By JEN RITA
“The size of the school does not inhibit personal interaction; it encourages it. Small schools typically serve a community nucleus. This invites strong support from parents and community members as well as closer working relationships among the school staff. In a small school it is not unusual for teachers, administrators, and school board members to know each other well. This can lead to easy acceptance of new ideas among friends as well as a strong sense of identification and belonging.” — ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools Las Cruces NM.
I’ve been closely following the school improvement plan in my town of Ipswich, Massachusetts. As an early childhood educator for the past 15 plus years I take a natural interest in all things school related. I own and run a small progressive preschool in a neighboring town and many of our students go onto Winthrop or Doyon or other local public schools.
I also live in town and will eventually have two little ones in the school system and need to keep in myself in the loop with what our community is doing for it’s children. I’ve attended the meetings, read the letters to the editor, and followed on social media. I am in favor of keeping two smaller schools in our community. (not consolidating)
I attended my first school committee meeting when the news broke that they were considering one potential larger school. I went to fight for two smaller schools. I was surrounded primarily by wonderful educators, parents and community members who also wanted two smaller schools.
I know that as time has passed some people’s views have shifted, perhaps because they know more now and truly feel differently or perhaps because they wish this situation would just resolve itself sooner rather than later. I am still in favor of two smaller schools and will continue to be.
This has never changed for me because as an educator, inherently I know that smaller educational environments build more closely knit communities which results in a more positive learning experience for teachers, children and parents alike. When students and teachers feel heard, feel respected, and feel good about their school community, they do better.
Small close-knit communities promote individuality and leadership. Aside from my experience, research shows that smaller is better! There are numerous studies that have been conducted over recent years that indicate just how important it is to keep our school communities small.
A recent article by Diane Weaver Dunn of Education World shares: “Reforming public education may be as simple as creating smaller schools. The results of two recent studies indicate that small schools may be the remedy for lots of what is wrong with public education. Small schools can reduce the negative effects of poverty, reduce violence, and increase parent involvement and student accountability.”
Research also shows that smaller schools, which are typically considered to have 300 students or less, have higher academic achievement when it comes to test scores and achievement results.
Dr. Stuart Grauer, a teacher, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition, a research group seeking answers on which size school is best reminds us that “Small schools demonstrate great achievement equity. See Dr. Grauer’s article on smaller schools.
Smaller, more “communal” learning environments reduce both student and teacher alienation commonly identified in larger school systems, and enhance student engagement in learning.” I realize that some of our community members are concerned first and foremost about equity. I feel at the elementary level equity in regards to environment and resources should not be our first concern. Who has the best science lab, largest library, or least leaky roof are not necessarily indicators of achievement.
We all know that brand new, beautiful schools are not the be all end all for education. I have met many teachers in our community over the years and in regard to this school reform issue several have communicated that they will teach wherever they are asked to. One even shared that she could teach out of a cardboard box if need be! Of course, we clearly do need to update our buildings, but in doing this we need to consider what makes our schools all that they are: The teachers.
The teachers are the heart and soul of our schools. The teachers tirelessly show up day after day, committing themselves to the difficult job of educating our children with joy. But before the science labs and smart boards come the relationships. First and foremost our teachers are master relationship builders. In order to teach children they need to connect with them and truly know them.
Which leads us back to what type of environment teachers and children build relationships best in: Smaller! Smaller schools are better at supporting community-building relationships! Several nearby towns, Doyon and Winthrop, already have established their own close-knit school communities. Families feel loyal and connected to their own district school. To the point where if they were to move across town they would continue to drive to their beloved school.
These two school communities Doyon and Winthrop are currently by no means identical or equitable in terms of environment, but they are equitable in terms of maintaining kind, caring communities. If you take away this closeness, this smallness, in favor of one big school you will lose some of this warmth, joy and respect that come from these two communities. And thus some of the achievement.
Kudos to some brave parents in our own community for making us take a closer look at the two-school option. Our community needs to truly work together to explore the option of two schools as the best possible option for our children, the smallest citizens in our community and Ipswich’s future.
About the Author: Jen Rita lives in Ipswich, Massachussetts, is a mom to two future public school students, and owner/director at Parker River Community Preschool.
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