In Praise of Small Schools

I have written so many letters lately, it is as though I have become a neurasthenic Victorian shut-in. I should be wearing a bed-jacket. Ordinarily I correspond in all-lowercase spews of e-mail strewn with run-on sentences; I am slightly too old to use “l8r” in closing, but only slightly. So when I get involved in actual punctuation and salutations, something must be important. And it is.

Recently New York City’s Department of Education made some policy changes that affected Josie’s lovely little Neighborhood School. (That’s the name: The Neighborhood School. Sometimes people who do not live in the East Village ask me where Josie goes to school, and I say, “The Neighborhood School,” and they say, “No, I mean, what’s the name of Josie’s school,” and I say, “No, that is the name,” and then they say, “I thought Who was on first?” and then we laugh merrily at our pedagogical Abbott and Costello routine, except we don’t.) Anyway, this change was what triggered my spate of old-fashioned letter-writing (and boy, is my quill-hand tired!) to Department of Education administrators and local politicians. The actual issue I was writing them about isn’t important to this story (it involved a change in admissions policy that left some pre-K families in several of our district schools without places in the elementary schools their kids had been admitted to a year earlier, and wait, why are you snoring?). The point is that a change was made that wasn’t good for our school. I am thrilled that the Department of Education was receptive to our pleas, and the policy change is being delayed for a year. But now more city-wide changes are afoot that would eliminate the school’s weighted admissions lottery, which keeps the school delightfully diverse. So the letter-writing will continue.

I understand, I think, why the Department of Education wants to make changes. In the past, some school admissions in this city were conducted like particularly cruel sorority pledge sessions. (Ohmigod, that girl? Over there? So not getting in.) Some schools had deliberately opaque and creepy policies designed to keep out kids of color. Others seemed to have no coherent policy at all. When you standardize policies across a system, you can prevent unfairness and ensure transparency. Even if, ironically, it means that a school serving a huge range of different kinds of families suddenly becomes a lot wealthier and less diverse.

“This is an example of good intentions gone awry,” said Judith Foster, the principal of Josie’s school. “You can’t apply ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to schools.” The issue isn’t just admissions; it’s how much autonomy schools should have. “The more standardization you have, the less likely it is that adults can respond to the individual needs of students,” said Ann Cook, co-director of Urban Academy, a 120-student alternative high school in Manhattan. “People learn in different ways.”

And I’m starting to realize how small schools are better equipped to encourage many different kinds of learners. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t think much about school size when I was looking at schools for Josie. I knew small class size was good, but I also knew that Josie was the kind of kid who’d do fine in a larger class. She’s not exactly a shrinking violet; perhaps you’ve noticed. So it was pure serendipity that she ended up in a small school of around 250 kids.

Why has it been so good for her? I’ll let Foster explain. “Children are known in a small school,” she told me. “I know every kid here from pre-K up. There’s more cohesiveness in a small school. It’s easier for us to be accountable above and below the grade level. In a staff meeting, everyone can see the kids’ growth. We can get teachers together so that no kid falls through the cracks. Parents know other parents. It’s easier to implement things, so we can try new ideas.” I can see how confidently Josie strides through her school building, how she seems to know everyone, how older students, like her idol Olivia in third grade, look out for the younger ones. My girl who entered kindergarten unwilling to write because she might spell a word wrong was writing poems, songs and entire books three months into the school year. I think her comfort in her environment has a lot to do with her huge strides.

I know that if I’d sent Josie to Hannah Senesh, the excellent Jewish day school in Brooklyn, she’d have the benefits of a small, progressive school without the relentless drumbeat of constant federal-, state- and city-mandated standardized tests, without the constricting, mandated curricula and teaching materials. I understand why parents, even those who claim to believe in public schools, send their own kids to parochial and private schools. But I also want Josie to have experiences she can only have in a public school with all kinds of kids at it. And the smallness of Neighborhood really does make it feel like a very diverse, tiny community.

There’s plenty of evidence that small schools work. Recently Patricia A. Wasley (a former dean at the Bank Street College of Education) and her colleagues (including the superintendent of the Mamaroneck School district, professors from Columbia’s Teacher’s College and CUNY, and statisticians from the Consortium on Chicago School Research) studied 150 small schools in Chicago. They examined small schools (200 to 400 kids) in lower-income neighborhoods and found that students in them had higher grade point averages, much lower dropout rates and better attendance records than their peers in larger schools.

Another report, cleverly titled “The Hobbit Effect: Why Small Works in Public Schools,” listed 10 research-based attributes of small schools shown to have a positive impact on kids and their learning:

  1. There is greater participation in extracurricular activities, which are linked to academic success.
  2. Small schools are safer than larger ones.
  3. Kids feel they belong.
  4. Small class size allows for more individualized instruction.
  5. Good teaching methods are easier to implement.
  6. Teachers feel better about their work.
  7. Mixed-ability classes avoid condemning some students to low expectations.
  8. Multi-age classes promote personalized learning and encourage positive social interactions.
  9. Smaller districts mean less bureaucracy.
  10. More grade levels in one school alleviate many problems of transitions to new schools.

I was particularly struck that small schools help teachers as much as they help students. Teachers in small schools report more job satisfaction, have less absenteeism and take more responsibility for ensuring that their students are successful than teachers in larger schools. But what constitutes a small school? Cook said for her, small means under 300 students; for Judith, small is 250. The Department of Education currently considers 500 students to be small.

Still, warns Cook, “Smallness is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Small schools are personal, that’s true, but so is summer camp! What’s the difference? Schools are an intellectual environment!” So how do we ensure that “small” means not only “wee,” but also “wee with great teaching and an engaging curriculum”? We have to give principals the autonomy to be creative and meet the varied needs of their students. Creating Empowerment Schools, in which principals have more freedom as long as they meet certain performance goals, is a good start. But excessive testing is still a problem.

I want Josie to be assessed, and I think standardized tests do have a role to play, but I don’t want her incessantly filling out little ovals, which is the childhood equivalent of measuring out one’s life with coffee spoons. Watching her learn multiplication by playing with pattern blocks, seeing her cooking rice and beans cooperatively with her classmates and hearing her describe the Medicine Buddha at the Rubin Museum of Art, I hate to think of her exploratory learning screeching to a halt every few weeks for yet another round of those dang ovals.

I can’t imagine how complicated it is to run a school system like New York City’s. You have to keep yuppies from fleeing while meeting the needs of poor families who don’t speak English; you have people protesting the location of an Arabic-language public school and people protesting a change in gifted and talented assessments. You have to provide professional development opportunities for teachers in a vast range of schools; you have to provide support for families in a vast range of crises. Many years ago, Judith tells me, she was a kindergarten teacher in a school next to a homeless shelter. One year, 60 kids cycled through her classroom. How do you support a teacher in those conditions?

I feel lucky every day that Josie’s at Neighborhood. I hope that the Department of Education will let it retain all the qualities that make it — and many other small schools in this city — so special.

Write to Marjorie at

This story "In Praise of Small Schools" was written by Marjorie Ingall.

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