Wednesday, February 7, 2007
The whimsical playground at Longfellow School
(due to shut?)
The Walmartization of our nation is bad enough without it spreading to public education as consolidated big-box schools. There are hidden costs to so-called economies of scale. The academic literature over the past decade concurs that small schools work better in terms of academic achievement, attendance, behavior problems, graduation rates, parent involvement and teacher/staff job satisfaction. Small schools are even cost effective.
The students most at risk are hurt more as school size increases. They are lost in the cavernous halls and in the tunnels of bureaucracy. The achievement gap between the well off and the lower income/minorities only increases and is harder to track. There has also been a large rise in attention deficit disorders and autism, and these students cannot bear commotion and distraction. Children at risk are the canaries in the coalmine, and what is dangerous for them is challenging for most children.
As the rest of the nation struggles to break down large schools into smaller units, Maine marches in the opposite direction. Small towns mean small schools, and some can be too costly to run for cash-strapped communities. There is, however, a huge difference between consolidating 80 student rural schools to the ideal 350-500 student size and consolidating ideal size schools into a 800 student school as my town of Brunswick is contemplating. The damage can be mitigated by building two schools-within-a-school, but why go there at all?
Brunswick does need a new school to deal with crowding and has a long-standing problem of inequity. All four K-5 elementary schools are old, cramped and have systems in need of updating. The two newer schools have been housing students in “temporary” mobile units for decades. The kindergarteners have to put on coats to use the bathroom. A teacher fell through the floor one year. Add to that, the two older schools are not adequately accessible for the handicapped and lack space for new special programming and even a cafeteria. Worst of all, the districting among the schools is not equal in terms of income or special needs.
Despite these problems, Brunswick still produces excellent academic results on a tight budget. Much of that credit is due to dedicated staff, teachers and parent volunteers, but a small learning community facilitates this dynamic. The principal at my daughter’s school knows the name of every student. Classrooms team up for multi-age mentoring, and teachers stay connected with their students throughout the formative K-5 years. Many parents and even neighbors volunteer. It is a warm and cozy place for a child. The good spirit spills outside school walls into the neighborhood, engendering a special feeling of community.
So why not just build a new small K-5 school to deal with crowding and make the old schools accessible? Equity issues between the schools could be dealt through informed redistricting. The problem is that the state will only pay for new construction; hence the pressure is on the town to build a big new school and shut the two oldest schools (pictured) despite their lovely old architecture and valued place in the community.
A shiny, new mega-school may prove to be a Trojan horse should educational quality decline. It hurts not only the children but the entire community. A remote, poor state like Maine needs to attract professionals and equip the next generation for the future, and for that good schools are key. In addition to building a new school with state funds, it might be worth renovating or adding onto existing structures to maintain a system of small schools. Investing local dollars in quality education will pay off in the long run.
It’s the school board’s responsibility to start with clear educational goals and insist that the building be designed to facilitate programming instead of fitting the programming into the building. The architects are artists and technicians but not policy makers nor experts in education. Without guidance from the building committee, the design may limit the programming options. If the town wants small K-5 schools, then the architects need to start figuring out the most cost-effective way to make this happen. Policy must precede blueprints.
The public should be invited to participate throughout the process well before the town votes to accept or to reject the new school. The school building committee needs to launch a public information campaign with all the facts and figures. It’s hard to trust a process that almost appears to be happening behind closed doors. Where’s the time for public comment? Transparency allows for informed decision-making and better public policy. Whatever the outcome, it must reflect the will of the people through true civic discourse.