Freeways and Country Lanes: A Rebirth of the Small Community School?

By STUART GRAUER

Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition.

“Will metro areas evolve from the behemoths they are today into a series of smaller self-contained communities, offering schools an opportunity to position themselves as community centers?” — Donna Orem, NAIS[1]

I love motorcycling. (I know, it’s risky!) I had my eye on a BMW 850 and was getting warm for a while there. Before buying a bike, though, I thought to rent from the local shop, just to test the waters. So every weekend, I plotted out a course or destination for a tour, went to the shop, rented, and hopped on. After a few weeks of this I had to accept the dim truth: Just finding the two-lane blacktops, meandering country roads, or the mountain or hilly passes, took up half my ride. In most of Southern California, as here in San Diego, riding means wrestling with urban crowding and 10-lane freeways more than it means the freedom of winding through the curvies.

As California came of age, like nowhere else in the world, freeways tore through communities to connect suburban and rural areas to major urban centers. It was fun and romantic as it was happening, but there’s not a lot of charm left in the “great big” LA freeway. It’s “sprawl” now, and it seems to take over everything. It’s a good thing they couldn’t pave the ocean.

Now that these legendary freeways are aging and the costs of maintaining and/or rebuilding them appears staggering and protean, we have a chance to look at their larger impact on our culture and communities — and to consider if there are better, more sustainable ways to live. Writing in the New York Times, Steven Kurutz[1] describes a progressive movement in the urban planning community to “tear down highways in cities and replace them with lower-speed streets that favor pedestrians and bicyclists and foster greater connectivity among neighborhoods and residents.” Here in Encinitas, our city planning commission these days is favoring two and three-story buildings downtown, so people can live upstairs and walk or bike to work.

A parallel perspective exists in education today (even though it’s politically risky to advocate much for it): As with the town square and the book shop, the local schoolhouse wasn’t able to compete with the tremendous economies of scale we could leverage to make the childhood experience first anonymous and ultimately virtual. But what if? What if we resist aging, monolithic schools and develop “lower-speed” community schools? Many of our aging, comprehensive schools are crumbling and unsafe. The United States has pursued relentless consolidation, meaning decades of expanding school size, district size, and class size. We’ve created massive infrastructures and torn the hearts out of small communities while boarding up the “American schoolhouse.”

Revitalized area of San Francisco where the Embarcadero Freeway was removed.

San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway, which hugged the city’s waterfront, was torn down after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Peter Park, a city planner who favors removing highways in cities where neighborhoods have been “significantly disconnected,” noted that the removal of this highway provided a rebirth to that part of the city and greatly increased property values. Park argues: “Not only in San Francisco but also in every case where a highway has been removed the city has improved.”

At Grauer, where we lead the Small Schools Coalition, we get routine pleas from community school leaders around the country (and occasionally from overseas), expressing their dismay at large governments shutting down their local small schools for supposedly efficient mega- schools with so-called economies of scale. Small, micro-, and community schools are serving kids and communities as intended, but large schools intend different things.

Today’s mega-schools, like mega-freeways, bypass local treasures. Large school designs leave local re-emerging values out of their funding formulas, and they have left many communities stranded and disconnected. Examples of gravely at-risk ways smaller schools traditionally connect with their communities include: the central role the community school plays in a neighborhood; the ease with which elders, parents, and volunteers can serve in their own neighborhood schools; the connection between the local school and library and other institutions; the ability for kids to walk or bike to school and the freedom that gives them; the ability for parents to drop off and pick up; the prosperity of local shopkeepers who serve the school and community; the greater safety of the neighborhood school; and the greater familiarity of the principal and many teachers with the school parents. Imagine the alienating impact and time wasted on kids when we bus them millions of miles a year.

Stuart Grauer in a schoolhouse in Montana which has more one-room schoolhouses than any other state.

