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Small Schools, Next Big Thing

Kids learn better in more focused, familiar settings. Third in a Tyee reader-funded series.

By Nick Smith 9 Sep 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Nick Smith is a veteran public school teacher who lives on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia. This series was made possible by those readers who gave to the Tyee funds for Investigative and Solutions Reporting. Donations are tax deductible and you can find out more about the Tyee Fellowship Funds here.

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SFU's Catherine Murray: 'Best thing that ever happened to my son.' Photo by Chris Grabowski.

A Tuesday in the winter of 2004 finds me standing behind my desk at Ideal Mini School in Vancouver's Marpole neighbourhood, where the weekly school meeting is getting underway. Since it is held in my classroom, I could stay put, but I decide to stroll down the hallway to round up stragglers. When I return with a couple of Grade 9s who were busy in the art room, we have to shoulder our way in.

Monica, a Grade 11, begins with an announcement about National Non-Smoking Week. She informs this group of 115 students about posters soon to appear in the hallways. The next item has a Grade 10 asking those in attendance if she can use student funds to get a new kettle for the lounge. After a murmur of approval and nodding of heads, a Grade 12 instructs her to keep the receipt and submit it to Lu in the office.

What makes a student-led meeting like this possible is that Ideal is so small compared to regular high schools. It is a second home for the teenagers who populate its halls. Students know teachers well enough to ask for increasing responsibility, and the teachers know when to trust them with it. Within the safe boundaries of its walls, students practice making the important decisions that will lead them to adulthood.

What is 'small'?

Defining "small school" all depends on who you ask. Certainly less than 400, according to most experts, while many will set the upper threshold closer to 200. Deborah Meier prefers an operational definition to a numeric one. School-wide events can include everyone. Parents entering the school are recognized by staff and students alike. Strangers are immediately offered assistance by the first person they see when they come in the door. People feel safe, and are safe, because no one is anonymous. Everyone knows each other and everyone belongs there.

Meier explains that in small schools, students belong to the same culture as the adults instead of being "abandoned in the adult-less subcultures" of the large school setting. The staff in this kind of school tends to organize itself in a non-hierarchical way. They can face one another around a table to work things out. They value one another's input.

According to small school advocate Mary Anne Raywid, "The value of small schools has been confirmed with a clarity and a level of confidence rare in the annals of education." This should mean that B.C.'s government, committed as it is to "improving quality, choice and accountability in education," according to the Ministry of Education website, should be encouraging small schools, which have been successful in improving both attendance and achievement rates. Instead, it is closing small schools at a rate "unprecedented in our province's public school history," according to the BCTF.

'Stronger feelings of belonging'

Dr. Catherine Murray spent three years fighting the closure of College Park Elementary, a small school that was the "best thing that ever happened to my son," she attests. Recently, they lost the fight. In a phone conversation, she opines that "the neo-liberal redesign of the school system delegating to boards has made them all financially concerned but not concerned by way of quality of education."

In her effort to counter this issue and save the school, Murray, with Hien Nguyen and Michele Schmidt, also of SFU, authored a report entitled Does School Size Matter? A Social Capital Perspective, in which the three argue that small schools not only make for better students, but for better citizens. Murray convincingly presents some very good reasons to be encouraging the development of small schools rather than closing them, including the "realizing of social outcomes, the ability to integrate different religions and cultural backgrounds and to integrate arts and sciences in a meaningful way." As a professor of communications at SFU, she reveals her interest in teaching youth to participate in creating strong, healthy communities.

Indeed, students in small schools experience "stronger feelings of affiliation and belonging" than their counterparts in big schools, says Kathleen Cotton in her excellent paper New Small Learning Communities: Findings from Recent Literature. Students tend to get authentically involved in the way a small school operates.

Monica Miller, who graduated from Ideal in 2005, recently told me what it was like for her as she became an active member of her school community. "When I was in Grade 8, I'd see the older students, like the Grade 12s, doing things like running school meetings, and I'd think, 'I'd be able to do that.' It was a kind of a subconscious thing really, but you'd just get a sense that this is what it was like to be an Ideal student. You'd just start being it."

