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Professional Opinion

Lessons from Rural Schools

It's time to revisit the benefits of small schools.

There's a lot to learn from rural schools. "We're on the cutting edge because we never changed," said one rural school principal from Maine. He referred to principles that still work: staying small, involving parents and nurturing close ties to the community. Though many urban administrators have rediscovered such wisdom, too many rural legislators and administrators have lost sight of them.

School size is just one example. In his study of American high schools, commissioned after Russia launched Sputnik, President James Conant of Harvard University recommended increasing the number of students in America's public schools. He blamed small schools for poorly preparing students, particularly in math and science, and suggested that no school should have fewer than 125 students per graduating class, or 400-500 per school. In response, many schools and districts were consolidated. Since 1940, over 68 percent of all schools have closed, even though the student population has grown by more than 70 percent. As a result, almost a third of the schools average over 1,000 students- the size many researchers agree is the largest possible without damaging student achievement regardless of race, economic situation or geographic location.

School Consolidation Woes

As layers of administration accreted in large urban and rural consolidated schools, costs of transporting students escalated and disaffected students became frustrated. For example, as my colleagues and I noted in a report, Dollars & Sense: Th e Cost Effectiveness of Good Small Schools, the U.S. Department of Education stated in 1999 that schools with 1,000 or more students reported 270 percent more acts of vandalism and 394 percent more physical

fights than schools of 300 or fewer students. Urban districts discovered that the "hidden" costs, such as increased layers of administration and increased costs of transportation, security, and discipline, as well as higher dropout rates in larger schools, outweighed anticipated savings through consolidation. When student achievement deteriorated and dropout rates increased in larger schools many urban administrators began to re-create smaller schools. Public districts in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, New York and other metropolitan areas are seeing some success from their efforts. New York City, for example, recently announced that for the second consecutive year its new, smaller schools have average graduation rates of 73 percent, compared to the 60 percent graduation rates in its larger schools, according to a June 2007 story in The New York Post.

Ironically, however, as urban districts struggle to create smaller schools, some rural districts and largely rural states work equally hard to close them. Legislators in Nebraska, West Virginia, and Maine still push to close their smaller schools and consolidate districts in hopes of saving money and increasing student achievement. In West Virginia, newly constructed or enovated elementary schools must have no fewer than 300 students, middle schools no fewer than 450, and high schools no fewer than 800. The urban experience with larger schools, however, has shown that the opposite of the desired effect- saving money and improving student achievement-will likely be the result.

It's time for rural administrators and legislators to look at the failures of large schools before they close their small ones, and for rural parents, residents and school bard members to reconsider the benefits, in part because many small rural schools function as centers of their communities, and because transportation costs to distant consolidated schools are so high.

Community Partnerships

Innovative rural people, whose habits of independence and thriftiness mother invention, have found ways to sustain their small schools, often through partnerships. Tiny Belvidere School District in Vermont built a school that also houses municipal offices and the town library. As I reported in The Hermit Crab Solution, this partnership resulted in a better library and media center for residents and students than would have been possible if the school and municipality had funded separate facilities.

In another example, Laurel-Concord (Neb.) Public Schools invited residents to share the costs and use of a new media center, library and fitness center. For $10 a month they can use the fitness center after school hours. C. C. Blaney Elementary School and R. D. Schroder Middle School in Charleston County (S.C.) School District shared the cost of upgrading playing fields between them, and shared the cost of staffi ng with the town and county parks and recreation service so they could share athletic programs and facilities, according to Dollars & Sense II.

Working with Superintendent Daniel J. Hoesing in the Laurel-Concord district, school board members have also been innovative in other ways. For example, when the local bank foreclosed on a neighboring business, the board persuaded the bank to donate the facility to the district. The district resold the building and uses the monthly payments for revenue. In addition, the school accepts donated computers, teaches students to recondition them, and then rents the refurbished computers to residents. The program has raised enough money to cover costs of all new software purchases. And when educators at the adjacent Coleridge Public School District asked Hoesing to be their superintendent, he and the two school boards agreed that each district would share the cost of his salary, according to Dollars & Sense II. Now, Hoesing is superintendent of two additional neighboring districts.

When so many districts struggle to provide good educational programs, administrators should consider staying small, involving parents and nurturing ties to the community.

Restoring these strengths underlies the effort to improve urban schools, and rural legislators and administrators need to value them as well.

Barbara Kent Lawrence teaches at Northeastern University and is an educational consultant.