Education Opinion

What Very Small Schools Can Teach Us

By Peter Gow — July 12, 2013 5 min read
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When our kids were little we read them Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, and I remember being brought up short by the scene in one--Little Town?--when the school year comes to an end. There are student exhibitions, declamations, a spelling bee, food; the whole town is there.

Wow! At that point I was deep into my first explorations of the Coalition of Essential Schools, Project Zero, and Expeditionary Learning--the cutting edge ideas of the time, all about experiential learning, authentic assessment, student exhibitions, and parent engagement. And now to have it pointed out to me that holding kids accountable for learning that has real application in the real world and giving them responsibility of demonstrating their learning to a “real” audience were what tiny-town America had been practicing when my great-grandparents were raising their own kids in tiny towns.

I’m currently sojourning in what is referred to as the North Country, in one of New York’s most sparsely populated and, especially once the summer folks go home, economically struggling counties. The farm where Almanzo Wilder (Laura’s husband and a character in the Little House books) grew up is an hour or so away, as is one of the actual tiny towns where my great-grandparents lived. To lend a touch of historical authenticity to the scene, the famous Community Supported Agriculture farm up the road uses draft horses for all the tasks beyond the strength of its army of summer college and high school interns. They come for service “hours,” many of them, but the learning sticks: we know a good handful whose subsequent lives have been shaped by their summers stooping over rows of organic onions.

I grew up in a tiny town myself, on the other end of New York state. I like rolling hills and wondering whether the corn on the Fourth of July is yet actually knee-high; I like it when the south wind brings the smell of manure being spread over the hills once the hay has been brought in. (My spouse, from a New Jersey suburb, is less enchanted.) I like it that the PreK-12 school in the next town up, to which our neighbors’ kids ride the bus, has only about 300 kids.

Another object of my explorations years ago was the idea of “small schools.” Who in 1995 could read about Central Park East Secondary School without getting excited? I watched the video of “Student Exhibitions at CPESS” so many times, and showed excerpts at so many meetings, that I finally wore out the tape. I still get excited when I hear about small schools, some independents, more charters, that take the “exhibition” idea to heart, that bring their whole community together to participate in authentic assessment and real demonstrations of learning.

Because tiny towns with tiny schools, and small schools of all kinds everywhere, seem to me to have a potential that giant schools--the regionals, the consolidateds, the simply too big--can’t quite match: the opportunity for individual kids to be known well, to be taught well in personalized ways, and to see their learning in the context of a community whose focus is, well, them. I know that some big schools perform wonders in creating small communities within their cavernous corridors, but they can’t ask every kid to do a public demonstration of learning at the end of the year.

New York, as I understand matters, is not able to mandate the consolidation of smaller districts, which is no doubt disadvantageous at the dollars-and-cents level, making it all the harder to offer certain kinds of programs. Districts (of course, sadly) are not level-funded across the state, and so there are small underresourced districts just as there are huge ones in the state’s cities. I would guess that the smallness of the small districts really rankles with those who prefer their schools big, with big budgets, big buildings, big classes, big sports programs, and big faculties (and, in areas of low population density, really big school bus routes for the most far-flung students). But small districts persist, including one near us here that has won some notice by building up a significant, tuition-paying international program.

As the son of a tiny town I like to think we can learn from small rural schools just as we learn from big urban and suburban ones. I know that these schools are already places of pride--just watch Hoosiers if you need a reminder--and we should not forget that our most rural areas (think: Alaska) produced the techniques of “distance learning” on which today’s online and blended teaching and learning cultures are being built.

Last year we had a visit from a college student who was one of five members of his high school graduating class in North Dakota. Between a faculty eager to feed his hunger for learning and a robust dual-enrollment program with at least one nearby college, he was able produce an academic record that provided his school with a 20% Ivy college list, something many independent schools would be happy to brag on.

There it is: a little town on the prairie maximizing its educational possibilities to produce extraordinary results. I don’t know whether the young man played his trumpet at graduation, but I’m betting he did, even if he didn’t necessarily recite the Gettysburg Address. I’m confident that commencement was a community affair, and that all of his tiny town shared in his parents’ pride.

Insofar as many independent schools are like tiny towns, there are lessons we can learn from stories like this both in bringing out-scale resources (e.g., more virtual courses or dual enrollment options) to our students and in building even more engaged and supportive communities around our educational enterprise.

And as for the giant schools, my instinct says that figuring out how to create within these true smaller schools, not just smaller houses or smaller units, is the way to recapture the vitality and individual focus that made that scene in Little House such a startling déjà vu.

It’s just a matter of scale.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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