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  • “Flying the Plane While We Build It”: A Case Study of an Early College High School
  • Candace Thompson, Ph.D. and Kennedy Ongaga, Ph.D.

In a global society, the traditional American high school is seen as a fragmented, alienating system stalled by an adherence to an outmoded transmission-oriented model of teaching and learning. Thus far, educational reform efforts have fallen short of meeting the challenges of an increasingly diverse, technological, and economically-entwined world through innovative development of more thinking-oriented, student-focused learning communities (Darling-Hammond, 2010). Over the past two decades, the perceived failed promise of the comprehensive high school to effectively educate America’s youth has generated a national interest in high school reform (Goodlad, 1984; Kuo, 2010; Oakes, 1985; Smeardon & Borman, 2009; Wasley, Fine, Gladden, Holland, King, Mosak, & Powell, 2000). One such area of reform is a movement to restructure high schools as small learning communities centered around unique curriculum and state-of-the-art teaching (Newmann, Smith, Allensworth, & Bryk, 2001). Financial support from organizations like the Annenberg Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, and, most notably, the Early College High School Initiative (ECHSI) launched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have helped push the small school model from margin to center, and with it, a host of empirical studies to examine the impact on student academic achievement.

Empirical studies examining small learning communities are important in developing a comprehensive understanding of the effectiveness of the early college high school model and in developing policy for improvement and sustainability. Also important to our understanding of the ECHSI is qualitative research focusing on one or several small learning communities. Qualitative studies can deepen the breadth of the quantitative record as they illuminate the lived experiences, perspectives, and practices of the students and teachers who make up these learning communities. Qualitative approaches provide insight into the daily challenges and successes as they are experienced and understood in the small school context.

The purpose of this paper, then, is to offer on-the-ground insight into student and teacher relationships and challenges at one early college high school. We use Noddings’ ethics of care as a conceptual framework to explore factors that support and constrain student and teacher development and success within one such small learning community. We conclude with several key issues and implications worthy of further consideration and investigative research of early college high schools.

The Value of Small Learning Communities

In a basic sense, small learning communities are rooted in ethics of care, particularly in terms of a focus on close, reciprocal relationships between students and teachers and the [End Page 43] personalization of the school environment. Noddings’ (1995a) ethics of care contends that the primary educational aim should be to encourage “the growth of competent, caring, loving, and lovable people” (p. 24), not in the superficial sense of caring as “a warm and fuzzy feeling that makes people kind and lovable” (1995b, p. 676), but as a morally, ethically, and intellectually defensible act.

The argument for small, personalized learning communities as environments that also promote equitable gains in academic achievement is reflected in the Coalition of Essential Schools and the Carnegie Foundation’s work, which focuses on more personalized teaching and learning (National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, 2004; Sizer 1992), the Annenberg Foundation’s emphasis on reducing students’ alienation in schools (Chicago Annenberg Challenge, 1994), and the Child Development Project’s focus on restructuring schools to promote caring communities (Developmental Studies Center, 1998). According to a growing body of research, small learning communities promote more equitable access to academically challenging courses (Berstein, Millsap, Schimmenti, & Page, 2010; Bryk, Lee and Holland, 1993; French, Atkinson, & Rugen, 2007; Gregory & Smith, 1987; Meier, 1995; Werblow & Duesbery, 2009) and more equitable gains in achievement (Darling-Hammond et al., 2002; Lee & Smith, 1995; Lee, Smith, Perry & Smylie, 1999). Research also shows that small learning communities provide favorable working environments with greater opportunities for teacher collaboration and innovation and lower student dropout rates (Darling-Hammond, Ancess, & Wichterle, 2002; George & Aronson, 2003; Pittman & Haoughwout, 1987; Steinberg, Johnson, & Pennington, 2006). Perhaps one of the best known small learning community models is the Early College High School Initiative (ECHSI) whichinspired the...


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