During a conversation with a few of my Nebraska football friends at the Fresno State tailgate, I learned that the Beatrice High School Board is considering closing their neighborhood schools in favor of a new school housing all elementary students. I feel obligated to voice an objection from Pottsville, Pa., a small town 1,100 miles away.
I am a retired educator with 34 years as a teacher and principal. Twenty-six years ago our school board closed six neighborhood schools and moved to a beautiful new elementary center. The district converted a Van Heusen Shirt factory into a K-4 school building. Again, it was beautiful with new carpeted hallways and classrooms, large windows, a new library, larger classrooms, a new gym and anything else you might think you’d want in a school.
What it didn’t have was a history, with friendly familiar faces and a warm caring neighborhood. It was huge and it was in the shadows of the middle school and high school, surrounded by large parking lots, football and baseball fields.
It wasn’t across the street from the Kep’s Corner store where the kids walking to school stopped for candy or a soft drink before or after school. Mr. Frantz, the custodian and crossing guard wasn’t outside to help his kids, as he called them, across the street. Crossing guards were no longer needed. They gave way to bus drivers.
It was impossible for students to stay after school to help the teacher or get some extra help because they’d miss the bus.
I taught third grade in my neighborhood school. I enjoyed knowing the second graders I’d have the next year and seeing the fourth graders I’d taught the year before. Every day at recess or before and after school I’d get to interact with those students.
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They’d always return in fifth and sixth grade from their middle school to tell their teachers how much they missed their school. Yes, it was their school, it was their parent’s school, even their grandparents’ school. It was Garfield and they felt connected forever to the building and the friends and the teachers they’d met there.
When I moved to this beautiful new elementary school I was in a hallway with seven other third grade teachers. The Kindergarten, first, second and fourth grade students were all in separate hallways. I never interacted with students from other grades or teachers from those grades. This new and beautiful building seemed to have turned into the factory it had originally been. It was not the warm friendly place my neighborhood school was, not for me and certainly not for the students.
There are dozens of research findings I could quote in favor of small schools. However, the only one that matters is what small schools do four the students that bigger schools with all their benefits simply cannot. Small schools allow students and teachers to attend a school where everyone knows your name.
The research clearly found that being known by your peers and your teachers makes a difference in both academic achievement and behavior. Students in small schools take responsibility for their behavior and the behavior of their classmats.
I hope the decision makers in the Beatrice School District look at all factors and weigh their options carefully before they close their neighborhood schools in favor of a shiny new building. What they have now is golden and shouldn’t be traded.
Bill Moran, Pottsville, PA.