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Martin: Small Is Relative

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If you live in Vermont, you probably like small. We don’t have mega-malls and 4-lane highways. We tend to like swimming holes, microbreweries, and family farms. So it’s only natural that we like small schools too. After all, small schools seem to evoke close-knit communities and life in a simpler time.

Where I work in Montpelier, it’s a little like that. It’s a single district with three schools and people tend to look out for each other. The teachers have meaningful relationships with students and families. The principals know their students’ names. The superintendent knows his teachers’ names and visits their classrooms regularly. Unlike most places, our enrollment is actually projected to rise over the next few years, and with just under 1,000 students, we’re small by national standards, but average in Vermont. In fact, there are only 15 Vermont school districts with more than 1,000 students.

So how small is too small? Well, in the public debate about consolidation, Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe points out that there actually is such a thing as too small. For example, if your high school has only one science teacher, he or she probably isn’t highly qualified to teach advanced chemistry, physics, and biology. And you need numbers to field a sports teams, put together a decent-sounding band, or offer a choice of foreign languages. Schools also need sufficient resources to support their building and technology infrastructure.

So perhaps the best litmus test for school size may be to simply ask if students can get a high-quality 21st century education. If not, it’s the responsibility of school boards and administrators to recommend some changes.

The tough part, of course, is that public schools are one of the last civic spaces where we all come together, and they serve a number of important functions in their communities.

So maybe it’s time to broaden our definition of community, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. House Speaker Shap Smith has pointed out that our kids, through sports and social media, already have friends a few towns away. And Superintendent Dan French has said that we need to “collaborate across districts, across our little valleys” in order to provide a high quality education for all Vermont students.

The small schools debate is more than just changing a few bus routes and sending the kids to a different building, it’s about redefining our local communities. This is no small task, but well worth the trouble to take the time to do it right.

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