East Brighton College of Media Arts (Comart), a fresh start school led by Jill Clough, the former head of a thriving girls' private school, is operating at half-capacity. Brighton and Hove Council is now considering federating schools to help boost numbers and achievement at Comart, its most struggling secondary.
A formal link between Varndean, a beacon school, and the college could speed up the hoped-for turnaround in Comart's fortunes.
Dr Clough left Wimbledon High, an independent girls' day school in south London, two years ago to take on Comart, which serves one of the toughest council estates in the south of England. More than half of the pupils are on the special needs register.
The media and arts college is out of special measures, with an Office for Standards in Education report that praised Dr Clough's "tenacity and imagination".
But the school is still at the bottom of the local GCSE league table and has well under 500 pupils on roll. It also has a deficit of around of pound;100,000.
The idea of federating schools, backed this week by the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research, is seen as a way of reducing social segregation between schools arising from parental choice. But Derek Brown, Comart's chair of governors, said: "Federation in the sense of a takeover would not be acceptable.
"The governors are quite determined that the school will stay open and succeed as it is. There is much to be said for Comart becoming a city academy."
David Hawker, Brighton's education director, said Brighton and Hove was planning to set up an "excellence cluster" when its education action zone was wound up in 2004. This would be centred on Varndean and include the two secondaries in the deprived eastern part of the town, Falmer and Comart. But closer links through federation could also be forged.