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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

For Quality Schools, Start Thinking Small

June 29, 2002|TOM SHUFORD | Tom Shuford, a retired teacher, lives in Ventura County.

New construction to relieve overcrowding, end forced busing and return children to neighborhood schools is in the offing for Los Angeles schools if Supt. Roy Romer gets his $3.3-billion school bond proposal before voters in November. And, of course, if voters accept it. Not an easy hurdle, given the troubles of L.A. schools and the presence of a statewide school bond on the same ballot.

One way to sell the local bond issue: earmark a portion for school size reduction.

Background: Experts have been urging school consolidation since the late 19th century. The Cold War gave impetus to the trend. The "struggle between the free nations and Communism," wrote Harvard University President James B. Conant, requires "democratic unity" and high scores on science tests. These goals would be best achieved, he thought, with large schools. As a result, the average school population is five times that of 50 years ago.

Unfortunately, size has unintended consequences. According to Paul Houston, executive director of the American Assn. of School Administrators: "A recent study [a survey of more than 100 research reports] from the Northwest Regional Laboratory in Portland, Ore., shows that small schools are superior to large ones on almost every measure."

In April, The Times reported results from the latest such study. University of Minnesota researchers surveyed 90,000 students at 132 schools across the country. Findings: Big campuses "foster more alienation, drug use and risky behavior. Students often feel less attached to those campuses and less comfortable around peers and school staff."

What about large schools' "economies of scale"? A myth, according to Houston: "One of the reasons such a large portion of the per-pupil expenditures in America does not touch the classroom is because there is too much of everything. Large size requires more monitoring and more record-keeping which requires more people and greater expenditures." The large-school edge in advanced courses, moreover, is eroding. Quality online courses are available and expanding.

Small schools mean more choices. It would be easier to specialize by curriculum, location (perhaps near parents' workplaces) and philosophy (traditional, progressive).

Half a dozen like-minded veteran teachers could run a small school. Energized by a shared vision of the kind of school they would like to create, and with students whose families buy into that vision--that is, choose them--they could pay themselves well, have ample funds for other expenses and teach smaller classes.

Teachers are already running small public schools. Minnesota New Country School is a 125-student charter school in Henderson, Minn., one of seven facilities run by a teachers cooperative of 100 instructors and 45 other education professionals, under contract with school boards. In California, the state education code, particularly the building codes for schools, would have to be modified to allow this. But nothing is impossible.

A cooperative public school is just one possibility. Whatever their form, small schools have a "return on investment" for students and their families that is too attractive to ignore. As the L.A. district ponders plans for the bond funds, outsized good may come from thinking small.

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