Get Rid of Big Schools Now

Two of my children went to small public high schools… three of my children went to large, mega-public high schools. The differences were amazing! If we want to save our country and help our children enjoy life and schooling – we need to give meaning and a sense of purpose to our schools. We need a place where every kid can feel like he or she belongs – a place where “everybody knows your name.” A school with a sense of purpose for each kid. A school that gives meaning to life. A school where kids want to get involved.

Imagine if you will, a town with three high schools composed of 3000 students, each. Now, imagine the same town with 18 high schools with 500 students in each school – Sizer would prefer a magic number around 432 – however, 500 will serve the same purpose here. With 18 high schools there would be 18 student-body presidents and 18 sets of student officers. There would be 18 Senior class presidents, and 18 Junior class presidents, and down the line with each grade level. Schools would have 18 varsity Quarterbacks and 18 varsity teams competing for a city championship. And, every Friday night there would be 18 teams competing locally for the town honors. The community would have 18 dramatic societies putting on school plays; 18 choirs to sing fortheir schools and parents; 18 marching bands; 18 cheer-leading squads; 18 community involvement teams working in their community to make it a better place; 18 Valedictorians; 18 of every sport and junior varsity; and, 18 sets of everything positive about schools. Imagine schools where every kid belongs to a club and is involved in all the functions of the school Schools where we need kids to join clubs and become active in organizations.

Small schools would allow all faculty to know each other and each parent to be known personally by at least one teacher per school. Small schools would be able to and would need to cultivate all their student talents simply to field a varsity and junior varsity team or squad. Small schools would woo their students into joining clubs and organizations, simply to have a club or an organization. In sum, students would be an integral part of their schools – not simply a cipher in the haze of 3000 others.

Have you ever wondered why we have such large schools in America? Why some high schools have upwards of four and five thousand students, even some middles schools push 3000 students onto their campuses. Also, have you ever wondered if the size of the school had any significant influence on the students enrolled in these miniature cities? Well, size does have an affect – typically, a deleterious affect.

It all started in 1958, when James B. Conant, former President of Harvard University, and the Chairman of the National Defense Research Committee, suggested that schools should be as large as possible. Conant believed that large schools could offer more opportunities for students and at a much lower cost than having a number of small schools. His motivation was based, in part, on the post-sputnik awakening that was sweeping America. Having been influenced by the progressive educational movement lead by John Dewey and Robert Thorndike, Conant was aware of the ‘efficiency movement’ ideas whereby education was rigorously tied to any and all discoveries emanating from the “scientific studies” of educational researchers. And, with Conant’s endorsement, the ideals of the large-schools movement took hold on the American landscape – Big schools were here to stay.

Almost 25 years later, Theodore Sizer, former Dean of the College of Education at Harvard, wrote a book, titled: Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School, wherein he noted the tremendous benefits of small schools. Sizer actually founded the Coalition of Essential Schools to promote his ideas and stimulate continued research into the dynamics of small school.

What Sizer noted was that small schools provided students with a sense of belonging and security that large school were incapable of providing. He noted the benefits of being recognized as an important member of a small community of learners, a feeling that is part and parcel to the small schools experience. When students have a role to play in their schools they become part of the fabric of the school – understanding their significance.

I went to a small school and so did my wife! I captained my high school football team, I ran track and field, I was ASB president my senior year, Junior class president, sophomore class vice president, and freshman class president. I was an officer in the chess club, archeology club, library club, letterman’s club, and Sodality club. My wife was ASB Vice President or her school, a member of the year book staff, and a member of the Block Club. It felt good to be important and to have a meaning to go to school each day. I coached in a large school and I was a Director of Special education in a district with two large high schools. Small is beautiful.

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