The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

In Praise of Small Schools

on July 23, 2016

 Today I am posting a piece I wrote for Diane Ravitch’s blog in 2014, a year before I started The Treasure Hunter. If you are wondering why I am going back to old stuff now, it’s because I lost the essay I had been working on for two days by hitting the wrong button on my computer.  Although I still hope my son, Bruce, can help me recover it, I am too shaken to start something new today. So I hope that the piece I am repeating will be new to my recent followers and still meaningful to those who read it before.

An editorial published earlier this month 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 posted a piece on her blog 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 He claimed that the study was financed by the same organization that funded the schools and was not peer reviewed.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 can’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 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 one elementary school where I was principal we brought kids together through a school store that sold only student-made items and a noon hour of “Gifted” activities that anyone could participate in instead of going out to the playground. On Fridays we had an hour when all teachers read aloud to students.  Earlier in the week we posted the titles of the stories that each one would read, and students could sign up for the one they wanted to hear.

At another elementary school we created a playground committee with representatives from all grades that developed a set of playground rules and made a video on how to use equipment safely. After that, committee members reported back on the new rules to their classmates. On the playground their job was to remind others of the rules whenever necessary.

Teachers benefitted in both those small schools by having common planning time with others who taught the same grade. They shared their best ideas, showed newcomers the ropes, and set up consistent plans for struggling or zooming students who needed special attention.

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

In the middle school where I was principal we connected students by adopting a road alongside the school and having a road cleanup day three times a year. Students were also asked to pick up any harmless trash they saw while walking to or from school.

We also developed an in-school “jobs” program that students could apply to join. Most of the jobs consisted of 20 minutes per day assisting a teacher, the librarian, or other school employees.  A few students were allowed to work independently cleaning up the playground or tending to the school flowerbeds.  One teacher was given extra free time to monitor the workers and keep track of their work time.  The students earned points to be used to bid on desirable gift items in an end of the school year auction. That event was the most popular one of the year.  Students of all grades came to see what the workers had received for their points.

Finally, all students, including special-needs kids, were welcome to join any school sports team, or participate in school drama or musical events.

After we instituted those programs, middle school attendance and behavior improved markedly and some bullying that we had seen before disappeared. What we also saw in students was a strong expression of pride and connectedness, as if they were proclaiming, “This is our school, and we won’t let anyone mess with it.”

In a large city like New York I can see why it is difficult to have small schools, especially small high schools. But with a certain amount of creativity, it is possible. How about dividing a large school into two separate schools and housing them in one building, as has been done already with some public schools and charter schools?

In a small high school offering a specialized curriculum, such as science or the arts, all bases can be covered with fewer teachers and auxiliary personnel than in a larger all-purpose high school. At the same time, students have more in common with their schoolmates, teachers are more connected, 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, simple ones. Although, big schools may be cheaper to build and operate and easier to manage from the top down, 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 human connections for all students.





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