Smaller Schools, Stronger Schools
[this is the first in a series of posts over the summer that, collectively, will develop into an election platform]
Ours is a society that has, in recent history, valued quantity over quality. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, “bigger is better” has been the mantra guiding our social and civic development. Our schools have not been immune to this mentality of progress through growth and it is not difficult to find schools in Ontario with student populations extending into the thousands. In the Waterloo Region District School Board, all of our high schools have student populations over 1000 – the largest being Cameron Heights with 1800 students.
It’s time we started reversing that trend and moving towards smaller, stronger schools.
I was educated in relatively small schools – about 100 students per grade level from kindergarten through grade 12. Looking back, I was very fortunate to grow up in schools where every teacher knew who I was – even if I wasn’t taught by them.
I’ve always had the notion that smaller schools are inherently better schools. It just made sense to me that the smaller the population of both students and teachers, the stronger the relationships within. It stands to reason that the stronger the relationships, the better the education. Until recently, this was just gut feeling on my part.
It seems that some recent research out of the United States and reported in the New York Times offers some evidence that my gut feeling was in the right direction.
from the NYT article:
The study validates the small school policies of the Bloomberg administration, which has shut down 20 large, failing high schools and replaced them with more than 200 small schools, about half of which were the focus of this study.
Some of the large, factory-style high schools that were closed had enrollments of 3,000 or more and graduation rates under 40 percent. The new small schools, overwhelmingly in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, typically serve a little more than 400 students each. These schools have several other things in common. They have a rigorous curriculum. They offer a personalized approach to education, with teachers responsible for keeping close tabs on the performance of their students.
[The research] found that the average graduation rate for students in the small schools was nearly 69 percent, nearly 7 percentage points higher than the rate for students in the traditional schools.
While there are aspects of this “small school” system that would not apply here in Cambridge, I feel somewhat vindicated by the results of this study.
I was so intrigued by the research that I posted the link to my personal Facebook profile. I got quite a few responses from friends and family – many of them teachers. I’d like to share just a few of their comments here:
Michael: The reason so many boards use tribes-based teaching. http://xnet.rrc.mb.ca/glenh/tribes.htm
Neal: I went to a grade 1-7 school with 250 students and a High School with 500. I’ve always thought that was a good start in life.
Candy: a few critical points in there: ‘specialized high schools’; ‘centred around a theme’; and ‘community support’. Add in ‘rigorous curriculum’; ‘teachers following the progress of small groups of students’ and you have a recipe for success… In all areas, I have yet to be convinced that bigger is better.
However, it is difficult for smaller schools, high schools in particular to offer a diverse spectrum of courses. Again this is a money issue. Courses with especially low enrollment are not offered.
Sandra: There must be some sort of creative way (if there’s the will) for small schools to collaborate on the more specialised courses. After all, if they are smaller it means they are also closer together. Somebody needs to come up with a brilliant plan. Meanwhile I cannot help but think of the famous remark attributed to President James Garfield, that “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.”
Emily: not only are small schools less intimidating but the kids become the kids of the whole school and not just the teacher who had them last year or the current year. It becomes a team building effort where everyone knows that one student who needs support on the playyard as well as the classroom or the students who you can ask to help for and everyone can provide them the support they need wherever they happen to be in the school. Teachers share what worked for the students in previous years. SUCH a good idea.
Amie: small = very limited course selections in high school and fewer clubs/teams to be involved in… just throwing my two cents in… there are a million more pros and cons but these are the first things that popped into my mind as a guidance counselor!
As a result of this conversation (and many others I’ve had offline) I’ve decided to make smaller schools a central part of my campaign for Trustee. In particular, I think that our secondary schools are far too large and far too few. I know that the Board would like to see Cambridge reduced to four secondary schools, but I am proposing just the opposite. I propose that the Board double the number of secondary schools in Cambridge and cut in half (at least) the number of students in those schools.
Let me break that down a bit to be clear. Each of Cambridge’s five secondary schools (3 in Galt, 1 each in Preston & Hespeler) have about a thousand students for a total secondary student population of 5150 students. My proposal would see a total of ten secondary schools with just over 500 students each. Yes, you read that correctly – ten high schools in Cambridge.
There is no question that this is a bold proposal and I expect that it would take several years, if not a decade, to implement. Bold ideas take time and I believe that Cambridge deserves the strongest schools possible – even if it means dramatic changes that challenge conventional wisdom.
As always, your input is valued and encouraged: Do you think Cambridge would be better off with ten smaller schools or five larger schools?