Evolve or Die

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Small schools should be cultivated, not abandoned.

Two newspaper stories published this past June were oddly related. One was about a tragedy of sorts, the other a kind of triumph. On June 10, a federal judge refused to prevent the Clay County board of education in Alabama from closing Bibb Graves School. The 440-student, multiracial K-12 school is one of the latest to be sacrificed, in the name of efficiency, to consolidation—a questionable process that has been going on for more than half a century.

Bibb Graves students, teachers, and residents fought valiantly for two years to keep their school open. Twice they persuaded the board to reverse its decision. But in the end, like citizens in tens of thousands of small rural towns over the decades, they lost their school and, perhaps, the heart of their community.

Far to the north, in Midland, Pennsylvania, a very different kind of school was helping to breathe life into a small industrial town that has been struggling to survive since the steel industry collapsed in the early 1980s. About the time Bibb Graves was graduating its last class of seniors, the Western Pennsylvania Charter Cyber School was celebrating its third commencement, awarding degrees to 86 seniors.

The Western Pennsylvania school is one of 67 cyber schools in 17 states enrolling about 16,000 students. It has grown from 500 to 1,200 elementary and secondary students in three years, and now, with 140 full- and part-time jobs and 80 certified teachers, it is one of the largest employers in the 3,300- resident community.

The very existence of charter cyber schools raises the question of why Bibb Graves had to close. Given the almost limitless potential of technology and the successes of small, innovative schools, closing a school like Bibb Graves has to be seen as a failure of imagination.

The main rationale for closing or consolidating rural schools is that they are so small, they don't have enough teachers qualified to cover all academic subjects. The problem is even worse now that states have mountains of documents detailing what every student should know as they plod through the grades.

The closing of Bibb Graves suggests that we have become so committed to the ancient and inefficient educational delivery system of the conventional school that we would rather close it than change it. Faced with the extinction of their school, why couldn't the Clay County board and the people of Bibb Graves conceive of another way to educate their children?

For a modest investment, classrooms can be stocked with computers and wired to the Internet. Indeed, governors have been striving to outdo each other in "technologizing" schools and expanding distance-learning programs. Simulation, computer games, Internet courses, chat rooms, and CD-ROMs enable students to do nearly everything in a classroom; they can dissect a frog on the computer, conduct science experiments, learn languages, track weather patterns, study poetry read aloud by the poets themselves, and carry on discussions with experts across the globe. To anchor the virtual world in a real-world context, a school could arrange internships for students in nearby towns and involve them in group projects, field trips, and educational travel.

Communities across this country, persuaded by research and experience, are creating innovative small schools because they believe such schools are a better and more effective way to educate today's children. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other philanthropies are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the effort.

Simultaneously, in their inimitable and bewildering fashion, the policymakers and politicians who rushed to get technology into schools are consolidating small schools into larger ones and continuing to build big new schools that will never use technology to the fullest. Go figure.

—Ronald A. Wolk

Vol. 15, Issue 1, Page 4

Published in Print: September 1, 2003, as Evolve or Die
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