Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Size Matters

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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Sarah - Your comments about the importance of scale in children's experience of institutions certainly resonate for me. AS E.F. Schumacher said, "small is beautiful". Appreciatively, Mark

Anonymous said...

Small schools have proven time and time again to be the best investment in our childrens' future. We need to invest well and build a small school, and work to solve the equity issues that face this community as a whole. We cannot hide the equity concern in the plans for a new building for all - the people of this community deserve better! - Andrea Loeffler

Anonymous said...

In my experience, small schools are best. Putting architectural considerations ahead of the pupils' interest makes no sense.

Anonymous said...

I work as a public school counselor in MSAD 11 which includes the towns of Gardiner, Randolph, Pittston and West Gardiner. Thirteen years ago Gardiner was in the same position that Brunswick is in today. The town received state funding for a new elementary school. After much discussion and study of how children learn best, the town decided to build two smaller elementary schools, each serving a student population of 200. Each school is a small community in which students, regardless of academic ability or need, are challenged as their skills and needs require.

Anonymous said...

I have been in two schools of the same size (350) and the one I'm in now is "smaller" because we work at knowing everyone. It matters that teachers and all staff are connected to all students; the confidentiality that is so important to some is counter-productive because if you aren't privy to the facts, it's hard to help and meet needs. We make it our business to KNOW what's up.

Small is better, but if you can't make it really small, make sure your people know how to connect with everyone so it FEELS small.

I love my job!

Anonymous said...

I agree that smaller is better. This community has a tremendous opportunity to enhance the quality of education for all students. However, with this opportunity comes responsibility. It is up to us to provide the children of this town with the best education possible. And smaller, multi-grade schools are the foundation of success.

At smaller schools, children feel safer and have a greater sense of belonging, responsibility and school pride. They are more respectful of the school, their peers and their teachers. It's easier for teachers to work together to share their learning and experiences. (It's much easier to bring 3-4 Second Grade Teachers together for a meeting than it is to get 10-12 Second Grade Teachers together.)

Schools with more grade levels benefit students, families and teachers as well. Younger siblings can feel comfortable knowing that an older sibling is nearby. Children and parents have to make fewer transitions. Students become familiar with teachers in the upper grades before they even get there. And familiar faces of teachers they have had previously greet them in the hallways and the cafeterias.

As this community plans for the future, our work should be driven by the needs of the children, not by state guidelines, building sites or bureaucratic processes. The education of all children will be best served by smaller, multi-grade (K-5) schools.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Sarah, for using your personal blog to help spread the word about this crucial issue facing our community. It's helpful to read your straightforward and well informed perspective on this situation. I am hopeful that more citizens will come to realize the tremendous impact that the education of our children will have on so many aspects of this community's future well being. If we are simply looking to get the "biggest bang for our buck" from the state's school construction funds, our priorities are seriously misguided. Thanks again! - Becky

Sarah Laurence said...

You may be looking at an old version of my blog if you entered through a keyword search or images.

On Jan 6, 2008 my blog address changed:

Click on that link to see my latest posting and all archives. You can copy the link to your favorites/bookmarks.

tina said...

Seeing these pictures make me teary eyed. I attended Longfellow school in the late 60s early 70s. I can tell you the name of every single teacher who taught me here. My nicest memories are of that playground. Playing 4 square and swinging on the monkey bars and spinning on the merry go round. Each time I come there I go by the old school. K-5th I was there.

Unknown said...

I went to Longfellow elementary in the 80’s. I loved that building, the grounds, and all of my teachers. My father was in the Navy and we moved while I was in 4th grade, I think, and I just wasn’t as happy in my new school. It was huge and modern, had a fantastic playground and the teachers were nice enough, but the warmth was gone. I went back for a visit a few years ago with my own daughter, and she played on the playground and peeked in the windows and she commented that it didn’t even seem like a real school, more like a movie or book school...and maybe that’s what I liked so much about it. I wish she could have experienced it.