In Her Own Words….
Intentionally Small, Why Less is More
By Jenifer Fox
The high school I graduated from was considered small compared to the others in the region. I was in a class of two hundred. This past summer, I decided not to attend my 40th reunion because two of the four friends I could remember weren’t going to be there. I recall a great deal about my high school experience; some of it rotten, some humorous and some a waste of time. My grade school, on the other hand, was on the small side, with about 150 kids in the whole school. I still have friends from that school. Some of the most interesting adults I know were fellow Bobcats, taught in the 1970s to care about others, act with courage and conviction and do what we could to make the world a better place. The impact my grade school experience left on me is indelible and I attribute my experience there as a major reason for any success I’ve experienced or resilience I’ve managed to muster in life.
When I was in third grade, my family was pulled apart by several events that included illness and divorce. I remember crying when I discovered I was placed in Miss Miley’s classroom, a teacher notorious for draconian discipline procedures. My parents told me it would make a better person and that I needed to simply buck up and do my best. She was pretty mean, and when I really needed someone she was there for me. She assigned me to blackboard washing duty because it made stay alone in the room with her after school, something at the time I believed was unfair and scary. She asked me questions about my home life and without my awareness, she used those after school chore sessions to counsel and support me. It took me years to realize this, but Miss Miley was strong, consistent and she cared about me in ways nobody could ever really see except for me and not for years later. This wouldn’t have been possible in a large school where teachers sometimes have too many students to be able to devote special and personalized attention to one student.
Somewhere along the line, we were taught that bigger is better. Maybe it was when McDonald’s began supersizing everything. And maybe some things are better when there are more of them, like dollars in your wallet, for example. But schools aren’t better when they’re larger. They’re also not worse. It just depends on what you want to get from the experience. Today, we can get most of the knowledge we need online. So, one would have to conclude that much of the value of being at school is the process of socialization children go through. I agree. I believe that developing relationships is the single most important feature of today’s schools. And in this regard, bigger is definitely not better.
All but one of the schools I’ve led has had a student body that hovers around one hundred students. I’ve come to experience firsthand the less obvious benefits of this kind of intimate learning environment. But before I get too far down that road, let me crack open the notion that children need more students and bigger classes to adjust to social life.
In my neighborhood growing up, there was one family that had 14 children, another with 12 and one with 10. I felt a little cheated that we only had six kids in our family. What I noticed, though, was that in the larger families, there was always one or two kids that seemed less important. They were sort of the mess in the middle. Fine people, but just a bit overshadowed and maybe a little lost. The more people there are in any given unit, be it work, home, an event, or family, the greater the possibility that someone slips unnoticed into a crack we didn’t even know exists.
It’s rather easy to get lost in a crowd. It doesn’t take much work to show up only halfway when there are lots of other people there to focus on. “Nobody will notice where I cut corners because there are just too many people to take notice of.” The smaller the crowd, no matter what the context, the more noticed you are and the greater the responsibility is for you to show up.
I rarely work with a group of more than four people at once. The more we work together, the greater our understanding becomes of one another. The greater this understanding, the more agile we grow and the more agility we cultivate, the better the outcomes of our work. This how kids at BCD learn; in smaller groups, developing working relationships with better outcomes over time.
Remember those families of 12 and 14 kids in my old neighborhood? Well, one unique feature of those families is that the older kids often looked out for the younger kids. The younger ones had role models to look up to and learn from. At BCD, we are like an old school neighborhood where kids learn from each other and take care of one another.
I have 1,167 friends on Facebook. Of those, I think about 10 of them, (not including my family) are really good friends of mine. I’m talking good friends, not simply acquaintances. And I didn’t need to have 1,167 to cull down and discover those ten good friends, and I brought them to Facebook with me—half of them I met in elementary school! My point is that adults do not have dozens of really close friends. I have hundreds of friends off social media, but real, meaningful friendships that last a lifetime? I only have a cherished few. And those I met while in a small elementary school. I do know some really popular people who don’t have any really close friends. When you have to be in a small group with people you didn’t necessarily choose to be with, over a long period of time, you learn what really matters in relationships. You learn to listen, to appreciate different styles of communicating, and you grow in empathy.
I don’t believe a school can be “too small.” Small schools benefit from the following:
- Multi-age classroom forces rethinking of same age attributes: Multi-age classrooms cause teachers to individualize their teaching. Most good teachers understand that this is necessary in same-age classrooms as well.
- Rapid iteration: The ability to identify challenges and rapidly implement new ideas is much easier in a small school than a larger one. This allows problems to be solved more quickly and when something isn’t working, we can shift gears with immediacy.
- Lower operation complexity: Relative to running a larger school, a small school has reduced complexity of operations which gives everyone more time to focus on the children.
- Teacher empowerment: By design, small schools allow teachers to develop personal relationships with other teachers and their students. Because BCD is not wed to one educational theory, teachers are able to assess learning environments and quickly implement methods that work well for the students they have. There aren’t layers of bureaucracy to work through in order to shift gears. The smaller student population facilitates connections among students and between students and adults.
Our plans for the future include growing our enrollment while remaining a small school. The reason for us to grow is to offer more children, from all walks of life, the opportunity to enjoy and benefit from our intentional community.