has received, and now from the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA).

It’s worth every penny.

You can get more information on Small Learning Communities in general here and here.