When I was in graduate school, there was only one criterion for where I would end up working that I was sure about; I wanted to work in a small school. I remember giving a couple of impassioned speeches about it during seminars. I had very, very strong feelings about it.
Having worked in one for two years, the reality is somewhat different than the ideal.
There’s a lot of good in small schools. I know every student in all four grades at my school. I know the entire staff. I know every secretary, I know who will have a band-aid when I slice my finger open putting up bulletin-board paper, and where to steal staples and tape. I love the feeling of community — my school has an amazing staff, and wonderful students.
There’s a lot of not-so-good as well, unfortunately. One of the first things you realize at a small school is the amount of budgeting that goes to support staff. We need an attendance person, deans, the principal’s secretary, a payroll secretary, the AP’s secretary, the parent coordinator… and they take up a huge percentage of the money for the school. Proportionally, we have nearly half as many of them as we have teachers, and our budget goes to them instead of to special-ed teachers, or other hires, because you HAVE to have someone putting out paychecks, right? (Maybe this is just my school, but I think it’s fairly endemic, especially because most small school principals are fairly new to being principals.)
We have a lack of options we can offer our students. First academically; we just don’t have the scheduling or budget to offer any foreign languages beside Spanish. (We used to, but that’s a whole different complaint.) There aren’t enough special education teachers to offer 12-1-1 classes and so we’re always out of compliance. (Again, that’s a whole other rant for someday when I’m employed elsewhere.) We only offer SETSS once a day, so not all our kids who are supposed to have that get it. We often can’t offer honors because there just aren’t enough teachers to go around.
Along the same lines, there are no sports at my school. If you check our official website and DOE listing you’ll see that we offer them, but that really refers to the “big high school” we’re inside, and most of our students don’t participate there. The boys at our school have been asking for a football team for four years, and are no closer to getting one, although we do finally sort of have track. Cheerleading used to be a whole-school activity, but there were inter-school rivalries and all our students dropped out. There are also virutally no clubs, because we don’t have the per-session budget for it. (I run two “unofficial” and unpaid clubs, although they’re more like informal student gatherings.)
Scheduling is a HUGE problem. My school is one of five inside a larger campus, and we share a cafeteria and the gyms. That means that we all have to run on the same schedule every day so that kids can still go to gym — our teachers teach kids from all five schools. We can’t have special our-school-only activities. (This is how we ended up having to give the PSAT to all four grades one day.) Any time we want to use the cafeteria, the gyms, or the auditorium it requires weeks of negotiating between schools. And if you’re a teacher I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that increasing the amount of pettiness and bureaucracy is never a good thing.
There is also a lack of oversight which I suspect would be true at any school in this godforsaken system, particularly now that we’re an empowerment school, but I’m not well enough versed in BOE policy or how anything works to really speak to that. Sometimes our teachers feel very much cut off from the rest of the world and because small schools tend to hire newer teachers, we don’t have a lot of teacher-leaders around to tell us how things are supposed to work. On the upside, we have an incredibly motivated and hard-working staff. On the downside, we seem to be calling the UFT about things all the time, and they’re not usually major; there is simply no one around who knows what to do.
On balance I’ve soured on small schools, although I still like the idea. It seems to be a peculiarity of the education system that they insist on reinventing the wheel over and over and over every few years. Why not break up the big schools into mini schools within the existing system, so that students felt more like they belonged, but teachers still had the resources they need? More like a college system, where students come into the school of arts, the school of science, the school of humanities, but everyone takes core courses together. Or would that make too much sense to be implemented? Lots of our troubles come from the idea that everything has to be done from scratch, but the don’t: there have been some successful schools in the city all along. Why aren’t we basing our curricula and scheduling after those schools and just creating a new inner structure?
Right, because it’s education, and no one’s interested in input from the teachers or students. Oh well.