Magazine article Teach

School Size: The Trade-Off between Caring and Curriculum

Magazine article Teach

School Size: The Trade-Off between Caring and Curriculum

Article excerpt

Good things that come in small packages may be a cliche but it's also one that many subscribe to when it comes to school sizes.

Although teachers strive to drive classroom numbers down, there are those who consider very small schools inferior. Of course, size is relative and what's viewed as small in Toronto may be much bigger than the biggest thing going in a Saskatchewan district such as Rosetown, where the combined secondary high school of 450 students is uniformly labeled "large". In rural areas across Canada, it is not unusual for schools from kindergarten to grade 12 to contain 100 students and less.

While program offerings are likely less, too, students in these schools are not necessarily disadvantaged. "There is a trade-off between caring and curriculum," said Prof. Andy Hargreaves, of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), at the University of Toronto. In sizable urban areas, students are exposed to more cultural, academic and vocational offerings, both at school and on a personal level. With a larger budget, schools can invest in more programs and equipment and school boards can hire teachers to devote an entire year or more to writing programs for the district, something smaller boards could never afford to do, said John Hoye, principal of Nicholson Catholic College, a medium-sized high school attended by 1100 pupils in Belleville, Ontario.

Still, "About the only good thing I can say about large schools," says Hoye, "is that there are more programs."

Like many others, Hoye visualizes an ideal secondary school as one with about 800 students. These schools are regarded as places of greater caring and community than are larger schools in which problems such as drugs, violence, and extreme poverty may be both more common and harder to detect and alleviate. At small schools, students are known individually whereas even excellent students at large schools can be lost in the crowd. This can make all the difference. According to Hargreaves, one of the authors of the book Schooling for Change, learning only really takes place when teachers and students know each other well. Many dropouts interviewed on their school experiences said they might have stayed if they'd had one teacher who "cared about me." At small schools, especially those in rural areas, teachers, students, and parents, often share such a connection for years and it is common for teachers to develop the strengths and work on the weaknesses of each student over the long-term.

"I don't know if this kind of thing could happen in a large school," said Dr. Colin Boylan, a visiting professor from Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia, where he helps to prepare education students for rural careers. "Often in larger schools, teachers don't have opportunities to share anecdotes with each other on individual students," and progress may be jerky. For this reason, said Boylan, it is common in rural and urban Australia to keep a teacher with the same class for at least two years.

Not only teachers but, students, too, have a great many more responsibilities at small schools and almost all of the educators and scholars interviewed for this article agree that there is more chance that students will participate in extra-curricular activities and become leaders in little schools, which often resemble big families more than bureaucratic institutions.

"In our school, it's the person that doesn't contribute who sticks out," said Brian Nikula, principal and teacher at Kyuquot Elementary Secondary School, in British Columbia. Older students are encouraged to help the younger children which lightens the load somewhat for overburdened teachers and "makes students feel needed. Some of these teenagers are more concerned about the younger students than they are about themselves. It's often more motivating for them to come to school to help the children than it is to come and help themselves." You do have to be careful how you apply this strategy, however, he added, as not all pupils react well to it. …

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