Sunday, February 7, 2010

Schol Consolidation -- commentary

The school consolidation dragon is about to swallow up the Weiner School district. However, this victim is not going to be eaten without a scream or two. They discovered a legal loop hole that might allow them to keep their school in operation while saving the Delight School District from also being eaten by the dragon. The districts, though 200 miles apart, intend to consolidate, allowing each to keep their schools open. By consolidating, they will no longer be below the 350 student population which requires consolidation or closing. I hope they make this succeed.

To begin with, a school is the heart and soul of a small town. Over the years, I have not been a great sports fan, but when I started teaching school, I felt compelled to attend the athletic events my students participated in. To my surprise, I discovered a football or basketball game wasn’t so much about the game as it was about the fellowship of the town folk who had come out to cheer on the players.

The high school ball game is where the people of the town exchange gossip, visite with those they haven’t seen for awhile, exchange greetings and comments with their kid’s teachers, and keep up with what goes on at the school. And of course, it is nice if their side wins the game. To take this out of the community devastates it. How do you replace it?

In a small town, the teachers get to know their students’ families. This puts a teacher in a much better position to accurately empathize with her students. Also, a small community acts as a conscience for its citizens. I wanted so badly to steal a car when I was a teenager and go for a joy ride. However, I knew what it would do to the family reputation in our small town. The community served as a restraint, as a part of my conscience. When my son was in a small, neighborhood elementary school, he did all right. Things started going wrong when he had to go to the distant, larger junior high school. But when he then had to go to a huge, and even more distant high school, it was the end of his schooling. And, the anonymity of the situation allowed him to misbehave without our knowledge.

Theologically, I belong to that branch of Christianity that believes man has a fallen nature. Because of that, we must train children to be civil and moral. Unfortunately, not all children get trained adequately. If you have three hundred students, and 10 per cent of them didn’t get trained adequately, you have 30 problem kids. The teachers and administrators all know who those students are and they are able to keep track of them. When you have a school of 3,000 students, you now have 300 hundred such students. It is impossible to keep track of them and they spread their poison.

What is the justification for this seeming need to consolidate our schools? It seems to be that we can offer a much more diverse curriculum: more foreign languages, more music, more art, better laboratories, etc. There was a time when this argument had some legitimacy, but with modern technology and distance learning labs, even a small town like Weiner can provide anything their students desire. This is no longer a valid argument for creating larger schools. Isn’t it ironic that Arkansas insists on closing down smaller schools, while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is spending millions to create and promote smaller schools?

I was listening to “Booknotes” on C-span recently and Brian Lamb was interviewing Dianne Ravitch, author and education historian. He asked her why she thought educators promoted these huge school campuses. She said it was a way to track students. Tracking students, that is grouping them by ability, became a big taboo in education in the 80s and 90s. It hasn’t produced better education for anyone, and by having a greater selection of electives, the kids will sort themselves out, thus skirting this issue.

In her book, “Left Back, A Century of Battles Over School Reform,” Ravitch says, “Large schools may have worked well enough when adult authority was intact and educators set the tone, but they became dysfunctional when adult authority dissipated in the late 1960s and early 1970s.” (You will hear more of this terrific book in future columns.)

Weiner and Delight will get the news sometime in March as to whether they are going to be allowed to do this most unusual and creative consolidation. I hope they do succeed. They may be skirting the spirit of the law, but they didn’t create the loop hole and they are justified in taking advantage of it.

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