How Small Can Be Mighty

While most educators don’t immediately mention the size of their school as a factor in the quality of education, at small schools the students, teachers, and administrators are often quick to discuss it. But maybe not in the way that you’d think.

“I love small schools,” says Terri Johnson, executive director of the Missouri Association of Student Councils and a veteran student leadership adviser who worked in schools in a town of 450 people. “I totally believe in the small school and what can be accomplished,” she says, ticking off the benefits advisers can find there—a closer connection to students, the school staff, and the community; easier communication; more flexibility; and broader involvement.

And Johnson is not alone. While there are limitations to the amount of resources a small school adviser might have, they are also quick to tell you the benefits—and research supports them, especially when it comes to participation in cocurricular activities.

Education in the United States was founded on small schools, many with mixed grade levels and fewer than 100 students. The 1950s push to educate more students more broadly gave birth to the notion that larger schools could do it better and more efficiently.

But soon educators began questioning the value of “consolidated” schools and started promoting smaller educational communities. At the forefront was educator Deborah Meier, currently senior scholar at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education. “A good school is a work in progress: a place to tinker, fix, and sometimes even to throw out and start over,” she wrote in her article “The Big Benefits of Smallness,” in Educational Leadership magazine. “A good school is never satisfied with itself. But it turns out that everything is easier when we get the scale right.”

A lot of research in the last two decades supports Meier’s thinking, says Stuart Grauer, founder of the Small Schools Coalition, which advocates reducing school size from elementary school through college. Unfortunately, some schools don’t have a choice in their size, and overcrowding is a real issue. However, he says, children at schools with fewer than 400 students have better grades, attendance, attitudes toward learning, and a greater connection to the school and other students. Their teachers report greater job satisfaction and more success, and say they can better identify learning and emotional problems with students. The community and families are more involved, too.

Making It Relevant

So, what does this mean for leadership groups? “The percentage of high school students engaged in cocurricular activities is higher in small schools,” Grauer says. “There may not be as much to pick from, but a greater percentage of students are participating in multiple activities.” Grauer adds that students generally feel more connected in a small setting, and Rebecca Ross, student council adviser at Polo High School in Polo, MO, says that is key.

“We really get to know every member of the council,” she says. “I can tell you who their parents are and who their siblings are. I know them not just in the council setting, but also as their teacher, softball coach, and out in the community. That rapport is what makes our small school and our council work.”

“I am able to place my board officers’ lockers right outside my door so that I can have constant contact with them,” says Kari Ebens, leadership adviser at Byron High School in Byron, IL. “I see my members all over the school, and I get to know everything about each one.”

Access, Involvement, and Communications

Advisers at small schools point out that there is less competition for other people and resources in the school, too.

“My administration is so great. I never have a problem getting approval for trips or activities,” Ebens says, noting that she has easier access than advisers at large schools that may have a long list of clubs and activities. Other staff, community members, and parents are also more accessible, she says.

“The communities will rally around events the student council sponsors,” Johnson adds. “The schools are vital to the success of the community, therefore they support what the kids are doing.”

When schools are smaller, it is also easier to change plans or organize something new on the fly. “Officials at small schools are not going to tell you, ‘If we change this for you, we’d have to change it for everyone,’ ” Grauer says.

Another advantage? Communication is easier, Johnson says. “You see your kids all the time—in hallways, at games, in classes, and the lunchroom. You can’t miss them, and they cannot avoid you. It also helps with recruitment.”

Snags and Solutions

Small schools have both advantages and disadvantages. Here are some tips to maximize the small school experience.

Share your students. Students are busy in a small school and are being pulled in many directions. Advisers have to expect them to be loyal and responsible, but also allow members to meet other obligations.

Pool resources. Because means are limited in smaller schools, students in most clubs and organizations must maximize their resources. Student leadership group members can learn a lot about collaboration and budgeting if they take on the role of coordinating purchases or fundraising for various groups.

Scale back. Student leaders at small schools often carry out similar projects to those of larger schools, but just scale them down. Or they can consider coordinating efforts with another school or organizing projects among classes.

Recruit the uninvolved. Small school advisers say it’s easy to spot the student who isn’t active in a small school—capitalize on that and uncover his or her unique talents. Try asking your members to invite one student to the organization’s meeting, particularly someone with whom they do not have a relationship.

Add other staff and parents. Resources are often spread pretty thin at a small school, so it is even more important to seek help from others early and often. Make it a priority to have administrators and parents involved with your group and have regular communication with them.

Connect with the community. Schools are a big part of life in small communities. Tap into that knowledge. Be sure there is a payoff for school supporters by letting everyone know about any assistance you get and who provided it by running a thank-you ad in a local newspaper or saying something in the morning announcements. That public appreciation is even more important in a smaller community.

Get personal. Personal contact with all students is possible, and it is one of the benefits of a small school. For instance, one small school has students write positive messages to each other and delivers them; another puts a welcome note in each student’s locker the first day.

Build pride. School pride is especially important in a small school. Consider taking on the challenge of promoting a “small is mighty” theme. It can help to generate a stronger bond between students and can build energy and support for the school within the larger community.

The Big Picture

Advisers who work with leadership groups at small schools believe their unique environment actually has huge benefits for them and their students. To overcome the challenges posed by having fewer resources than other schools, embrace the valuable attributes a tight-knit community and school can offer—a blend of commitment to the cause and a connectedness to each other. —

James Paterson is a writer and editor, and has covered education for a variety of national publications. He also works as a school counselor in Montgomery County, MD, where he helped found an NJHS chapter.