This afternoon being the official last day of school, weary teachers will be packing up their rooms, canny principals will be setting up their calendars for next year and jubilant kids will be slinging their backpacks into the corner of a closet until August.
I have only one piece of advice, and it emerges from a wellspring of experience. Take all lunch bags out of backpacks today.
Kids and parents may not realize it, but summer is a busy time in the schools. Only a few teachers teach summer school, but most go for additional training and education. Curriculum gets written, and state and county tests get scored.
This summer will be especially busy in Montgomery County, because Paul Vance is leaving as superintendent after eight years, marking the end of what every headline writer within 30 miles is calling an era. And if the Montgomery County school board doesn't appoint a new superintendent soon, it will be required by state law to appoint an interim superintendent. Needless to say, all that makes for a lot of agitation in the school system.
In that spirit, the Homeroom column will continue during the summer. But I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who has written in so far. Homeroom only began in April, but it has gotten a very warm response. I apologize for not being able to acknowledge every letter personally, but I read each one carefully and take them into account when choosing topics to discuss. Thanks again. You have proven that people are deeply interested in what goes on in schools and recognize their importance.
Before I get to new letters this week, I need to correct two points in the June 3 column. I wrote that the student school board member can't vote on personnel issues, by which I meant those issues that the school system calls "negative personnel actions" that are being appealed. But the student member does have a vote on hiring and has been involved in the superintendent search. And the student member does vote on litigation. The student member cannot vote on collective bargaining, the budgets, school closings, reopenings and boundaries.
The second correction is that it wasn't the county charter that was changed in the 1980s to require that five of the seven school board members live in different districts. It was a state statute, which created and governs the county's Board of Education. Thanks to George Margolies, the school board's staff director, for pointing that out.
Now we get to the topic of the day: big schools. A few weeks ago I wrote that big schools are a big mistake, causing kids to feel lost and isolated. I asked people to write in with contrary opinions. What follows are some of the letters I received.
I can't pretend that my experience was typical, but I went to a high school with 2,700 students in grades 7-12. I don't recall any of the problems with large schools that you or your letter writers cited--large class size, disrupted schedules, or difficulty making friends--and I don't think they are consequences of large size. Rather, I suspect that they are the result of bad management.
There is no need to change class schedules from semester to semester, unless the school management has established mistaken priorities that give too little value to continuity. Magnets, arts, extracurricular activities and other special programs within a large school help establish smaller communities of students with common interests.
I suspect that much of the yearning for smaller schools reflects a romantic yearning for community that has been eroded by social changes. Properly designed, large schools can do just as good a job--if not better--as long as they steer clear of the obvious pitfalls.
I have been waiting for someone to point out that a smaller school means fewer class choices in terms of subjects and times. Scheduling in Montgomery County high schools is already extremely complicated and difficult, especially for students taking courses that are only offered once or twice a day, such as Advanced Placement and advanced art or music classes. I can't imagine many Montgomery County parents will be willing to forgo their cherished advanced classes and signature programs for the sake of a smaller student body.
As a teacher and parent, I feel strongly that size reduction should be in the number of students in the classrooms; a school population of 2,000 students should be entirely manageable.
Finally, if schools and teachers are to be held responsible not only for educating children but also for "socializing" them--making sure they all have a pleasant emotional and social life in high school--then we must fund them at five times the present rate.
While I agree that mega-high schools over 2,000 students are probably not a good idea, the problems that prompt you to support very small high schools are not a result of numbers of students, but of the adult-to-student ratio. Cutting the size of a high school also cuts the number of teachers, the number of counselors, the number of extracurricular sponsors and, most importantly, the number of educational opportunities.
One of my daughters graduated recently from an MCPS high school with barely 200 students in her graduating class (total enrollment was about 1,000). Her education was constantly shortchanged by the paucity of offerings at the school, because there wasn't enough "demand" for Advanced Placement and extra honors sections. The single section of AP Calculus conflicted with the Jazz Band, the Chamber Singers and the only class of upper-level Spanish. My oldest child had graduated the previous year from another MCPS school that was half again as large. She never had scheduling problems and just graduated a year early from college on the strength of her AP opportunities.
When a school has a sense of purpose and a distinctive culture, size becomes much less important. I attended such a high school, and despite the fact that the student body numbered over 2,800, the alienation, social hierarchy and hostile cliques described in the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy were mostly unfamiliar to me.
I believe that hostility and cliquishness were less pronounced because we had not been sent to this school because of where we lived, but had chosen it for its program. The school understood why we were there, and it was clearly focused on our needs. Some students commuted more than an hour each way to attend. The community this created bound us together and to the school in a way that is virtually unknown in the average public high school, regardless of size.
This sense of community is difficult, if not impossible, to create in a school which is differentiated from other schools by nothing more profound than arbitrary boundaries among school districts.
It is indeed critical that students have the freedom to navigate their way through (and sometimes around) the prevailing kid culture. If smaller schools can help them do this, then we should seriously consider moving toward more and smaller schools for our adolescents. If it is clearly worthwhile to move in this direction, the public may support these smaller schools with their political will and their tax dollars.
As you pointed out, our mega-schools may yield false efficiencies. Perhaps it's time for a closer look. We should be urging our elected representatives to make sure good research is done on this issue.
William M. Short
This is an essential conversation for us to have in the county--and the country as well. Although I strongly support smaller schools, those who wrote in make compelling arguments. The point Mr. Short makes is, I think, the key one. We need good, solid research on school size and its effects on student achievement, discipline and the general well-being of students.
Right now, the research is pretty sketchy, but I leave you with one piece of information. A few years ago the organization representing middle and high school principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, along with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, issued a report called Breaking Ranks. It said that no high school should have more than 600 students, and that for every 15 to 20 students, there should be at least one adult with direct personal contact with students.
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