Sunday, December 31, 2006

In Praise of the Small School

The article in today's Detroit Free Press about Michigan's micro schools gave me a different perspective on the size of our local Leland school district. I've been thinking about Leland Public School a lot this week, first after reading Jack Lessenberry's recent essay blaming Michigan's growing school funding crisis on too many "hopelessly tiny school districts," and then later after looking over Time magazine's December 18 issue about remaking education in America.

Leland School measures up Time magazine's criteria quite well. Kids not only learn technology, but they live technology, taking home laptops, designing websites, blogging in their English assignments, even broadcasting this year's mock election over the internet. They are working in teams, from elementary school on up, learning to "git 'er done" even if they end up teamed with someone they'd rather avoid. They are learning to think critically and to do their own research, working towards the school's goal of producing life-long learners. Although an improved international outlook has not been a stated goal, we managed to graduate the most worldly class ever last year: of 42 graduates, there were 3 exchange students, two recent immigrants from India, one returning exchange student, and two who had designed their own international treks.

All of this is happening in the context of a small community that sounds a lot like the "micro schools" described in the Free Press article:
One upside to that, said student Kayla Gust, is fewer students means fewer cliques. Everyone is invited to the parties and nobody is ignored at school.

"You basically know everyone and you all get along," she said. "You have your friends, but you talk to everyone."
I have always liked that aspect of our smaller school community; my kids have always felt responsible for and connected to their community in ways that just can't happen in a larger school. They also know that in this small-town they can't get away with being sneaky. If I don't catch them, some other mom will and I'll hear about it anyway.

But is this all worth the money? Aren't small schools less efficient? The Small Schools Project doesn't think so. Liz first spoke to me of this research last year, when she was writing a paper on charter schools. It seems that if you look at the cost of producing a graduate (as opposed to the cost of making the payroll and keeping the lights on), small schools are much more cost efficient because more kids graduate.

If you were trying to evaluate the efficiency of an auto plant, you would be interested in how many working cars it was able to produce. You wouldn't count the ones that got thrown off the line because of defects. "Defective" work in a school is much more costly because we can't just toss non-graduates on the scrap heap. Dropouts are much more likely to suffer from all sorts of costly problems, from jail time to poor health to unplanned pregnancy.

The Dollars and Sense: The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools (pdf) paper puts it this way:

School size is arguably more important than either racial makeup or class size, according to at least one analysis. The Report Card on American Education (2001) noted that higher outcomes on standardized tests, such as the SAT and the ACT, as well as higher rates of graduation, may be connected more with school size than with race (LeFevre & Hederman, 2001, p. 3). The study also found that school size, not classroom size, was the key to student performance. Children performed better in schools where the principal knew their names.
In the 1990's, studies in both New York City and Nebraska showed that the so-called inefficiencies of smaller schools were greatly reduced when calculated on a cost-per-graduate basis. At 2006 transportation prices, we may have already outlived the era of ever larger schools.

Yet, here in Leelanau there is hardly a discussion about our schools, or school funding, that does not end in talk of further school consolidation. Never mind that we are entering an era of internet-based education and rising gas prices. Never mind that our county is long, narrow, and bisected by Lake Leelanau. Never mind that we already have kids on hour-long bus rides and that our schools, when they have remained in their communities, still function as the social backbones of those communities.

And never mind that in Michigan, size is just not relevant to our school funding problems. Some of our biggest school disctricts --Grand Rapids, Flint-- are the closest to bankruptcy court. Many of our smaller school districts are quite efficient, making good use of their staff, their students, and of their extensive community support.

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