Sunday, October 12, 2008

Smaller is Better

What is a community?

"A community is (among other things) a set of arrangements

between men and women. These arrangements include marriage, family

structure, divisions of work and authority, and responsibility

for the instruction of children and young people." Wendell Berry

As a child attending Lincoln Elementary School, I walked halls that were haunted in a friendly way with memories of experiences shared by my grandparents and my mother . I knew, for example, that my grandpa had, in first grade defeated a huge bully who chased him into the coal room and threatened him. I recall sitting wide-eyed for the hundredth time while my grandpa told me how he had squatted, in terror on the cement floor in the darkened coal room waiting for doom in the form of a huge red haired farm boy to destroy him.. My grandpa, aged 6, had picked up a hatchet he had found lying on the floor and as the bully approached my grandpa warned him, “Don’t come any closer,“ and tapped the hatchet repeatedly on the floor as a deterrent. The bully never slowed and menacingly advanced on my grandpa, a boy half his age and size. The hatchet came down on a barefoot with a sickening thud and the bully some toes. The injured assailant left school sadder but hopefully wiser, and my grandpa was expelled for the remainder of first grade. I never tired of hearing that story. When I was victimized by a huge older girl who poked me repeatedly in the back of the neck with sharpened pencils in chorus, I warned her that I had a toe -chopping grandpa that I would ask to exact revenge; it gave her pause. The pencils ceased poking.
While I waited for lunch in the cafeteria, I thought of my grandma and how, during the Depression, she was often starving while at school. With 17 children to feed, and few resources, the children in her family were usually hungry. She told of once feeling so faint with hunger while at school that she quietly ate a purple crayon while at her desk. She remembered how dreadfully sick she had become and how embarrassed she felt. Those stories helped me feel a deep connection with my school and my people, and gave me strength when I was weak. As I walked the halls and ran my small hands along the brick walls, I felt my sense of place and deep connection , identification and ownership with my town. The school was a familiar and comforting branch of my family tree.
Thus, I read with interest the front page story last week regarding the proposed reorganization study completed by the Consulting and Resource Group. Many small towns in our County are struggling with increasing costs and declining enrollment in public schools and are desperately searching for what they hope are fiscal solutions. In much of the Country, small schools are giving up and shipping kids to conglomerate schools.
Interestingly, the trend flies in the face of what we know to be beneficial to children; research clearly shows that children do better in smaller schools.
Researcher Lorna Jimerson identifies ten research based attributes of small schools that have proven benefits to children and learning. First, studies show that the relationships in small schools “intrinsically foster close relationships that not only help children feel connected to the school community and reduce alienation, especially among older students, but also lead to increased student learning. The close relationships inherent in small schools also have a positive impact on educators. For example, teachers in small schools tend to be more satisfied with their jobs, have less absenteeism, and take more responsibility for ensuring that their students are successful in school.” ( Jimerson, Why Small Works in Public School)
Other attributes of small schools listed in the report include:
greater participation in extra-curricular activities, increased school safety, smaller class size, and wider grade-span configurations.
What is lost in consolidation? I think of Cisco school and how much heart was taken from the town when the school closed. I had many friends who attended grade school in Cisco and they seemed to share a special bond throughout high school that remains even today. Schools have historically served as social glue for communities and ties formed there help make a cohesive and caring community.
Other documented negatives of consolidation include:

*Long bus rides
*Negative impact on the social and economic health of the community
*Increase in costs, particularly in transportation
*Higher dropout rates
*Increased anonymity in large schools
*Lower participation in extra-curricular activities by students and all school activities by parents and community members.
Interestingly, although consolidations have been sweeping the country for the past three decades or so, research has shown that in those schools that have consolidated- especially schools over 1,000 students, every predicted benefit has never bore fruit. In fact, many conglomerates are now participating in programs like that of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who have given millions in a new “smaller is better” initiative to carve up what only years before had been combined.

Additionally, I believe that the long term effects of consolidation contributes to the decline of rural populations and flight of children to cities. We need to think about the messages that we send rural children,; children whose families have participated in a agri-culture, long before it became agribusiness. We need to remember and reinforce the value of rural living.
Sadly, in the end, often due to apathy, these important social and cultural issues usually tip in one direction or another based on financial concerns. What is needed first then, is passion, commitment to believing in little schools. The understanding that bigger is not always better- and that in education, bigger is almost always worse.
There are many organizations who are designed to assist rural communities to shore up their schools and to hold onto their town’s heritage. The Rural School and Community Trust is a wonderful organization whose goal is to assist rural schools and communities to become strong. The Rural Education Finance Center (REFC), a program of the Rural Trust, is dedicated to improving educational opportunity for rural children by reducing inequities in state school finance systems, strengthening the fiscal practices of rural schools, and ensuring the adequacy of funding to rural schools.

In these troubled times, when Americans are realizing how much has been lost with the sweeping greed of the last 30 years- we are beginning to understand that what has vanished was actually more valuable than the trillions lost on Wall Street; self-reliance, competency, and the ability to trust our own instincts in evaluating what is right for our children and our communities without spending millions of dollars on consulting groups who will always consider fiscally and lead us only in the direction of money. Solutions are available and the power of a few committed individuals can make all the difference.

ERIC articles about consolidation

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