Joanne Yatvin has been a teacher, a principal, and a superintendent in Oregon. She is a reading specialist. Here she defends the small school idea. My own view is that there is a trade-off. A large school offers a large and diverse curriculum. A small school offers intimacy and close relationships. Some students prefer small schools, others do not. I am agnostic.
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 He claimed that the study was financed by the same organization that funded the schools and was not peer reviewed.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. In the middle school we connected students by adopting a road alongside the school and having a whole-school cleanup day four times a year. Kids were also asked to pick up any trash they saw while walking to or from school.
We also developed an in-school “jobs” program that students could apply for. 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, or participate in drama or musical events.
As a result of these programs, school attendance and behavior improved markedly and bullying 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 don’t want anyone to mess with it.”
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. At another 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.
Teachers benefitted in 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 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.
I wish I could say that the small high school where I taught offered similar opportunities to students. But with 1200 students and a traditional classroom structure, it could not. Yet, the school did arrange for all teachers to teach at only one grade level and have no more than 100 students each. We got to know our students well in small classes and had time for individual conferences with each one over the school year. As an English teacher, I chose not to give any final exams because I knew enough about students’ learning from the many papers they had written and their classroom participation.
In a large city like New York 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 schools 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 for students.