I check in at the front office at a rural Kansas high school. I am here to visit and evaluate so-and-so student teacher, I tell the secretary, as I sign the log and attach my visitor’s badge.
Oh, Miss so-and-so is so nice, the secretary replies. We really like her. She is down in the science room and they have a lab today. That is a characteristic of small schools. It is a small community and they all know each other and what is going on. Larger schools have more of an “institution” feeling; it cannot be avoided when there are closer to a hundred staff and many hundreds of students.
After the Columbine shootings, schools across America locked their side doors and patrolled the front entrance. Some schools still have some of that prison feel. But not the rural schools. For small schools, security comes from everyone knowing everyone. And in the end, that is really the most security you can achieve.
I confer with my teacher and student teacher, and then try to hide in an empty student seat and watch the students file in. More of them are in denim and flannel. Unlike the larger schools, they are not as grouped into cliques. They are not as concerned with who is going with whom, and who is wearing what. I do not recall ever seeing an anorexic student in a small rural school, a syndrome far too common in larger and affluent communities.
These are differences that originate in the community, and teachers who enjoy working in these settings tend to settle here as well. These are the communities with “small town values” and where folks don’t lock doors as much. The town marshall can then stop and roll up your car window if a rain shower comes along. I hear “no, sir” and “yes, ma’am” far more often. And when it comes time to change classes and the bell rings, the level of hallway pandemonium is much less.
Parents support teachers, and if a student gets in trouble at small school, the student is in trouble at home too. In some larger schools, parents tend to blame any student problem on the teacher. It is not a black-and-white contrast, but a proportional difference.
Teachers at small schools are full partners of the school team. “Mrs. Smith is retiring and with the funding cutback, the principal can’t fill her position. We are all going to have to cover it.” That is a statement I will only hear in a small school where teachers are fully involved. Large schools are such big plants that the workers usually only find out what is happening after the decision is made, and to credit the administrators, it truly is just too big to run otherwise.
The downside is that small schools lack economies of scale. In a big school, a teacher rarely has over two or three “preps”–different classes to prepare for. And the class size in big schools pushes 24-30. In a small school, a teacher rarely has less than five class preps, but the class size may be 18 or less, and sometimes less than ten. That means not as much science equipment. A classroom has to serve many different types of classes. And the teacher shortfall has fallen heaviest on the small rural schools. Bigger schools with bigger salaries hire away much of the new student teacher production and any rural veterans willing to move.
The 2010 census is approaching. Without doubt, the new head count will redistrict state representatives and senators. The majority will shift from rural to non-rural communities. Rural schools are more expensive to sustain and the current funding formula recognizes that. With a future legislative majority no longer from rural areas, that benefit will lose support. A new funding formula will need to be developed. Sadly, much of the goodness of small rural schools will never be factored into the cold, hard numbers that will drive consolidation.