Monday, March 28, 2011

Smaller Schools

When I worked as an education reporter some years ago, my coverage area had unexpected crisis: a sudden surge in high school enrollment leading to massive school overcrowding. This was driven, in part, by the growth of the immigrant community, which threw off the county's model for calculating population by living in larger households than the average American family.

The school board and central administration had two solutions: adding on to six existing high schools to raise their student populations from about 2,000 to about 2,500 and building a new, 2000-seat high school for between 70 and 80 million dollars.

All my instincts screamed that both of these were the wrong solution. What the school system needed to do, I thought, was acquire small buildings here and there and set up perhaps 10 new high schools of about 500 pupils. The community I covered had a charming old brick school building, that would have been perfect for such a project, needing a few million dollars for a new roof and other repairs. (This versus $70 million for a new school ... $3 million each put into ten smaller buildings would be ... $30 million ... at least something for the frugal to ponder.) The high school in that community, which was slated for a 600 "seat" (not pupil, but "seat") addition, was already well past what experienced people agreed was its former its optimal size of about 1,200 students. It was, in many ways, dysfunctional despite the best efforts of teachers and administrators to run a good school.

While I couldn't "prove" anything, what I saw, in both the above county and a neighboring more affluent county, was that once schools pass a certain size, they tend to become impersonal, bureaucratic places. Administrators can't know all the students, and kids end up herded through the system in the most efficient way possible, which often doesn't meet their individual needs. I sometimes witnessed students being treated rudely by harried school staff. I could hardly blames the staff, but also had the uncomfortable feeling I wouldn't want my children spoken to that way.

Yet, parents clamored for the larger schools with all the bells and whistles. To send a child to school without the same state-of-the-art gym as the best school in the county, and without a full-blown music program and six languages to choose from was seen as unacceptable. To have all these amenities in one place meant building large schools.

But are these the most important things? I often feel as if I am sister from another planet, and somehow miss seeing life the way the rest of the world does, but how is a state-of-the-art gym better than a small, caring community dedicated to knowledge and to knowing each student personally? Obviously, it would be ideal to have both, but as Gym Ex illustrates, students' bodies can be well served through the simplest exercise technologies.

I wish we could focus more on the soul of our schools than on their material attributes. Are students nurtured and known? If that element is in place, and academics are taken seriously, learning will follow. Quakerism, in general, with its emphasis on "small is beautiful," is well-placed to be a leader in this alternative way of thinking.


Hystery said...

If you are sister from another planet, then certainly I must be your alien kinswoman. What you write here reflects my own long-held beliefs about the value of small class sizes, small buildings, and all the benefits to children of being immersed in a community that takes time to know them.

Diane said...


I can well imagine you supporting smaller schools ... I suppose there are a few of us space aliens running around. :)