To Miller, what mattered most about attending a small school was that "you were just encouraged to be you." She adds, "Some students that would not have been valued in another school would really flourish."

Small and its limits

Phil Luporini, principal of Pender Harbour Elementary-Secondary School on the Sunshine Coast tells me that "when you come to a small school, you become part of the culture." Of his Grades 7 through 12 school of 200 students, he boasts, "Everybody knows each other and takes care of each other." What really makes his school work for all involved is that, "We deal with the individual differences with kids because we can see them. We see that child more often than they do in a big school."

Luporini admits to drawbacks. Running sports teams can be difficult, for example. He says that they can offer the same programs as the big schools, but not with the same range of courses.

Monica Miller told me that she had had this concern about being short-changed on electives, "but it ended up not mattering." Miller, interested in the world of publishing, oversaw the production of the school yearbook, receiving course credit in the process. "I could pretty much cover the stuff I could have taken at another school by doing yearbook," she explains. Control over what she wanted to learn ended up mattering more than having a list of credentials on her high school diploma.

There are many reasons that staff at a small school tend to be more collegial. Here, they can "gather around a table to establish school-wide priorities for teaching and learning," according to Copland and Boatright in their paper Leading Small. Indeed, teachers from small schools often describe the "culture of shared decision-making" and of co-operative leadership. In a small school, every interested party can be consulted on each important issue. Everyone is empowered when they see how their input makes a difference.

Many ways to be small

Small schools come in a variety of models. One is the historically small school that hosts a low enrollment for practical reasons, usually of geography, such as Pender Harbour. Though not "small by design," it can take advantage of the benefits of its size. Many alternative schools, such as Ideal Mini, were created to serve a particular population, which, amongst other reasons, sought to create a family type of atmosphere, so enrollment was kept low.

An arrangement now receiving a lot of interest, particularly in the U.S, is the large school restructured as multiplex. The idea here is to break a conventional school into smaller, autonomous units in order to improve learning conditions for both students and teachers. As of 2004, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had invested $375 million toward re-organizing schools this way. The jury remains out, but most parties involved in this contentious project say that it is working. According to Copland and Boatright, they are seeing are better attendance rates, higher levels of achievement, fewer discipline problems and more students participating in life at the school.

Some argue that the higher quality education delivered at small schools is costly, while others disagree. It depends on who is crunching the numbers. Many, including The Education Commission of the States, have pointed out that large schools are more cost effective on an overall per-pupil basis. If, instead, we measure cost per-graduated student, small schools clearly win.

Creating a 'focus school'

Small schools are more likely to succeed when they can find a focus rather than trying, like a big school, to be everything to everyone. A "focus school" still addresses the entire curriculum, but through a lens that is of interest to the students, much as our French immersion or fine arts schools do. A focus such as Project-Based Learning works well because it gears itself toward a learning style rather than academic ability, allowing the school to forge its identity through inclusion rather than exclusion.

Rick Lear, of the Small Schools Project, emphasizes that autonomy is critical for the success of a small school, particularly when it comes to curriculum and focus, so that learning can become deep and cohesive rather than broad and superficial. Educational leaders will need to recognize that giving everyone a good education does not mean giving them the same education.

A network of little worlds

To increase opportunities for both staff and students, small schools should network with other schools and the extended community. Copland and Boatright quote School reformer Jacqueline Ancess as she explains, "When the new school reaches out to form alliances and to establish relationships, it can generate good will, confidence, local support and resources, all of which contribute to its development."

Small focus schools can offer courses together in an online or blended learning format. This way, students with an outdoor leadership focus could take a course in digital photography offered by the technology immersion school, while some technology students could opt to join the others on a sailing trip.

No school can be everything to everyone. A network of small schools, however, can offer everyone a choice that will work for them. Although small schools are no "silver bullet," their scale makes all issues manageable. If we are to make school relevant once again, this is an ideal place to start.

As Catherine Murray, parent and educator, states with passion, "Teachers want them, students want them and I believe local taxpayers want them."

That convergence of support is well timed. Small schools offer a way to break away from the past model of centralization and uniformity and move towards a 21st century network of diversity.

On Friday, fourth in this series: Why 'Blended Learning' could be the unlit fuse in K-12 education.

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