Here at our Small Schools Coalition, a bureau of The Grauer School, we have documented many years of research that teaches us all of the above. The research helps many: we get distressed letters year-round from people who are learning all that the hard way. They need our support and information. Some of the letters we get are from people with nowhere to turn, like this one:

I live in Concord, North Carolina, and we are in for a fight to save the school that my son is currently attending. This is a historic school and it sits in the middle of a small community. Many students walk or ride bikes to school. The superintendent has recently decided to close our … school and send our children to a neighboring city. We are fighting for the education of our children and for the surrounding community as property values will drop at least 30% if the school is closed.

Or this:

Here in Northern Ireland for many years where the Department of Education has been trying to close small schools on the basis that they are, somehow or other, educationally weaker … any consideration of actual evidence shows this claim to be way off the mark.

Or this, from Ontario, Canada:

I am writing you today as a Mom, whose children’s school has been recommended for closure by the director of education in our school board, the Halton District School Board…

And then an update:

Large public high school in Nicholas County, Kentucky.

Unfortunately our school board voted to close 2 high schools. The one my kids attend and another one. My kids will be moving to a school with over 2000 kids and the need for portable classrooms. We put up a huge fight. … They cannot speak to the merits of the decision as that appears to be untouchable. Here’s the kicker…21 days after the vote to close these two schools, the provincial government called a moratorium on all school closures. They admitted that their process did not serve the communities well and needed an overhaul … Most people that I have encountered disagree fully with the closures of these schools.

Today’s behemoth, comprehensive school is the natural extension of the freeway, just as the small, community school is the natural extension of the country lane. You may find the road metaphor comes very much alive if your school is facing closure and consolidation into a large, distant school, as this letter we received from Nicholas County, Kentucky, illustrates:

Since December, we’ve been attending board meetings on the importance of saving our schools and not consolidating with the other high school over 25 miles away on windy mountainous roads. Unfortunately, our pleas and data fell on deaf ears.

Just as smaller cities and towns are at the mercy of corporate “global headquarter” cities where decisions are made about where to open or close plants or retail operations, smaller schools and school districts are at the mercy of state, federal and corporate powers who both profit and call the main shots — rather than using school parents or site leaders as the primary influencers.

These are billion dollar accusations, and those challenging big-school stakeholders will not be given hearings easily or listened to dispassionately. But the data on the power of small, community schools is thickening: they’re safer, higher performance, and more connected in and among all stakeholder groups. The monolithic school model and its many entrenched myths, such as equating the value of a school with the strength of its football team, or with the number of grants it receives, or with the number of prize-winning test takers, are at last being examined.

“If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge,” noted Thomas S. Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

It’s ironic and all too often tragic that the large, consolidated school movement has been fueled by simplistic assumptions or myths about how “bigger is cheaper.”

As cities, highway systems, and schools have grown in infrastructure, writes author Michael Hobbes for the Huffington Post, “the cost of every prerequisite of a secure existence — education, housing and healthcare — has inflated into the stratosphere.”

In the past year, Washington Post photographers set out to explore what unites Americans in 102 conversations, two in each of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., they asked people to contemplate what it means to be American. They found seven unifying themes reflected, most prominently: community and empathy (Jan. 17, 2018).

Various emergent trends could at last help us see the school consolidation movement in a new more realistic light, help restore or preserve the simpler and ultimately cheaper neighborhood school, and begin removing children from gigantic, impersonal, unsafe, consolidated schools. Donna Orem, President of NAIS, asks: “Are microschools one way independent schools could become part of emerging neighborhoods?”

Community and Empathy, described by Latina Robinson of North Little Rock, Arkansas.

These trends are nascent, inconvenient to those with vested interests in bigness, and easy to ignore, but they are there. For instance, at The Grauer School in Encinitas, California, a small, secondary, community school of 160 enrollment, students show off-the-charts, real, human “engagement” in rising millennial priorities like “treating people with respect,” “building positive relationships with students of different backgrounds,” and with “learning what life is like for other people in your community outside of school” (High School Survey of Student Engagement, 2017, Indiana University). Weren’t those the very values that the large, consolidated schools were created for?

