Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (EdD)


Educational Leadership


The purpose of this study is to provide educators with information on the characteristics and practices of small learning communities in elementary schools. A small learning community is a small unit of learners and educators who are members of a larger group of learners. The small learning community operates as a separate entity from the larger whole. For the purpose of this study, a small learning community is defined as an individualized learning unit within a larger school setting housing 400 or fewer students.

The qualitative study examined data collected by the researcher in fall 2003. During an internship with the Moorhead Area Public Schools, information was collected from three small learning communities in large, student-populated elementary schools in three Minnesota school districts. The data, collected through interviews with teachers and principals, described planning, practices, and problems within each school.

Primary data collected from the three schools were examined for emerging categories, patterns, and themes describing small learning communities. Three common themes emerged: teacher involvement and commitment, the principal as an instructional design leader, and the instructional design creates a learning community.

Based on this study, the following conclusions are offered:

Small learning communities in large, student-populated elementary schools create small learning environments where students experience a sense of belonging and personalized education.

There are six common characteristics that are prevalent in effective, successful small learning communities. These include autonomy, leadership and decision making, identity, personalization, instructional focus, and accountability. Small learning communities establish characteristics through a variety of educational practices that create a school culture focused on student achievement.

A collaborative culture emerges in small learning communities. Decisions regarding curriculum, scheduling, practices, and professional development are based on the needs of students and are made by the school’s teachers and principal.

Small learning communities face difficulties and problems through the course of their development.

Recommendations were made for educators preparing to move into small learning communities. Teachers and principals may be able to use the findings to determine and replicate practices that facilitate the successful development of a small learning community in an elementary school.