A typical example of a sprawling inner-city school was the Julia Richman High School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Though located in a high-rent neighborhood and once a prestigious school, by the early 1990s, Richman was one of the city’s worst. Buffeted by a changing student population, sharp staffing cuts, and other forces, the enormous high school had degenerated into a cauldron of violence. Students tore out water fountains, destroyed bathrooms, and smashed windows, recalls John Broderick, the school’s veteran engineer. Graffiti covered the hallways. Metal cages were constructed in the vice principal’s office to separate belligerent students, and local cops labeled the school “Julia Riker’s,” after New York City’s notorious Riker’s Island jail. It was, says Broderick, “utter, utter chaos.” The words of philosopher Francis Bacon inscribed over the building’s front door, “Knowledge Is Power,” seemed to be lost on everyone: The school’s graduation rate was 37 percent.

Today, however, Julia Richman has, in Broderick’s words, “turned around 500 percent.” The disciplinary cages are gone, along with the metal detectors that fortified the school’s entrances. Richman is bright, clean, and safe. Fights are rare. Attendance is up. Dropout rates are down substantially. And greater numbers of graduates are going on to college.

What produced this educational Reformation at a time when the nation is lamenting the plight of urban education? A big part of the answer can be found in the two-foot-by-three-foot banners that hang largely unnoticed along the school’s main corridor: Urban Academy, Vanguard, Manhattan International, Talent Unlimited, P226M, Ella Baker–these are the names of the six separate schools that collectively share what is now known as the Julia Richman Education Complex. Richman has abandoned the American tradition of the “big high school” in favor of multiple scaled-down educational settings within the same building that engender a strong sense of community, where both students and teachers can flourish.

In recent years, there’s been a movement among school reformers who argue that size is the enemy of excellence in America’s high schools and breaking up super-sized schools into smaller units is the key to improving them. A decade’s worth of studies comparing the merits of small high schools to large ones have revealed several clear trends: In small schools, student and teacher attendance rates are higher, disciplinary problems are fewer, graduation rates are higher, and dropout rates are lower.

But merely cleaving enormous schools into smaller units is rarely enough to counter the alienating environments that plague many traditional high schools. So New York City adopted a more radical–and more productive–strategy at Julia Richman. The city began by making a clean sweep of the old high school in the early 1990s, emptying the building of students and staff and then introducing six new schools of no more than 300 students, each with its own leadership. The Richman planners made each of the new institutions “schools of choice,” allowing students from across the city to attend. And to help the schools forge unique educational missions that students, parents, and teachers could understand and commit to, they gave the schools a level of autonomy over teacher selection, budgets, and instructional strategies that’s rare in public education.

What makes the Julia Richman experiment so important is that the basic blueprint of the nation’s high schools hasn’t changed significantly since the rise of the “comprehensive” high school nearly a century ago. At that time, high schools catered primarily to a narrow elite. But that changed in the early part of the 20th century when educators faced in influx of new students, many of them immigrants, who were thought to be ill-equipped to study academics. Leaders of the Progressive movement pushed to extend high school curricula beyond traditional academic subjects to include vocational and other nonacademic subjects that are still taught in today’s schools.

Julia Richman opened as a comprehensive girls’ high school in the 1920s, a five-story, red-brick structure that stretches from 67th to 68th streets on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. With classrooms for 2,200 students, two gymnasiums, a swimming pool, a theater, maple floors, and brass doorknobs inscribed with the words, “Public School, City of New York,” the school was not only a model of the comprehensive high school, but a source of great civic pride. Its first students studied “commercial skills,” such as typing and stenography. As Greek, Latin, and other advanced subjects later entered the school’s curriculum, Julia Richman grew to become one of New York City’s most prestigious secondary schools.

This comprehensive system made sense for the industrial economy of the time. Future lawyers, accountants, and other professionals studied academics, while those headed into mills and assembly lines learned valuable practical skills. High schools essentially served as great sorting machines, preparing students very differently for very different roles in the workforce. The system was considered to be both egalitarian and efficient, deliberately applying the industrial principles of mass production to American secondary education by housing everything under one roof.

But just as Richman fell on hard times, so too has the idea that the large, comprehensive high schools are the best way to educate students. In today’s “knowledge-based” economy, preparing students for decent-paying jobs means educating all students well enough to enter college, not just an elite few. Of course, some large high schools do that job well, just as some small schools do it poorly. But today, 60 percent of American high school students attend schools of at least 1,000 students, which places them at a disadvantage. Large schools foster the sort of apathy once seen at Julia Richman, leading to what the educator Theodore Sizer once described as a “conspiracy of the least”–an unwritten, unspoken pledge among disaffected students and teachers to put as little energy as possible into their work that produces a huge drag on the productivity of American high schools. Julia Richman’s dramatic turnaround offers lessons for large urban high schools plagued by similar problems.

