Gazette Column: “Keeping our schools small is worth a large effort”

Today’s Gazette includes a column from Greg Kerstetter (email), who teaches fifth grade at the R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton:

Lesson Plan: Keeping our schools small is worth a large effort

Here’s what the [Strategic Planning Commitee] could not agree on: whether to close an elementary school to save money…

Members of the Strategic Planning Committee say that closing a school will save the city between $200,000 and $400,000 a year. In my opinion, it’s not worth it.

What we get when we have small, local elementary schools are children walking to class; families committed to the school down the street; principals and teachers who know every student; people who really know each other…

When children walk to class, they are setting up lifetime habits of walking and getting to know the neighborhood they live in. Children say hello to their neighbors as they walk to school; living strands of community are formed…

The reason for the effectiveness of small is that people have a limit to the number of social relationships that they can manage. In a large group, more than 400, social thinkers say it is difficult for people to keep track of each other. Elementary schools are buildings full of social relationships. If they sour, because the population is too big, then they are not as effective, I believe…

See also:

February 4 and 12: Two Important Meetings about Northampton Schools
Today’s Gazette reports that the Northampton Education Action Team will host a public meeting on the budget crisis at J.F.K. Middle School on Wednesday, February 4, at 7:00pm.

At the School Committee
meeting of Thursday, February 12, the Strategic Planning Committee will
present its final report. “That 25-member committee has spent the last
several months researching all aspects of restructuring the city’s six
public schools. Though it has been widely believed that the committee
will recommend the closing of an elementary school, [Superintendent of
Schools Isabelina] Rodriguez strongly feels that the Strategic Plan
will stop short of such a pronouncement.” This meeting will take place
at 7:15pm at J.F.K. Middle School.

Video: School Committee Meeting of November 13; Citizens Ask Bridge Street School Be Saved

School Committee Meeting Underscores Imminent Peril Facing Bridge Street School
“…it is my understanding that the strengths identified by the strategic
planning committee include small, neighborhood schools. I hope the
committee is not shortsighted about these findings but will use them in
order to preserve our school and all others in the city.”

Education World: “Are Smaller Schools Better Schools?” (7/20/00)
Although a variety of factors affect student achievement, the greatest
factor was the reduction of anonymity — going to a school where
someone knows you and your name. Being known by your teachers and peers
makes a difference, Wasley noted.

“Back to School for Planners”; “Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School”; “The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools”
…the trend towards mega schools continues despite widespread
agreement among researchers that the size of most U.S. schools is too
large. A growing body of research has shown that “student achievement
in small schools is at least equal and often superior to achievement in
large schools.” A higher percentage of students, across all
socio-economic levels, are successful when they are part of smaller,
more intimate learning communities… Security improves and violence
decreases, as does student alcohol and drug abuse…

Smaller, human-scaled institutions are easier to fit into existing
neighborhoods. They are also easier for community residents to relate
to than behemoth-sized institutions…

…District size also generally exerts a distinct influence
(Bickel & Howley, 2000)…

At least one study spotlights the mechanisms by which
small schools become more effective than large schools.
Lee and Smith (1994) used data from the National
Educational Longitudinal Study (1994) to show that
small schools increased teacher collaboration and team
teaching. Lee and Smith report that “large size and fragmented
human contact complicate the management of
[large] schools, which elevates the importance of formal
rules to regulate behavior. The environment in comprehensive
high schools is therefore less human” (p. 2)…

David Goldberg, “Of Sprawl Schools and Small Schools”
…there is mounting evidence that
the impersonal environment of the mega-school
inhibits the basic function of the school; that is,
giving kids the best education possible. This
realization has given rise to a growing movement
for small schools, a cause gaining an
increasingly high profile with the involvement
of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and
many others…

Smaller schools have lower drop-out rates
and higher average scores on standardized tests. Children in high-poverty
schools see an even more pronounced improvement. While it’s true that
larger schools generally do show a small savings on spending per student,
when that figure is computed for students who actually graduate, the per graduate
cost per student actually is slightly lower. Larger schools can
have more extracurricular offerings, but participation in after-school activities
declines as schools get larger. A U.S. Department of Education report
found that schools with over 1,000 students have much higher rates of
crime and vandalism than schools with 300 or fewer students. And teacher
satisfaction is higher in smaller schools, according to a Chicago study. (You
can find links to much of the research online at [link updated].)

On Common Ground: “The ABCs of Smart Growth Spell Out the Community School Vision” (PDF, Winter 2005)
Community school advocates and leaders of the Smart Growth
movement have joined forces in an informal alliance promoting
community schools as a focal point of both new communities
and the restoration of decaying inner city neighborhoods.
They are drawing strength from education reformers who have
concluded that small schools are better for kids than the megaschools
that school districts have tended to build on vacant land on
the edge of town. Their research shows that children attending
smaller schools get better grades, participate more in school activities
and are more likely to go to college.

As Sam Passmore put it in a Funders’ Network for Smart Growth
and Livable Communities report on Education and Smart Growth,
“The interests of Smart Growth advocates and education reformers
converge on a simple, but powerful idea, the small neighborhood
school.” Especially when those small neighborhood schools are
community schools.

In an article for the American School Board Journal, Washington,
D.C., consultants Barbara McCann and Constance Beaumont outlined
these characteristics of Smart Growth schools:

  • Small in size.
  • Broad community involvement.
  • High-quality education.
  • Students can walk to school.
  • Serve as community schools.
  • Good fit for the neighborhood.
  • Use existing facilities wherever possible.

Small Schools Workshop: “What Are Small Schools?”
Size is one determining characteristic of a small school, yet small
schools are about much more than size. In contrast to large,
factory-model schools, small schools can create a more intimate
learning environment that is better able to address the needs of each
student and teacher. Students, teachers, and parents may all be better
served when a school is small enough to allow for effective
communication amongst educators, students and the school community. In
small schools, meaningful relationships are fostered and opportunities
for collaboration are cultivated.

A small school offers an environment in which students are more
visible. When students are better known, teachers can more easily
identify individual talents and unique needs of each student, offering
a more personalized educational experience.

A small school staff size allows more opportunity for teachers to know
each other well, more easily share information about their students,
collaborate to solve problems, and generally support one another.

Small schools are a way of restructuring schools and the human relationships inside them.

…there are some common features that often characterize good small
schools… A maximum population of 250-300 students in a heterogeneous
mix that represents the local school community…

New Urban News: “Principles of the New Urbanism”
The heart of the New Urbanism is in the design of neighborhoods, which
can be defined by 13 elements, according to town planners Andres Duany
and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, two of the founders of the Congress for
the New Urbanism. An authentic neighborhood contains most of these

…6) An elementary school is close enough so that most children can walk from their home…

Letter to Gazette: “Government works best when it is closer to home” (7/5/08)
Research indicates that smaller schools and smaller school districts outperform larger ones.

When it comes to city and school planning, a mosaic of small
administrative units may look inefficient, but it’s more likely to
offer responsive, accountable, and individually tailored service than
larger ones.

Ward 3 Neighborhood Association: Statement of Support for Bridge Street Elementary School

Closing Bridge Street School Contradicts Smart Growth Goals
On page 11 of the Sustainable Northampton Plan, Land Use objective number 5 states:

Locate housing within walking distances along safe paths, or with
bicycle access, to and from neighborhood commercial areas, parks and
recreation, schools, and public transportation.

On page 51, one metric of progress is “Percent of children able to walk to school”.

It is well known that mothers of young children are heavy users of cars…