Looking back—and forward—to an era of small schools.
My first teaching job wasn’t in a one-room school, but it was close. Elementary kids were upstairs, 86 high schoolers were downstairs. It was called Ambia School. Once, we got mail addressed to “Amoeba School,” a name we thought hilarious, yet a perfect fit. Fresh out of school myself, I was Ambia’s entire English department—and frightened by the idea I might be the only English teacher my students ever had.
Yet Ambia glistened as a place of wonder, like Jesse Stuart’s school from The Thread That Runs So True. Here, small-town and rural kids, rich and poor, smart and otherwise, became family to me. I soon knew each of them so well that I recognized handwriting, even on the restroom walls. We learned, played, laughed, and cried together. I hunted on their parents’ farmland, sponsored their student council, scrimmaged with the undermanned basketball team (this was Indiana, so we did have a team). Nothing in my career has ever matched this time and place.
But large schools were coming. The drive to close places like Ambia had gathered steam, and we were a target. Sadly, I admit that I supported these efforts to “consolidate.” Like many others, I savored the idea of combining nine county schools into a megaschool, complete with planetarium, swimming pool, science labs, and a huge library. The belief that bigger was better was a way of life for me then. It was my first surrender to the notion of reforming education with a “magic bullet"—a mind-set that still permeates education.
An ultramodern school soon bloomed in the middle of the county, and Ambia closed its doors. Kids who once walked or rode short distances to school now rode buses for more than an hour twice a day. At 7:20 a.m., 60 school buses swarmed the new “Benton Central.” It was a thrilling sight. But for the kids, it was also terrifying.
If kids ‘learn what they live,’ and their school life is a version of ‘survival of the fittest,’ what model of society have we given them?
I joined my Ambia family at the new school. A large-school graduate myself, I thought my students would love the new environment. They did not. After a few months, I knew why. Something here was missing. There was no sense of family. My former students smiled their timid greetings in the hall, and pushed through the milling crowd. Some told me how the big new school oppressed them, how they missed Ambia. I counseled them to be brave, saying they’d get used to their new world. But I missed Ambia, too.
And I noticed other changes. Groups of kids slipped off into subgroups, into cliques, into peripheral cliques outside the mainstream, essentially exiling themselves from their new school society. Suddenly, I didn’t know who they all were.
In fact, knowing all the students in this new building was impossible, let alone knowing their brothers and sisters. I didn’t know their daily schedules or their teachers. I couldn’t simply go next door and discuss a student’s progress in other subjects. (All the English teachers were now in our own wing. We had our “club,” and didn’t talk much to members of other departments.)
At Ambia, the 11 kids in the drama group had all had roles (sometimes even two) in the school play. Now, even talented kids looked on from the sidelines—there weren’t enough parts for everyone.
Something else troubled me much more deeply. The new environment had less civility to it, less kindness. The big school wasn’t really a bad place, but it was different, and negatively so. It didn’t embrace us as had Ambia, where even the neediest child received attention because someone always knew of a problem. Whether the need was for clothes, tutoring, or mothering, a way was found to fill it. We brought used clothes from our own families, taught English after church on Sunday. We were, in a very real sense, a “whole village.”
Schools are not like villages anymore. If anything, they are the antithesis. As a society, we dismissed villages years ago as irrelevant. Many disappeared. And every time we took away a neighborhood school, or began busing kids miles down the road to a distant and unfamiliar milieu, we put up walls between children and their metaphorical villages. To be sure, the lucky ones—the bright, the beautiful, the naturally gregarious—survived in these larger settings. But the majority had to settle for a kind of pervasive mediocrity. And what of the truly needy kids? They became invisible.
Most schools today are monuments to impersonality, structured, by their sheer size alone, to allow the disenfranchised to disappear into the brickwork. Rage can fester in such invisibility. Compound the situation with bullying and scapegoating, and you have a recipe for human tragedy. Any teachers or administrators who say that bullying and scapegoating don’t go on in their schools are in denial. No school is immune to a determined underground effort to shun or torment the supposed outsider. I’ve seen it happen every year of my career, even at Ambia. But the difference there was that we adults were able quickly to contain the damage. Kids didn’t disappear at Ambia.
We need to return to environments that are able to show children what is best in the society we want them to build and maintain.
Today’s world is different, of course, from the one that encompassed Ambia School. We educators need to prepare kids to live in a complex, crowded, and often confusing world. Some policymakers would have us do this by emulating techniques from our most savagely competitive adult social environments. They would have us stress business-honed performance standards, complete with standardized testing for a final Darwinian culling.
But we must ask ourselves: Do we want our kids to believe they have a fair chance to compete in learning and in life if they but apply themselves? Or do we want them to discard aspiration and consent to dreams no larger than their social station? If kids “learn what they live,” and their school life is a version of “survival of the fittest,” an impersonal jungle, what model of society have we given them? What will they aspire to?
Our schools cannot remain as they are. Education’s higher purpose has always been to give kids the knowledge they need, and to present them with a social example they can emulate in order to create the world we all want. It seems to me we’ve gotten pretty good at delivering knowledge (and testing it). But if our news headlines are any gauge, we are failing in our role of teaching tolerance, celebrating diversity, and protecting personal liberties. At Ambia, I taught two children whose IQs differed by almost 90 points. The smarter one tutored the weaker one. The weaker one worshipped his peer teacher, and the smarter one learned deep and lasting lessons from his tutored friend. Today, both are living full lives.
If we want all our students to succeed, reducing the size of our schools is a place to start. Psychologists have long known of the memory lapses that accompany increases in number. Some argue that the maximum school size for normal minds to deal with effectively (I’m thinking of teachers here) is about 600 students. And even this number can tax the memory. (It always took me until October to remember all the new kids’ names.)If we want all our students to succeed, reducing the size of our schools is a place to start. Psychologists have long known of the memory lapses that accompany increases in number. Some argue that the maximum school size for normal minds to deal with effectively (I’m thinking of teachers here) is about 600 students. And even this number can tax the memory. (It always took me until October to remember all the new kids’ names.)
There are some efforts under way to restrict various school populations to fewer than 200 students. Research demonstrates that violence and disruption recede in schools of this size. Is such a course costly? Advocates say that if it were done right, achieving such reductions in scale would cost no more than we pay now for schooling. Given that we spend over $40,000 a year to maintain just one young person in a jail, does it not also make sense to consider the human as well as the economic savings that might accrue with reduced school enrollments, especially in high-risk settings?
Is this another silver bullet? I think not. Certainly, small schools can also be terrible places. We still depend on the good hearts and singular talents of dedicated principals and teachers to make schools work. But today, even our very best educators are fighting simple statistical inevitabilities. Massive school size virtually guarantees that at least one student’s small fire will go undetected until it rages as an inferno. Smaller schools increase our odds for intervention. They reduce the social space between us, and force us all to see one another as individuals, not as members of an uncaring crowd.
We must put kids back into schools they will love and cherish. We need to return to environments that are able to show children what is best in the society we want them to build and maintain. At the very least, we must foster environments that will allow us to identify those destined to fade into the brickwork—and do so before they begin building walls of their own.
I’m hoping that we start this process by remembering the Ambias that nurtured most of us who now teach. I’m hoping we make things small again, and create worlds where, once again, everyone feels a sense of belonging.
As for me, I look forward to attending this year’s Ambia School reunion. All of the graduates from all of the years it existed meet annually to keep Ambia alive in their hearts. I’ll be there. After all, I’m part of the family.
Vincent Schrader is a program-evaluation specialist in the administration center of the Indianapolis Public Schools.