Big School and Small School

Summer, 1978

My ideal school is a small school with fewer than 150 children. In a small school, communications are simple and relationships informal. I have been the principal of Big School and Small School for the past five years. Big School has about 500 children and 25 staff members, whereas Small School has 125 children and six staff members.

Small School does not need a principal. When I visit Small School twice a month, I know that education is the main order of the day. The teachers are not burdened with daily mimeographed notices, attendance lists, duty schedules, revised schedules, and all of the other paperwork that emanates daily from a principal’s office, nor with the endless organized meetings to bring staff members together, as they have many daily opportunities to communicate informally with one another for the benefit of kids.

Still, Small School does have a leader, a very fine leader. She is a teacher—a head teacher. Most of her time is in the classroom with children. An experienced and talented teacher, Mary Ann teaches a 1st-2nd grade classroom with the help of a part-time teacher, who frees her up to consult with teachers and parents and to carry out other school-wide duties. Mary Ann provides the leadership to help 125 children and six teachers to work together as an educational community - a school.

When I share my vision about small schools, people always ask me what I suggest we do with all the expensive and large school buildings that have been constructed. My answer is to house two, four, or more small schools in the big school buildings (or “facilities” as they are referred to by central office administrators). Is this not a simple solution to untangling schooling from the complexities of the “economy of scale”? Teachers could then get on with the job of teaching—connecting with children: motivating them, inspiring them, challenging them, and providing them with the basic foundation and love for a lifetime of learning.

When I wrote this piece 27 years ago not only was I convinced, as I am still today, that “small is beautiful”, but also I had been becoming increasingly concerned by the trend I had observed to build larger and larger school buildings. It was the belief of many authorities in public education and town and city government that larger “facilities” would, by themselves, offer improved educational opportunities, not recognizing the consequences of massing larger and larger numbers of young persons into more and more anonymous settings -- some would say war zones.

These emerging educational edifices, these palaces of learning, were often rationalized by the decision-makers as benefiting from the “economy of scale”. However, to those of us on the sidelines they often appeared to be erected as ego trips for competing architectural firms and for certain school administrators, Board of Education and Building Committee members filled with awe at their own achievements.

A quarter of a century later, numerous educators, private foundations and local communities are acting upon the recognition that smaller school units are more humane, practical, and suited to the enterprise of learning. One need only look at the experience of New York City during the past 5 years. In 2003 the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave $51 million to support 67 new small high schools to “prepare underserved students for success in today’s demanding economy.” In 1992 The Julia Richman High School of 3000 students had a 1/3 graduation rate while ten years later it had became the Julia Richman Educational Complex (JREC) housing four small alternative high schools with graduation and college acceptance rates approaching 80%. Small size alone does not create challenging and high quality education that places young people first; however, the proper environment is needed in which professional teachers, administrators and involved families and community members can nurture and truly educate adolescents through their critical years of growth.

Excerpted from:
Teaching as an Act of Love: Thoughts and Recollections
of a Former Teacher, Principal and Kid
© 2007 Richard Lakin