Thursday, September 23, 2021

Bigger Isn’t Better for School Districts

This week's column for The Villager:

In Illinois where I grew up, single high school districts are the norm rather than the exception. While Chicago Public Schools is a massive organization with thousands of schools, areas outside the nation’s third largest city are organized into smaller, more manageable units. Generally several elementary schools feed into a few middle schools which transition to one high school. That model is common practice throughout the Midwest, and it’s standard for much of rural Colorado. In urban and suburban areas, however, school districts often contain numerous high schools with dozens of feeders, and that can negatively impact student achievement.

The Denver metro area contains several huge school districts, both in neighborhoods and numbers of students. The Cherry Creek School District educates nearly fifty-five thousand students. Douglas County serves a student population of sixty-three thousand. Both JeffCo and Denver Public schools handle roughly eighty thousand kids apiece. These large districts also cover massive areas over hundreds of square miles. Large systems are rarely the most efficient ones, and it’s not unreasonable to believe a school district of two high schools with no more than fifteen elementary schools feeding into three or four middle schools is as large as any centralized education system should be.

Granted, large schools are not necessarily problems unto themselves. Some of the best schools in the country, from Cherry Creek in Greenwood Village to Lane Tech in Chicago, provide high level comprehensive education to student bodies as large as four thousand students. And while at one time, education advocacy groups like the Gates Foundation tried to break up large schools, few people promote that idea anymore. In fact, Bill Gates once pushed for smaller schools only to later concede he was wrong to pursue that goal. In schools, however, the personnel are directly connected to the students. By contrast at the district level, the larger the system, the more removed the decision-making is from the clientele.

Thus, the issue of large districts being less than adequately responsive to all their students remains a problem. Most teachers and parents acknowledge the problems of centralization in which pivotal educational decisions are made by people far removed from the classrooms and the children they serve. That is certainly the problem with state education departments. Colorado witnessed that challenge first hand in the past decade with initiatives like Common Core and mandates like state standardized testing. The powers that be in central offices often have little personal knowledge of or connection to the children in the classrooms. In a field where nothing is more important than relationships, the distance can be a significant problem. That disconnect affects students on all issues ranging from curriculum and instruction to simple transportation.

In Colorado where weather patterns can vary widely from region to region, town to town, even neighborhood to neighborhood, the existence of huge school districts creates disparity in making the best decision for all kids. For example, in determining whether to call a snow day or delayed start, superintendents must gauge weather and road conditions. In large Front Range districts, neighborhoods on one side may have deep snow, unplowed roads, and blizzard-like winds while neighborhoods on the other side see calm conditions with a simple dusting. Because of centralized transportation systems, districts must make an all-or-nothing call, and that inadequately serves half the students and families. Cancelling school for no clear reason or sending families and buses onto roads in dangerous conditions is a lose-lose decision for school leaders. And district offices receive plenty of complaints from both sides.

Local control is the essence of public education in the United States. That philosophy is the foundation of school boards and the reason the country at large opposes a national curriculum or federalized education system. Thus, large complex bureaucratic systems that are far removed from the neighborhoods and people they serve runs contradictory to the very nature of education, local control, and responsiveness. It may take a village to raise a child, but sixty thousand people hardly seems like a village.

Following the completion of the 2020 Census, the state of Colorado is redrawing the lines of congressional districts. For Colorado and others states that gained representation, that means smaller districts which are hopefully more responsive to the people. Perhaps the next step is to scrutinize the size and boundary lines of school districts and break them up into smaller, more authentic, and more responsive units which can more effectively understand and serve the needs of their students and families.

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