Rural Education

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Small Schools Stifled?

About half the 50 states have laws that discourage small schools from opening or surviving, a report from the Rural School and Community Trust says.

Barbara Kent Lawrence, a Massachusetts-based researcher, writes in the report that minimum-acreage requirements for school construction in 24 states keep schools large, even as research suggests smaller schools may help children learn better.

Such rules promote larger schools and encourage the consolidation of schools and districts, Ms. Lawrence contends. The land policies also push new schools outside of town centers, she argues, and thus promote suburban sprawl and hurt local economies and culture.

In addition, states strip local communities of the power to make decisions about where schools should be built, their size and location, and other factors that might lead to smaller schools, she writes.

But the tide against rural and small schools, at least in the researcher's view, may be changing. Since Ms. Lawrence began studying school size and facilities in the late 1990s, she's seen tremendous change in debate on the topic.

"The argument at first was that small schools are terrible," said Ms. Lawrence, who teaches sociology at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. "Then the argument got to be, 'We know small schools make sense, but we can't afford them.'"

Now, more states are considering laws that would encourage small schools, renovations of historic schools, and creative school locations that preserve rural areas and revive urban sites, she says.

In the report, she urges states to eliminate minimum- acreage rules, and to conserve land and partner with organizations to share parking lots and athletic fields with schools.

Ms. Lawrence also has written a book on school size that will come out in late February. Titled The Hermit Crab Solution: Creative Alternatives for Improving Rural School Facilities and Keeping Them Close to Home, it will be published by AEL, a regional education laboratory in Charleston, W. Va.

The author gives examples from her book that could help districts when state law is not on their side: A town in Vermont resisted school consolidation with a neighboring town, and chose instead to place classrooms in the same building with a town hall and library.

Alan Richard

Vol. 23, Issue 20, Page 12

Published in Print: January 28, 2004, as Rural Education

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