By Dr. Bob Olson - Superintendent Clarion/Goldfield/Dows
Are Small Schools Worth Saving?
Why does Iowa need champions who promote legislation that recognizes the needs of small schools? Is it because the voice of small schools is too small? Is it because the educational experience in small schools is inferior to large schools? Is it because bigger is better? Is it because education in small schools in rural Iowa is insignificant?
Size is relative. I am a product of a medium size school in our athletic conference. There were only 2,500 students in our high school. The largest high school in the conference was Rockford East with 4,000 students. I believe I received a good education, but it is unfair to say it was better than any small high school represented in this room. Except for a group of friends with whom I associated, it was a pretty impersonal place. I would walk down the hallway and someone would say, “Hi Bob”. I would return the salutation, but after passing I would ask my friend, “Who was that?” I don’t think that is a problem in our rural schools in Iowa. In fact, not only do you know who they are, they are probably related to 50% of the students in the high school, including you.
Large schools in some places recognize the value of community. Some have created “Schools within a school” to capitalize on some of the advantages of having a close knit community.
I truly believe our biggest hurdle in overcoming the stigma of being inferior to larger schools is ignorance. I remember a legislative conference organized by the Iowa Association of School Boards that included a panel of legislators in positions of leadership. One such legislator addressed issues specific to education including her bias that small schools are unable to provide the educational opportunities possible in large schools. Her comments were saturated with the tenor that education in small schools are inferior and we should reduce the number of school districts in the state to about 109. Since this was a panel and we were afforded the opportunity to ask questions, I could not resist asking this person, “When was the last time you were in a small high school?” I appreciated her honesty when she shared never, but it raised a few eyebrows.
I believe it is fair to say that there is a prejudice against small schools. Like other forms of prejudice, I believe it is largely due to not understanding the target of prejudice. My experience with this legislator supports this observation. This person wasn’t mean-spirited. I am thankful she was willing to serve as a legislator. It is a huge sacrifice. But I don’t believe she would support legislation friendly to small schools until she was educated that rural schools play an important role in educating students in Iowa.
Do students in rural Iowa receive an inferior educational experience? Does the number of course offerings accurately measure a quality educational experience? Does the educational experience include all curricular and co-curricular opportunities? In small schools, if students are not willing to be involved in a number of activities, those activities don’t happen. I would submit that students in small schools actually have more opportunities than their large school counterparts. Students in small schools can’t specialize in one sport or musical area; they have
to do it all.
I conducted a study of students in various school sizes and factors that appear to play a role in their academic performance. I looked at attendance, reading, television viewing, working, homework, co-curricular participation and adherence to rules. There were only two areas that had a significant relationship to academic performance. The weaker of the two was adherence to rules. That seems logical. Students who stay out of trouble tend to perform better in the classroom. Of those remaining, I was surprised to learn that academic performance had no significant relationship with their attendance, number of hours students did homework, watched television, worked at a job or even the time spent reading. The strongest positive relationship to academic performance was participation in co-curricular activities. The busier students were, the better they seemed to do in school.
Now if that is true, and it is supported in other studies of student academic performance, which students are able to participate in more activities, students in small schools or large schools? Don’t discount the value of an education that places students in a variety of activities, especially if they are not particularly gifted in the activities in which they participate. There is value in being placed in an uncomfortable situation with performance tasks that are challenging. There is value in recognizing how you can contribute to a team and what role you can play to accomplish goals in a collaborative setting. There is something to be said about providing an educational experience that equips students to be a jack-of-all-trades, even if they are not a master of any. It makes for a well-rounded student who was afforded the opportunity to participate in a number of activities. In this regard, I have concerns that large schools are not able to provide the same opportunities to participate in a number of activities to the same degree as small schools.
How do we go about having legislators approve legislation that recognizes the needs of small schools?
1. First, we need to educate those who don’t understand education in the small school. There
is little chance that the legislator of whom I spoke of earlier would ever approve small school friendly legislation until she appreciates the important role small schools play in Iowa.
2. Second, create alliances with other groups who wish to pass legislation that addresses needs for their group and small schools. Three that come immediately to mind are transportation, flexibility with the use of the management fund and operational sharing. Western Dubuque isn’t a small school, but they have concerns with the cost of transportation drawing down the general fund. More flexibility with the management fund, including being allowed to fund benefits for all retirees over the age of 55. Small schools have been sharing for years. Operational sharing encourages collaboration when multiple schools are able to be more efficient together than separately.
3. Thirdly, if there are groups who oppose our legislation, we need to focus on strengthening our position rather than wasting time fighting with others. You never know when we will need this group when we agree on other legislation.
This isn’t the first time small schools organized into a group to support education in rural Iowa. There was a group that formed in April of 1977 that was active up until the late 80’s or early 90’s. It was named PURE, People United for Rural Education. The need to support small rural schools hasn’t changed. However if advocacy for small schools exists, it does so with participation of its members. We also need to work with others who can effectively champion
causes friendly to small schools. This may be informal or formal. This group needs to seriously consider hiring a lobbyist who can effectively articulate and persuade legislators to vote for bills that support students who are educated in small rural school districts.
In conclusion, small schools play an important role in the education of students in Iowa. We need legislation that addresses the needs of small schools and supports the ability to provide their students with a quality education.