Supporting Smaller Schools and Their Communities

By JOE BROOKS, Community Works Institute (CWI)

Over the past several decades small school consolidation and regionalization of schools has rolled on and rolled out in so many communities. Our colleague and contributing editor Stuart Grauer, a teacher, head of school, and a recognized expert on small schools, has written a series of insightful pieces for Community Works Journal on the benefits, myths, and facts around smaller schools. I am sharing several of those articles below, along with Stuart’s latest essay on how we actually got to LARGE.

a preface on schools and their communities….

Using The Community as the Classroom

I regularly speak with educators, principals, and community members from across the U.S. who share deeply heartfelt stories of their threatened or under siege local smaller community schools. These schools range from public schools to small parochial schools, and are rural and urban both. These schools contact me seeking help in saving their local smaller community schools. And there ARE specific ways to use strategies, tools, and teaching approaches that focus on the community itself to save or reinvent these schools. In my work with these schools the KEY word and starting point is always “community”.

Being fully of the local community is not at all a given with schools in general. And often, it is actually the lack of deeper connections between a school and its community that can pave the way for consolidation or closure. Since my days as a public school teacher I have always been a passionate advocate of smaller community focused schools. There are micro and macro reasons for that. I have seen first hand with my students what a smaller school that is working closely with and sincerely invested in the local community can actually do, for students and the community both. As John Dewey preached, schools closely connected to their community represent learning opportunities and in fact, the essence of democracy. I have seen the truth of this and the benefits for students most directly again and again. More importantly, I understand the “larger” benefits that come from a school successfully partnered with its community. The impact becomes clear among the schools who successfully focus on using the community as classroom through deeper partnerships and projects. Successful learners who feel deep connection to their community are one clear outcome. And these schools that are “in” their communities also have a community that understands the value of their smaller locally focused and involved school. They see the results.

learn more about Place Based Service-Learning


Smaller Schools vs. Larger Schools?

Are small schools always better? In my own experience, programmatically and in their practice, no they are not. However, the smaller schools that I work with have usually made a visible commitment to connecting learning, students, and the school to the very local — the community as the classroom. And that could be the very first step to being “save worthy”. But I also work with many amazing larger schools, supporting them in establishing curriculum and programs that create common purpose, local connections, and community, even in the largest of schools. And whether large or small, it should not be surprising that many or most schools have not even had the time to have a proper conversation about the best direction forward and/or the merits of community focused curriculum. Change simply arrives, rapidly. Consolidation approaches and by then, it is often too late. And, yes indeed, it is the smaller schools who are often most able to make the greatest innovations and essentially serve as a learning laboratory where new models, real imagination, educator and student driven change can flourish. It is also in the smaller schools that innovation is often “allowed” and encouraged to flourish. We all benefit from this innovation, from the largest to smallest schools.

We clearly need new paths and new institutional models. The old factory style model of education is visibly and deeply flawed, a dead end that, one way or the other, blocks innovation. For many of us “education reform” is an emperor with no clothes, a false promise that has resulted in the corporatization of schools and student learning, a circular race to somewhere with a new pace car, year after year. On the other hand, small schools often lead the way to authentic reform and change. So, we have a collective necessity to protect and learn from these smaller schools. My most cherished moments include bringing K-12 educators from smaller and larger schools together to share and collaborate around the best of their collective experience. We have much to learn from each other and the shared passion is always for community building.

• Small Schools: The Myths, Reality, and Potential of Small Schools
By STUART GRAUER and CHRISTINA RYAN

Like many of our cities, the large school model had evolved very gradually and was not the result of a set plan, and so no one could state a single place or point in time where a threshold had been crossed and the old ways were not working. It had been more like watching a beautiful tree grow; we could discern nothing but the seasons until it came to pass that our tree was not at all what it had been, buckling the sidewalk and over-shadowing the once-sunny garden, spreading limbs that could hardy support themselves, or couldn’t. But, of course, we never see a tree growing. read more

• Small Versus Large Schools: The Truth About Equity, Cost, and Diversity of Programming
By STUART GRAUER

Why do we keep the focus on building gigantic schools when we now have over 30 years of promising small schools data? Here is one big reason the data are ignored: cultural expectations about high school are deeply embedded. Powerful and often compelling myths about schooling tend to govern our collective assumptions about normalcy, and these myths have silently, steadfastly advanced the move to larger, more consolidated schools. read more

• Small Schools: The Real Story on the Economy of Getting Small
By STUART GRAUER

Small design schools have historically been presumed to be uneconomical. We now understand that small schools, defined by the Small Schools Coalition as schools with 399 students or fewer, are no more expensive than today’s large consolidated schools. In fact, research has shown that formulas for determining funding disguise tremendous non-cash costs associated closely with large schools; some of those costs are difficult to affix a price tag to, and some of them include terrible social costs. read more

I Also highly recommend my friend and colleague Bob Sornson’s new book, from which we recently published the following excerpt.

• Competency Based Learning and the Age of Information, Ideas, and Innovation
By BOB SORNSON

For the past few decades there has been enormous pressure to improve American learning outcomes. But here’s the dirty little secret. Adding pressure to one-size-fits-all instruction has not produced any improvements on 12th grade learning outcomes since we first started collecting data in the early 1970s. Some districts are better than others, but taken as a whole, American students are performing at exactly the same level as in 1971. read more

Learn more about connecting your school to the local community.

About cwiblog

Community Works Institute (CWI) provides resources, professional development, and collaboration opportunities for educators. Our focus is on place based education, service learning, and sustainability.
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