Preserve Small Schools
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
By Thomas Hylton
Can the Kutztown Area School District retain its unique system of small elementary schools? In recent decades, as Berks County school districts have suburbanized, many neighborhood schools have been closed and replaced by new mega-schools on what had been farm fields. Now Kutztown is considering whether it will keep its four elementary schools, two of them housing fewer than 100 students.
When the district projected last month that the second grade class at its Albany School will have just 8 children in September, the school board decided to transfer 10 second grade pupils from the Greenwich-Lenhartsville School to Albany as a short-term solution. Long term, a district task force has been formed to consider school consolidation.
That’s the path most Berks County school districts have taken. Last year, for example, the Hamburg Area School District decided to build a $27 million Wal-Mart-sized school for 700 elementary school children in Tilden Township to replace two existing schools in Tilden and Hamburg.
Districts like Oley Valley and Schuylkill Valley have gone ever further, creating district-wide elementary schools housing about 850 children each. Many administrators believe big schools save money through economies of scale. But kids can get lost in big schools. And closing small schools can adversely affect communities. Schools give rural hamlets their sense of place and identity, and they provide a center for community activity.
Vermont, which prides itself on its rural character, has long recognized the value of its small country schools. In 1997, the Vermont Legislature dramatically increased the state’s share of public school funding from 30 percent to more than 70 percent – something Pennsylvania school districts have been seeking in vain for decades. To ensure these new state dollars were being spent wisely, the Vermont Legislature directed the commissioner of education to study the state’s smallest schools to see if they were cost effective.
A year-long study of 50 Vermont elementary schools with fewer than 100 students concluded:
• Students in small schools do as well or better than students in larger schools, even though the income and educational levels of families were lower in communities with small schools.
• Small schools have higher levels of parent and community involvement than larger schools.
• Schools with fewer than 100 pupils cost 6 to 12 percent more to operate than the average Vermont elementary school.
• Large schools have dis-economies of scale that make them more expensive to operate than the average Vermont elementary school.
The study concluded: “Small schools are somewhat more expensive but add value to their communities and do well by their students.” As a result, Vermont has annually provided an extra allocation to schools with fewer than 100 students. In the coming school year, 102 small schools in Vermont will share an extra $6 million.
Of course, there’s no such plan in Pennsylvania. But there are ways to keep costs down. In Kutztown’s case, the most obvious solution is multi-age grouping – combining the second and third grades at Albany, for example, to create one class of 24 children.
Multi-age grouping recognizes that students have a wide range of abilities at any grade level. Advocates of multi-age grouping say it gives children more opportunities to work at their own pace. Older students can help younger ones.
Dr. Brenda Winkler, Kutztown’s superintendent of schools, said multi-age grouping was considered and rejected by the school board, partially because of a lack of time to prepare for it. But it can eliminate the need to transfer students from one school to another, which defeats the whole purpose of small community schools in the first place.