The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in the 2014-15 year, the United States spent $668 billion on elementary and secondary schools. Every year we divert more time, money and resources to our students.

And it makes sense — as a nation we are aware that students represent the future of the country. Unfortunately, we have a problem.

Although the traditional school model works for a certain percentage of students, there are thousands of kids who are being failed by our school system. The American Psychological Association reports that students who were in the bottom 20 percent for family income were five times as likely to drop out of high school as students in the top 20 percent.

However, even students at the top of their communities can find that they are unchallenged intellectually and spend their high school years just waiting for them to end. Students all over the spectrum of achievement can benefit from reform, and small schools have a lot of potential to be a powerful tool to that end.

The tempting option is to posit a single “solve-all” solution to these problems. Educational fads are prevalent and rarely backed with substantial research or long-term success. These fads often arrive with a bang, being posited as “the” solution to education, only to fizzle out in a cloud of bureaucracy and disenfranchisement. As a society, we tend to jump the gun. It’s entirely possible we could pass over a solution with great potential because it lacks instantaneous results.

Small schools have struggled with this as various failed experiments have surfaced. The size of the school is not the only — or even the most important — factor. Yet the reason size is a promising solution is because it allows for student and teacher autonomy, meaningful student-teacher relationships, not to mention safer environments.

Great connections

Small schools provide a better chance for student and teacher engagement. Simply put, a large school can unconsciously encourage disenfranchisement. Teachers and administration often have little autonomy. The bureaucracy required for teachers to innovate their curriculum often saps their motivation to do so. Even large schools that would like their teachers to try new things struggle.

At the high school near my home, there are 72 teachers on staff. At that volume, it’s futile for the staff to all know each other. This makes interdepartmental collaboration extremely difficult, if not impossible. This futility makes it easier for teachers to simply stick to the rote tasks and disengage from the potential creativity that the profession offers. When teachers are disengaged, many students remove themselves from the learning process as well.

Small schools provide a potential solution to this problem when properly handled.

Says Colleen Cowles, math teacher at Venture High, “Here, the administration really hears what we want to have happen for kids and helps make it a reality. ... Here, I can take my students camping, climbing, teach them about food, help them learn how to serve, and take them on the large variety of fieldwork activities we are permitted to do.“

As a student at a small school, I’ve had the opportunity to do original research on real letters from people in the Ogden area during the World Wars. I have argued about political theories of the likes of Jonathan Rawls and Robert Nozick, and learned about surfing in San Diego. These experiences are an example of what can happen in the environment that small schools allow. Teachers are engaged in trying different ways to create quality learning atmospheres, and generally students follow their lead.

Many students only have a select few teachers they can rely on and are friends with. Indeed, it’s reasonable to believe that there are a decent amount of students who aren’t friends with any of their teachers. In a class of 30-plus students, it’s difficult for a teacher to even learn all of the students’ names, let alone connect to them.

“I think it is important for many kids that they have adults they can count on and be accountable to,” says James Gardner, a math teacher at Venture. “A smaller school means that every student is known and seen as a member of the community, and it is a lot more difficult to get lost or slip under the radar.”

Here for kids

A small environment means there is a legitimate chance for teachers to connect to their students, and that system of accountability means there’s even more reason for students to be engaged in their own learning. Plenty of teenagers struggle with self-confidence or not believing in themselves. It makes sense to provide the opportunity for kids to connect to adults who will encourage students to make the most of their chances for learning.

Cowles adds, “I like being able to spend (one-on-one) time with all the students I teach. In math, it can be hard to get help when classes are large, but here I am always able to assist kids when they need it.”

The utility of individual help can hardly be understated, particularly in stigmatized subjects like math. Given that many high school students doubt their own mathematical ability, the availability of personal help can be a step to bridging the fallacy that some people “just aren’t math people.” Ultimately, these teacher-student relationships create a community. And community is the true key to unlocking learning. If students are both challenged and cared for, they will rise to meet the expectations they are given.

Lastly, small schools are often safer. Take the example of Julia Richman Education Complex as presented in the book “High Schools on a Human Scale” by Thomas Toch. Only a few short years ago at this school, vandalism was rampant, water fountains were torn from walls, and the principal’s office held two cages to separate fighting students. After implementing a total reform, including splitting the school into several completely distinct schools on a shared campus, this school dramatically reversed its disciplinary problem.

A study reported by Emil J. Haller in 1992 found fewer disciplinary problems in rural schools that averaged a size of 443 students compared to urban or suburban schools averaging 1,200 students. The same year, a review of literature on school size and disciplinary problems by Jean Stockard and Maralee Mayberry concluded that the increase in behavior problems nullified any benefits that accrued from having larger schools.

The body of research is clear — large schools carry large behavior problems. In a large student body, individuals gain a level of anonymity that frees them from accountability and increases the risk of these problems.

Empowering students

At this point, those who are convinced of the value of small schools may be tempted to advocate merely breaking up large schools. However, it’s extremely important to note this is not the only factor that makes a good school. A good school has a well-articulated vision to stimulate student engagement and growth. A good school creates a community.

To look at the example of the Julia Richman Education Complex, one must be aware of the risks as well as the rewards. Attempts to create a “school within a school” often struggle because they continue to be answerable to a single administration, thus dismantling the autonomy that is so important to accountability.

These factors must all be considered carefully in order to create a quality education. The size of the school is a useful, potentially vital, tool for these ends, but it is not a solution on its own. If we pursue the idea without a level of nuance, we risk undermining the true value it possesses. And given the benefits a small school can produce when sought for appropriately, the effort deserves that nuance.

In the end, what we as citizens can do boils down to supporting the small schools that exist and expecting high quality from future schools we create. I have attended a small school from second grade and now I’m graduating from one. I’ve had rough times and fun times. But ultimately, my time as a small-school student has provided an incredible chance for personal growth and learning that I do my best to benefit from.

A small school can create a community that will empower students and teachers, while encouraging success in school and the future. To parents and students who think there might be a better option, I present the many amazing small schools that Utah has to offer — and hope you will consider this uniquely powerful tool for today’s youth as your future.

Sierra Clark is a recent graduate of Venture High School who plays piano and flute and is an avid reader. Email her at s.siclark@venturelearning.org.

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