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State should encourage keeping schools small

Philadelphia Inquirer
Monday, March 1, 2004

By Thomas Hylton

Since the 1960s, when Pennsylvania consolidated school districts, hundreds of neighborhood schools have been closed. Often, the evicted pupils are bused to some new mega-school, built in what had been a cornfield. The Upper Perkiomen School District, for example, closed neighborhood elementary schools in Red Hill and Green Lane, replacing them with the 700-student Marlborough Township School to which all students are bused. Such new schools then fuel sprawling development in the countryside.

Although Gov. Rendell officially encourages schools in established areas, state policies promote the opposite. A classic example is a battle currently being waged over neighborhood schools in Warren, a picturesque town in northwestern Pennsylvania.

As in the case of many older communities, Warren County's school population has been declining for decades. The closing of small rural schools because of consolidation has been emotional and bitterly contested.

There are six elementary schools in or adjacent to the town of Warren, to which about half of the students can walk. Last year, the Warren County School Board decided to close five of the six schools, turn the remaining school into a kindergarten-1st grade center, and build a new 700-student school for grades 2-5 on a hilltop just outside of town. All students will have to be bused.

The district's administrators said this sweeping change would be more cost-effective than any other option. But the voters apparently weren't convinced, for in November, they elected five new board members who were opposed to the new school. The new board accepted an offer from Preservation Pennsylvania, a statewide historic preservation group, to pay for a consultant to compare the costs of a new school versus renovating existing schools.

The consultant, Yale Stenzler, who served 20 years as director of Maryland's school construction program, found that Warren would have saved $2 million by renovating and enlarging three of its existing elementary schools, each to serve 350 pupils. Stenzler suggested that retaining three schools would sustain existing neighborhoods, allow some children to walk to school, and reduce traffic congestion.

Moreover, smaller schools provide a superior learning environment. A review of more than 100 studies on school size by researcher Kathleen Cotton found that achievement in small schools was equal or superior to large schools, especially for students from lower income families. Student attitudes were better, she reported, and the levels of extra-curricular participation were higher. A year-long study of small public schools by the Vermont Department of Education reached the same conclusion.

In-school educators overwhelmingly favor smaller schools. The National Association of Elementary School Principals surveyed its members and found 47 percent felt the ideal school would have 300 to 500 pupils, and 38 percent felt a school should have fewer than 300 students.

"I have never seen any research that shows an elementary school with 700 students is good for anyone," said Darrell Rud, former president of the principals' association.

Because Warren already has invested several million dollars in designing and building the new school, the project is likely to go ahead. The state will reimburse Warren for 24 percent of the cost of the new school. It also will pay 70 percent of the cost of busing the children. (Statewide, a whopping $775 million is spent annually on busing.)

Unlike Pennsylvania, states such as Maryland and Vermont actively promote the renovation of existing schools over the construction of new ones as a means of sustaining existing communities. In Maryland, about 80 percent of state school construction funds go to the renovation or enlargement of existing schools.

Pennsylvania makes no such distinction. Even though PennDOT recently announced a Safe Routes to School initiative to encourage kids to walk or ride their bicycles to school, the Department of Education provides the same subsidies for a "sprawl school" as it does for one that reinforces existing neighborhoods. This promotes what the Brookings Institution report calls "the hollowing out of Pennsylvania." To advance its goals of strengthening our towns and improving student achievement, the Rendell administration needs to cut off the money for isolated mega-schools and provide more incentives to revitalize smaller neighborhood schools.





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