The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

on October 20, 2015

Let me concede, even before you read this post, that I am biased in favor of small schools.  Before teaching in a small high school and becoming the principal of three small schools, I taught in some big schools and felt the sense of neglect and the emphasis on efficiency rather than what was best for students and teachers.  I don’t blame the administrators; creating and managing a big school is complicated, and the resultant structures isolate them from the unpleasant realities that many in “the trenches” face.  Still, having more small schools, even in big cities, is possible and would better serve the people who want or need to be there.

An editorial published a while ago in the New York Times heralded the success of three small, specialized high schools created by former mayor Michael Bloomberg. A multiyear study showed that disadvantaged students at those schools did better academically than those in large, traditional high schools and were more likely to enroll in college.  Within a few days Diane Ravitch’s blog posted a piece written by an unnamed researcher at the NYC Department of Education who questioned the verity of those results. He claimed that the study was financed by the same organization that funded the schools and was not peer reviewed. He also thought much of the data looked suspicious.

Based on these two articles alone, a reader couldn’t be certain which type of school is better for students and teachers. But I am biased by my own experience teaching in both large and small schools early in my career and ending up as the principal of two small elementary schools and one small middle school. What I saw in those small schools were the positive effects of what sociologists call “social capital” which means, simply, the benefits derived from being connected to other people.

But, let me be specific. At the small high school in Wisconsin where I taught English for 11 years, teachers of all subjects taught at only one grade level and had no more than 100 students.  Also, our principal was able to structure the English program to provide small seminars for each English class once a week. Because our teaching loads were manageable, we came to know our students well and had time for individual conferences with many of them over the school year. Also, I was able to assign and critique written papers every other week all year long.  Because I felt that I knew my students’ strengths, weaknesses, and accomplishments through their written work and class participation, I decided not to give end of the year exams, but to grade students on the evidence I had.

Later, I became the principal of a small elementary school, also in Wisconsin.  There we brought kids together through a school store that sold only student-made items.  Children from all grades created those items under the guidance of a teacher who was given extra planning periods in order to manage the program.  We also created a voluntary “Gifted” program by holding special classes during the noon hour that any child could participate in instead of going out to the playground.  Among those classes were a book club, which I led, and art appreciation and weaving groups, led by parents.  Classes met two or three times a week and  continued over a month or so; then they were replaced by new classes.

At the second elementary school where I was principal, in rural Oregon, we created a playground committee with student representatives from all grades that developed a set of playground rules and made a video on how to use equipment safely. Members of the committee also became leaders of various playground games.

Across the road from the Oregon elementary school was a small middle school where I was also the principal. There we started to connect students by adopting a road alongside the school and having whole-school cleanup days twice a year.  Later we developed an in-school “jobs” program that students could join.  A job consisted of 20 minutes per day assisting a teacher or other school employee. Workers earned points that could be used to bid on desirable items in an end of the year auction.  Finally, all students, including special-needs kids, were welcome to join any school sports team and could participate in drama or musical events.

Although I have no research data to confirm that any of these programs led to better learning, it was clear to us that behavior improved markedly and bullying disappeared once they were underway. What we also saw in students was a strong sense of pride and connectedness, as if they were proclaiming, “This school belongs to us, and we are proud of it.”

Because there were only 12-15 classrooms in both of those schools, I could visit them all frequently, not only to do formal observations but also to just get a feeling for how things were going and see the work and behavior of any students I was concerned about.

Finally, teachers in all of these small schools benefitted by having common planning time with other teachers who taught the same grade or course. They shared their best ideas, showed newcomers the ropes, and set up consistent plans for struggling or soaring students who needed special attention.

In a large city I can see why it is difficult to have small schools. But with a certain amount of creativity, it is possible. How about housing two separate schools in one building, as has been done already in New York with some public schools and charter schools?  Some remodeling may be necessary to make sure that each school has its own gym, library, and lunchroom, but doing so is still more economical than building two new big schools.

Another possibility for a large city is to create more small high schools offering a specialized emphasis, such as science or the arts. In those schools all bases can be covered with fewer teachers and auxiliary personnel than in a large all-purpose high school. At the same time, students have more in common with their schoolmates, teachers are more connected to each other, and the principal is more involved with both groups.

Traditionally, cities, towns, and even rural areas have chosen to have large and elaborate schools rather than small, plain ones because they represent prestige.  Although big schools may be able to offer a greater variety of courses, they also suffer from more misbehavior, dropouts, and the inability to serve many individual student needs. Policy makers and school officials should consider the greater ability of small schools to provide better working conditions for teachers and, more important, better learning opportunities and a sense of community for students.

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