The source of the Richman concept is Deborah Meier, the founder of Central Park East Secondary School, the small, nationally acclaimed high school in East Harlem. Convinced that New York’s vast comprehensive high schools were organizationally bankrupt, she and others from the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national school reform network, in 1992 sought the permission of the New York City Board of Education to restructure one of the city’s worst high schools. The board granted the request and gave Meier and her colleagues Julia Richman, which had been on New York State’s list of failing schools for more than a decade.

The rechristened “Julia Richman Education Complex” stopped taking new ninth graders after the 199293 school year, and by the summer of 1996, the last of the school’s “old” students had graduated. Early on, Meier and her colleagues resolved not to found half a dozen new schools in Richman, reasoning that opening the educational complex with six schools in the throes of a start-up would likely be disastrous. Instead, several of the new high schools were “hothoused” in other locations around New York for a year, before they were imported, giving them time to work out the bugs in their school designs and establish distinct educational identities. As Herb Mack, co-director of Urban Academy and a Richman founder, puts it: “We wanted to make sure that the schools had a reason for being other than just being small.” This also ensured that there would be no existing math, history, and other department heads to challenge the autonomy of the nascent schools–a problem for many high schools that merely subdivide in an effort to improve.

The first two schools to move in were Vanguard High School, which serves primarily low-achieving students, and Manhattan International, which serves recent immigrants who lack a strong grasp of English. At the same time, a performing-arts program within Julia Richman known as Talent Unlimited became an autonomous school within the new complex. Urban Academy Laboratory High School, a 120-student school for teenagers who have been unsuccessful in other city high schools, moved in shortly afterward.

Urban played a key role in helping to establish the fledgling schools at Richman. It had been a highly successful Manhattan school for a decade and was moved into Richman as part of the school’s overhaul to serve as an “anchor” institution. Like Richman’s other hothoused schools, Urban was able to bring its students to Richman under New York City’s school choice program, which permits many students to select schools outside of their neighborhoods.

The results have been outstanding, to the pleasant surprise of parents, the city’s education leaders, and many others. The dropout rate at Vanguard, the school with the most challenging students, is only 4 percent (compared to 20 percent citywide) and Manhattan International and Urban Academy report that more than 90 percent of their students attend college after graduation. (Test score comparisons are tough because until recently, Richman’s high schools have been exempt from statewide testing; its own assessments, however, show real improvement.)

But remaking Julia Richman into an education “multiplex,” one where the separate schools work together, was not simple. Indeed, if the creators of the Richman complex hadn’t taken many steps along the way to preserve the independence of its individual schools without sacrificing the governability of the vast building, Richman wouldn’t be the success it is today.

Urban’s stature helped Richman’s new high schools survive a troubled two-year coexistence with the students and teachers they were replacing. The transition generated friction between the school’s old and new staffs and hurt those students whose school was being phased out. “The 700800 exiting kids were demoralized and largely abandoned,” says Ann Cook, who runs Urban Academy with Mack and who helped create the Richman complex. “The existing staff were angry and suspicious. Now you are fixing the place,’ they would say when they saw workers doing renovations. It was horrible.” Urban’s leaders helped to diffuse the hostility. But they concluded that it would have been better to move the new schools into the building only after it had been vacated completely.

Once the new schools arrived at the Richman complex, Mack, Cook, and their colleagues went to great lengths to preserve the schools’ autonomy, believing that creating a strong sense of community within each of the new schools was the best way to forge the close, respectful relationships between students and teachers that motivate students to care about their school work.

Students had to apply to each school in the complex separately. The majority attended schools by choice–as a result of the city’s choice plan–and were thus, Meier and the others reasoned, more likely to identify with their school and work harder, even, as would prove to be the case, if many students arrived with weak academic records.

Richman schools are also physically distinct. Though as many as three share some floors, there are no common hallways, and the swinging double doors that connect the schools might as well be cinderblock walls; students and teachers simply don’t go into other schools’ space–a fact that has required a lot of instructional gerrymandering, including moving a chemistry lab to Manhattan International’s wing of the building so that its students didn’t have to enter Vanguard’s area to go to class.

