Small Schools Achieving Happiness and Community

A statewide poll mentioned during a recent Central Bucks School District board found that unhappiness was widespread and even corrosive throughout our high schools. Forty percent of students indicated that they were significantly unhappy most days at school. Adolescence is a time of transition and happiness is a pretty subjective term, but something significant is going on here.

Teenagers have four fundamental worlds: family, self, peers, and school. Often, their families are under a great deal of pressure as work demands increase, parents are less likely to be involved in schools. Families work longer hours to keep up with basic expenses or to meet their own lifestyle expectations. Meanwhile, parents have come to count on schools to meet an increasingly wide variety of developmental, intellectual and social needs. This means that schools, public or private, will always be an essential, contested realm. How we fund our schools and how those funds are used reflects how we care for our children, what we value, and what we wish in our society’s future. America’s school system will always be in flux, because America always is.

In 2014 the city of Atlanta began consolidating its schools. The district was seeking to simplify the array of schools so that a rigorous curriculum can be maintained along with consistently offered course options, enrichment, and support. That sounds great, from an accounting perspective. Larger schools are in the short term cheaper than small schools. Meanwhile, Chicago moves in the opposite direction:

“Small schools are a vehicle for … school community members to implement strategies that they know will benefit the students. Small size alone does not make small schools successful. Instead, the small size serves as a platform on which other important elements of successful schools can best flourish.”

This is how federalism works: states and municipalities experimenting and responding to local conditions. Oregon is implementing similar reforms state wide, and is also prioritizing improving the professional lives of teachers, seeing this as a quality that directly impacts student health and performance.

Policy makers prefer larger schools, and though they may offer “more” on paper, may be too rigid to meet the increasingly complex needs of our kids and families. These needs arise from income and opportunity differences and, but also from greatly intensified demands on kids and schools as our economic and social systems become more complex.

Homework comes into play, as larger, less personal schools pile on the work for the sake of achievement. Yet research indicates that homework leads to mixed outcomes, and that larger schools, regardless of their stated “high expectations”, consistently and dramatically amplify the effects of poverty, trauma, learning disabilities, and emotional problems. For poor students, the largest schools amplify these problems- especially poverty- by as much as 1000 percent.

Simply having more offerings and high expectations will not protect our kids from the risks associated with depression, anxiety, drug use, and decreased parental involvement. Healthy relationships are the primary protective factor for adolescents. This cannot happen when a kid is anonymous in a huge school and unseen at home. Our kids need to know that they are known, and that their schools are responsive to them as a person with distinct needs and ambitions. Small schools may not be for everyone, but for a substantial percentage of our young people, they are the difference between flourishing and failure.