Education is a trendy sort of profession. Just as fashion hemlines rise and fall, there is an ebb and flow to the latest style for schools and classrooms. Teachers who stay in the profession for awhile get to see the return to favour of various strategies---only repackaged and renamed for a younger audience. The problem with being trendy is that schools never try anything long enough to really get a good handle on whether or not it works. It's automatically assumed that results should be visible within a year or two.
The "small high school" (or "school within a school") idea is one which reminds me of the open concept ideas of the 1970's. Bill Gates' Foundation has been a strong supporter in recent years of the small high school. That concept is now experiencing a backlash. Students may not buy into the concept because although they have a focused track, it also can limit the kinds of classes they can take. Some parents aren't sure that 14-year olds are ready to commit to a career track. Business and community members might not understand the goals and be ready to support a dramatic shift in the way schools educate youngsters. To make a radical change without getting all of stakeholders on board is a swift and certain path to failure.
The intent with the small school idea is to group kids and teachers with similar interests and strengths into a multi-year community. It is a way to take a high school with thousands of students and provide a way for kids and staff to better connect. Fewer students for teachers to manage means more opportunity to deepen classroom relationships and help kids learn to better communicate. There's nothing wrong with this desire---it's quite admirable to want to build a sense of purpose and unity. I'm just not sure that the small school package is the best way to achieve this.
The Gates' Foundation seems a bit quick on the trigger in terms of pulling their support if gains in student achievement aren't forthcoming or if there is even a whiff of controversy within the community. They seem to fall prey to the trendy thinking too often seen in education, although I admit that if I had provided several hundred thousand dollars to a school district that I'd like to see something positive in return...and there's no sense in throwing good money after bad. But if size does matter when it comes to the number of students in a school...and the Gates' Foundation believes this...then I'd hope that find ways to support the implementation over time. Resources don't have to be just financial.
My opinion is that the size of the school doesn't matter. What matters in the education of teens is the connection among all members of the community: parents, business owners, teachers, students, retirees, and so on. Developing and building those relationships provides everyone a stake in the educational process and models for students what the expectations are and how things can work. Everyone has to be responsible and accountable. If you live in a small town, it's a given that everyone knows everyone else's business (like it or not). The small school concept might hope to reap these benefits within a larger framework, but they will be unable to as long as they exist as islands in the community. It's about the size (number) of connections---not the size of classes.