Even bathrooms, a source of discipline problem in many high schools, are part of the solution at Richman. To ensure that there aren’t any public spaces where students and teachers aren’t known to each other, every bathroom in the building is located within the boundaries of schools and is off-limits to students from other schools–conditions that require students and teachers at Urban to share bathrooms. There are six schools in six different locations on six different schedules at Richman, all of which share (at different times) a recital hall, art gallery, gym, pool, weight room, pottery and dance studios, cafeteria, library, an auditorium, a small theater, and a student health clinic run by nearby Mt. Sinai Hospital. The only places they are permitted to intermingle are the cafeteria and the library.

In carving out distinct boundaries within the building and giving the schools authority over their staffing, budgets, and teaching strategies, Richman’s organizers sought to give teachers a significant stake in their students’ success. “You need autonomy for teachers for them to feel truly responsible for kids,” says Cook. “If teachers don’t feel responsible, they don’t invest themselves.”

Richman’s tightly knit schools, meanwhile, have engendered a sense of belonging among their students that is rare in large urban high schools. In the words of Urban Academy’s Mack, a 40-year veteran of the Chicago and New York school systems, Richman’s schools “give kids a home.” Urban’s atmosphere is best described as relaxed; there’s little trace of the coldness and sense of unease that pervade many traditional urban high schools. During class breaks, Urban students hang out in groups in stuffed chairs and old sofas in the hallway of the school’s second-floor “campus.” As I sat speaking with faculty members during a recent visit, several students dropped by to ask them questions. They sought out teachers with no less casualness in Urban’s faculty office, a large, open space with desks pushed up against each other, as in a newsroom.

The result, says Rona Armillas, a former assistant principal at Manhattan International, is “a different type of negotiation” between students and teachers in the Richman complex. “In most high schools you approach kids as an authority figure,” Armillas says. “It’s a power play. And it usually doesn’t work. There’s no growth in students’ maturity. At Richman, you know the kid and his style and there’s mutual respect. Things don’t escalate.” As Urban science teacher Terri Grosso puts it, “It’s not us versus them here.”

Security takes on a very different meaning in such an atmosphere. Rather than a system that treats students anonymously and resorts to metal detectors and surveillance cameras, Richman’s schools have become largely self-policing. Because of their small size and the building’s policy of having students stay out of other schools’ space, students and teachers know who belongs in their part of the building and who doesn’t, and that becomes Richman’s most important source of security. Students are just as likely as teachers to ask “outsiders” for identification or to report them to Richman’s half dozen security guards.

Richman isn’t completely free of disciple problems, but serious infractions like fighting, say students such as Josme Mark, a senior from Haiti via Brooklyn, are very rare. That’s certainly the sense one gets at the complex’s front entrance, where a mild-mannered guard with a smile and a sign-in sheet has replaced metal detectors.

It’s hard to overstate the care with which Richman’s leaders have tended to the building’s social equilibrium. To discourage interschool rivalries even as they promote schools’ autonomy, for example, they have sought to blend students from the sundry Richman schools in carefully chosen settings. In addition to student councils in each school, there’s a building-wide student government. There are building-wide college fairs. Students represent Richman rather than their individual schools in New York City’s Public School Athletic League. And Richman’s athletic director has begun commingling students from the different high schools on intramural basketball teams.

Yet a recent event reveals both the value of the schools’ autonomy and the fragile nature of the social fabric in urban high schools. Mack had given the Richman basketball teams each a classroom in Urban for pre-practice study halls. Urban students are so trusting of one another that they routinely leave expensive jackets lying around in the student lounge. But as soon as the building-wide basketball teams started coming into Urban, the clothing began to disappear. The basketball players brought friends from other Richman schools with them to the Urban study halls who simply didn’t share the same sense of community as Urban’s students. When Mack subsequently moved the study halls to the Richman theater, the theft subsided.

To protect the independence of the new Richman schools, Meier and the others resolved that the complex wouldn’t have a principal, only a “building manager”–Urban co-director Herb Mack.

Watching the veteran educator work the building, it is easy to think he’s a traditional principal. When I caught up with him at 7:15 one morning, he was speeding through Richman checking that its many doors were locked, a knot of keys bouncing up and down on his hip. He greeted the guards at the building’s two student entrances, then bolted outside with a sheaf of reserved-for-staff flyers that he placed under the windshield wipers of cars parked on the school’s block that didn’t display school system parking permits. Back in the building he noticed that the day’s newspapers weren’t at the front entrance. “They’ve been taken again, we’ve got to find out who’s doing it,” he declared, striding toward a security guard to report the matter. By 7:45, he was welcoming students.

