A Final Thought

An Opportunity to be Creative

School closings are a hot subject across the nation. Big cities like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia have gotten the bulk of media attention but they are not the only places where the drive to close schools is making waves. I’ve gotten calls from citizens dealing with school closings in rural districts in Kansas and Georgia and suburban districts in New York and Ohio all asking for information and background. And the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) recently had an Open Forum on the subject responded to by members from large and small districts across the nation.

I’m called because I have made it clear that I generally oppose closing a school unless the building is so deteriorated that it must be abandoned. I oppose school closings for many reasons but the key ones are these:

  • School buildings are, or should be, community buildings. They are more than just a place for children. They are often the most important building in their neighborhoods. Closing a school doesn’t just move children around, it can shut down an entire community.
  • “To save money,” is the reason almost always given for closing a school, and there is a certain obvious logic. If you do not have to run and maintain a building, you do not need to spend money on it. But the fact is, that the savings projected are almost invariably over-stated, and there are many other ways to save that are less harmful to education and communities.
  • The “education” reason to close schools is, “you cannot provide a full program when a school gets too small.” That’s pure bunk. For centuries, our nation’s most admired private schools have been small institutions. Today, even the smallest high school can offer such special courses as advanced placement physics or fifth-year Chinese using Skype and other technology.

But it is seldom a high school that is closed. The usual target is an elementary school, and considering the overwhelming evidence that children do better in smaller learning environments, school districts that want to improve education (and, perhaps, test scores) should be rejoicing at the opportunity to run small elementary schools, not closing them.

Making a small school work

The problem is that if a district runs a small school in exactly the same way it runs and staffs a larger school, it can be expensive. But there is no reason to do that. Flexible, creative and knowledgeable administrators, teachers and parents can work together to operate a small elementary school economically.

As an example, if there are only 12 second grade students in a school, can you afford to have a full-time teacher for those 12 students? Possibly not, but why would you? That is how large schools are organized, but this is a small school.

Try this as an alternate: If the district has a policy of forming classes with no fewer than 16 children, consider the number of students enrolled in grades one through three, divide by 16 and then form non-graded classes of children with similar physical and academic needs. I’m being arbitrary in choosing grades one through three; there may be children in kindergarten who are ready to be assigned to “real school” or non-grading could be extended to all the grades in the school whether you normally run K-5, K-6 or even K-8 school buildings. The point is, there’s more than one way to organize a school.

By the same token, some teachers may have skills in music, art or physical education. In a small non-graded school, the teacher with talent and training in music might spend some time teaching that specialty to all the children, not just a single class. The same is possible with other specialties.

I’m not suggesting this as a solution to all small-school situations. I am suggesting that, in a small school, classroom teachers, specialists, administrators, custodians, food service workers and parents, working together, can provide a full educational program economically by being flexible and creative and willing to step outside their stereotyped roles. They can work together to analyze the needs of the children and the resources available and to put together a team and a program that works. It is not necessarily easy, but who ever said that running a school and providing an education to children was going to be easy?

There are many ways to creatively and economically operate a small elementary school with a full educational program. Next month, we’ll look at the cost of a closed school.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."