Small schools close achievement gaps, especially in poorer communities.

Recently, Joplin, Missouri Schools Superintendent Dr. Moss and the Board of Education have invited the patrons to several Community Input Sessions concerning long-term facility reports in regards to possibly combining Columbia Elementary and West Central Elementary. They’re providing several scenarios, but one option is a new site for 450 elementary students. In a world where bigger is better, let’s not be too hasty to apply this to our public schools.

            When we moved to the Joplin area in 2000, I found it interesting that every realtor and hospital administrator told us about TJ, College Heights and Webb City. Joplin public schools were never recommended. However, in the spring of 2011, we made the decision to move to the City of Joplin to be a part of the community where we were serving, working, attending church, volunteering, etc. We chose West Central over Irving because of our experience working with them through Bright Futures. I loved the feel of the smaller traditional school building, a place where the lunch ladies knew our names and the principal greeted each child ever day with a warm hello. The theme song from Cheers comes to mind when I think of West Central.

            We worked hard over those few years to remove the fence that made it look like a prison and organize events that contributed to greater parent involvement. As you know, the neighborhoods around West Central are considered some of the poorest in Joplin, but I met parents who truly wanted to see their children succeed, and I felt a connection to this school.

            Educators have long known that poverty hurts student achievement, yet in four separate studies of seven states, they repeatedly found that poor kids do better if they attend a small school. I believe the relationship between the teacher and the student in smaller schools is the primary reason students succeed. I also know that when a parent feels accepted as part of the education community; a partner in pursuit of a quality education that fits his/her child’s need, when they feel welcomed, accepted and known, no matter what their background and circumstances, schools do better.

            Creating a better school and reforming public education in Joplin may be as simple as maintaining or creating smaller schools. With the exception of the slightly gerrymandered Irving, neighborhoods in Joplin have specific needs and flavors that make them unique. Children who can attend a small neighborhood school often come from similar backgrounds and have similar needs.  When a child comes to a smaller school, it is much less likely that he/she will experience the same isolation that may be felt in large or overcrowded school. Being known by your teachers, staff members and peers makes a difference.  The students have a greater sense of ownership and responsibility to the well-being of the classroom in a smaller school. According to academic research, not only was student achievement greater, but students, parents, teachers, and community volunteers reported greater satisfaction because they felt more connected to one another. When teachers are more satisfied and enthusiastic, this creates a contagious learning environment. This same report found that teachers expected more from their students because they knew them better, their strengths and their home life, and could teach in ways that created the greatest success for their students. Families that can walk their children to school each morning are able to connect daily with teachers and staff who spend the majority of time and have a great influence on their child.

            In their zeal to find the key to a successful education system, educators seem to be susceptible to fads and that ‘shiny new thing’ that makes one school or district appear to be achieving positive outcomes. I don’t believe that research and data prove this.  West Central is a beautiful example of a building with a rich heritage: small in size but able to really connect with the families in its attendance zones.  

            Creating small schools isn’t the only aspect of educational reform needed in Joplin, but smaller schools have proven a key ingredient when combined with a clear vision and mission to meet the needs of the students it serves. Small schools close achievement gaps, especially in poorer communities.

            But the benefit of a small school goes beyond the academic achievement presenting opportunities for stronger communities. A successful building attracts families, families move into neighborhoods and invest in their school, schools invest in future citizens, and that strengthens communities.

            I am confident that Joplin BOE and leaders want to make the wisest decision and feel a great responsibility to steward our education dollars well. However a solid foundation for educating the students in Joplin may come with the cost of more small schools to truly see an impact in the educational outcomes of our students. In Missouri, we must keep a commitment to providing the best quality education to all students and small schools may be a hold some valid and unique ways to accomplish great schools.

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