But by 8:15, Mack had changed roles. He was back at his desk in Urban Academy, talking as the school’s co-director to a student about a course she needed to complete her semester’s schedule. And shortly afterward, he headed down the hall to the first of the three social studies courses he teaches at Urban.

Mack’s role also differs from that of traditional principals in other ways. He has no authority over the budgets, staffing, or instruction at Richman’s various schools, other than at Urban. Rather, school-wide policies are formed by a “building council” that consists of the directors of Richman’s schools and the heads of other programs housed in the building: First Steps, a child-care center; the health clinic; and a teacher training center. The council convenes once a week to discuss everything from fire drills to food quality. It also gathers several times a year at the home of the director of one of Richman’s schools for breakfast or lunch and a half-day’s discussion. Mack leads the meetings, but he doesn’t dictate their outcomes.

Early on, the council, then representing Richman’s four high schools, decided to bring in an elementary program (the 300-student pre-K-through-eighth-grade Ella Baker Elementary School) and another for disabled students (P226M, serving several dozen autistic students) as a way of further tempering the adolescent environment in Richman.

The strategy has paid substantial dividends: Older students are more careful about what they say and do when younger children are present, and the presence of Ella Baker and P226M within the complex give the high school students ample opportunities to be tutors and teachers’ aides, responsible roles they are encouraged to play. The bank of monitors that security guards at the old Richman watched 24 hours a day in a windowless second-floor office has been boxed off with plywood in what is now an Ella Baker counseling office.

The council reshaped Vanguard’s boundaries when it realized that its original “traffic” plan had required Talent Unlimited students to go through Vanguard on their way to and from Richman’s cafeteria. The result: The hallway between Talent Unlimited and the cafeteria was turned into “public” space, housing the complex’s pottery and dance studios, home economics center, and distance-learning laboratory, which the building council constructed with city council funding.

And because many high school students in the building are parents, the council used school-system funding to turn Richman’s old guidance suites into the First Steps infant-toddler child-care center, complete with an observation room and a one-way mirror for students in the building’s child-development classes.

When I was at Richman, the building’s guards were troubled by the substantial number of delivery people wandering the building. They expressed their unhappiness to the council’s security subcommittee and by the next morning the council had taken action. “Delivery of food to staff and students has been a headache,” Mack declared in a memo to the building’s staff and students. As a result, he announced, “Any deliveries that arrive without the recipient’s name and room number written on the back of the package will be sent back to the restaurant.” Within a week the problem was solved.

But unless the welfare of Richman as a whole is at stake, the council lets schools set policies individually. When the New York City Police Department sought to ban “do rag” headwear in the city’s schools to discourage gangs, the four Richman schools responded independently. Manhattan International, Vanguard, and Talent Unlimited went along with the police request. But Urban, after a student-faculty meeting where do rags were adjudged to have no gang overtones at the school, resolved to continue to let its students wear them. Richman’s other three high schools respected Urban’s stance.

Despite common conception about the greater cost of small schools, the Richman multiplex hasn’t been expensive to operate. Skeptics frequently contend that small schools must be less efficient than big ones because they can’t spread costs over as many students. But in many instances the Richman complex has been more efficient than the large school it replaced. Julia Richman High School, for example, needed six extra security guards just to operate its metal detectors. Richman’s council has streamlined building-wide staffing. Schools now require fewer counselors because teachers and administrators know students so well. And because Richman’s schools are small, and thus more manageable, Mack and other administrators have time to teach. This has permitted the schools to focus more of their resources on their classrooms. Eighty-seven percent of the staff in Richman’s high schools teach students, for example, compared to 81 percent in New York City’s high schools generally.

The cost savings of these steps have been documented by Norm Fruchter and his colleagues at New York University’s Graduate School of Education, who recently examined the finances of large and small high schools nationwide and found that the efficiencies of large high schools are largely offset by fewer non-teaching staff and other savings in small schools. They concluded that small schools are only about 5 percent more expensive than large ones. And when the researchers crunched the numbers from a different perspective–the cost per graduate–the efficiency debate tilted in favor of small schools. Because dropout rates are higher in large high schools, Fruchter found, the cost of educating each graduate averaged $49,578, compared to $49,554 in small high schools, where more students stay through graduation.

Richman’s schools also pool their resources. Several have sought to concentrate their course offerings out of a desire to teach fewer subjects in greater depth. Doing so has allowed Richman’s schools to hire shared staff in art, dance, and other subjects they would be unable to teach with the enrollment-based funding they receive from the New York City school system.