These findings are not entirely surprising except to those who never look at the actual research on small schools. As Kuhn noted, “And even when the apparatus exists, novelty ordinarily emerges only for the man who, knowing with precision what he should expect, is able to recognize that something has gone wrong.” Daniel Reisman coined the term “the lonely crowd” in 1950, almost 70 years ago! At that time, in 1950, most kids lived within walking distance to their schools. Today, with secondary school size in America averaging around 800 students, buses move more than half of them far from their homes and neighborhoods, often against their will — enduring rides where they often feel isolated, for nearly an hour a day that would otherwise be spent in activities.

It is relatively common to be lonely in a large, consolidated school and rare to be so in a small school. Small schools like Grauer excel in precisely the things large, consolidated schools promised to deliver but never have well. As reported in “School Size and its Relationship to Achievement and Behavior” by the Public Schools of North Carolina State Board of Education (2000) and found also by a great many other studies:

Studies of student behavior indicate that smaller schools are associated with more positive outcomes for students. Larger schools are reported to have higher dropout and expulsion rates than smaller schools. Larger schools also have been shown to have more problems with most major behavioral issues including truancy, disorderliness, physical conflicts among students, robbery, vandalism, alcohol use, drug use, sale of drugs on school grounds, tobacco use, trespassing, verbal abuse of teachers, teacher absenteeism, and gangs. There is also a substantial body of research which indicates that students in smaller schools are more likely to be involved in extracurricular activities.

In 2010, in “Advancing Student Achievement,” Herbert J. Walberg, University of Illinois at Chicago and a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University wrote:

A huge amount of research, including my own, in more than 25 states shows that other things being equal, smaller schools produce higher academic achievement than larger schools.

Could things ever change? We now have a couple generations of widely disregarded research, but the new millennium has at last brought about visions of paradigm shifts in many areas. Millennials are elevating personalization, innovation, and the development of a strong moral character as core values in schools and these are values where small schools excel (“2017 The Ride to Independent Schools,” Enrollment Management Association).

Quite a few medium and long-range potential trends (I think of them as dreams) could help create a re-emergence of our communities and their schools. For instance, self-driving cars could ease commuting enabling more people to live in suburban and rural areas again. Alternatively, revitalization of city centers re-creating neighborhood communities could encourage community and micro-schools. Also, remote access to more resources should help small community schools connect to resources formerly available to only very large schools. These three trends could give small, community schools a leg up. Small schools are anchors in their communities.

I hope our Small Schools Coalition research will contribute to the re-imagining of the small, safe, connected school, as well, though I don’t expect to have great, nearby motorcycling in my lifetime. Nevertheless, I don’t want to travel always on the freeway and, any chance I get, I turn onto what remaining two-lane winders I discover, roads never leveled flat by civil engineers, forever hugging the natural landscape of the county where I live, the landscape nature intended and that no economy can transcend.

We are watching a fundamental human drama play out. Corporations, bureaucracies, and governments tend to grow larger, more complex, and more systematized — we’ve been watching this happen in schools for over a century — until they fragment like so many freeways cutting through downtown LA. Healthy humans, however, will seek real connection, personalization, safety, community engagement, agile lifestyles, and whatever remaining backcountry we can find through the curvies, less constrained by high speed systems and vested bureaucracies, where they can still find the small school, if only they can know that kind of life is even possible.

[1] Donna Orem, “A Closer Look: Emerging Trends for 2018 and Beyond,” Independent Ideas Blog (January 17, 2018)

[2] The New York Times, “Once So Chic and Swooshy, Freeways are Falling Out of Favor” (October 21, 2017)

[3] The Washington Post, “What Unites Us?” (January 17, 2018)
[4] Public Schools of North Carolina State Board of Education, “School Size and its Relationship to Achievement and Behavior” (2000)

[5] “2017 The Ride to Independent Schools,” Enrollment Management Association (2017)

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/21/style/the-end-of-freeways.html

Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation’s top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, Stuart’s new book, Real Teachers, is available from CWI Bookstore.

 

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