But Richman would not be nearly as efficiently or effectively as it is without a large measure of autonomy from New York City’s school headquarters–autonomy that the complex’s founders had to work long and hard to win, given the intensely bureaucratic and hierarchical nature of New York’s public school system. And even with substantial independence, the council has had to get the bureaucracy’s blessing before moving on several matters. The city’s superintendent of alternative schools, for example, only let the Richman council remove the building’s metal detectors and surveillance cameras once it had demonstrated that parents backed the idea. Nor would Richman be the place it is today if Meier and her colleagues hadn’t won the support of the 140,000-member United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the city’s influential teachers union.

The UFT, like many teachers’ unions, has the power to effectively veto school closings under job-security provisos in its contract. Thus, Meier sought the support of Sandra Feldman, the UFT president, pointing out that working conditions in the old Richman were terrible, and the multiplex was a good solution. Feldman agreed, and the UFT arranged early retirement packages and transfers to other schools for departing Richman staff.

Just as important was a revolutionary pact between the UFT and the New York City school board that offered the city’s schools autonomy–rare in public education–over staffing, schedules, and other key aspects of school life. Under the so-called School Based Options agreement, schools with at least 70 percent of teachers backing the concept are able to abandon seniority-based staffing and other union-negotiated strictures. As a result, Richman schools can hire teachers who share their educational philosophies, which greatly strengthens the schools’ sense of community.

Of course, replacing the nation’s many dysfunctional large urban high schools with smaller, more personal educational settings doesn’t guarantee students a high-quality education. Strong teaching is also a key. So Richman’s new schools have sought to take advantage of their size to introduce instructional innovations that wouldn’t be possible in many large schools. Urban, Vanguard, and Manhattan International, for example, use a student-evaluation system that requires every student to make oral defenses of science, social studies, math, and several other projects that they must complete in addition to their regular courses to graduate.

Successfully reforming any school requires battling the bureaucracy, and Richman is no different. Despite its successes, the school is under tremendous pressure to conform to the priorities of the New York City school system in ways that threaten its stability.

The week I visited, the city’s education bureaucracy assigned a new guidance counselor, “bumping” Manhattan International’s existing counselor out of a job during the height of the college-admissions season. The counselor claimed the job under a clause in the UFT’s collective-bargaining contract that permits teachers in schools with declining enrollments to take the jobs of less-experienced teachers in other schools. “I’m the principal and I have no say,” Ling objected at the time. But he protested to the city’s school authorities and the carpetbagger counselor was sent elsewhere. The year before, a city school administrator sent a patronage hire to be Richman’s technology specialist, despite the individual’s having scant technology experience. The building council turned down the funding for the job rather than take the person.

And in response to charges by the city’s large, traditional high schools that Richman’s schools are underpopulated, authorities repeatedly have sought to put more students in Richman’s high schools. “There’s always pull toward the center, toward bureaucratic control,” says Mack. “What we do is not really understandable to a bureaucracy.”

Recently a group of parents sought to dismantle the Richman complex completely. In a confrontation where race and class were never far from the surface of the debate, the mostly white and affluent parents of students at a nearby elementary school pressed local politicians to have Richman turned into a single, “zoned” high school available only to Upper East Side students, a move that would have excluded from Richman the many students who now travel to the complex from Harlem, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the Bronx. The school fought back, led by Ann Cook, who, as Richman’s Project Director, expends as much energy on behalf of Richman outside the complex as Mack does inside.

Cook sought the help of Richman’s “board of advisors,” a panel of influential lawyers, corporate executives, foundation officers, civil rights leaders, labor unionists, and university professors the council had assembled years earlier to help navigate New York’s political waters. “Like most bureaucracies, the New York board of education responds to outside pressure, not to middle management,” says Cook. Together, they successfully worked the city’s educational and political leaders. The parent group was “given” a building nearby.

Ultimately, Richman’s leaders don’t take much of anything for granted when it comes to preserving the Richman complex. At the start of every school year Mack gathers the new teachers from throughout the complex to explain Richman and how it works. “You have to keep building culture,” he says. “It’s not automatic.”

But to engineer Broderick the results speak for themselves. “After 42 years in the business,” he says of the transformation at Richman, “it’s the first time I’ve ever had to ask teachers to leave their rooms at the end of the day so I can clean.”

Thomas Toch is writer-in-residence at the National Center on Education and the Economy. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, High Schools on a Human Scale (Beacon Press).

Thomas Toch is writer-in-residence at the National Center on Education and the Economy. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, High Schools on a Human Scale (Beacon Press).

Thomas Toch

Follow Thomas on Twitter @thomas_toch. Thomas Toch is director of FutureEd, an independent think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.