Monday, June 17, 2019

Small town schools and world class educations

Last week, my friends at Buffalo Business First released their annual rankings of the school districts across Western New York. School administrators and parents always wait with bated breath for the report, hoping to see that their district is highly-rated and, if it’s not, that it’s quickly climbing the charts.

Almost always, the suburban schools dominate the study while rural and small town districts languish in the shadows.

Here is how some of the rural districts from this paper’s readership ranked: Barker, 29; Newfane, 37; Warsaw, 54; Lyndonville, 85; Holley, 87. 

My school district, Niagara County’s Royalton-Hartland, came in at 55 out of 96 districts. Roy-Hart is up three places from last year’s study and its 10-year range saw it as high as 50th and as low as 79th.

I am a product of Roy-Hart. Does its ranking have me wishing I was educated elsewhere? Does it have me second-guessing sending my kids there?

The answer to both is, unequivocally, “no”. 

Back in 2016, I had the privilege and honor of delivering the commencement speech at Roy-Hart. The focus was on the super powers the graduates gained by being raised in a small town and educated in a small school. I prefaced the speech with this statement: “There’s a reason Clark Kent was raised on a farm. If he was raised in Metropolis he never would have become Superman.”

Those who send their children to or are themselves alumni of a rural district know where I’m coming from.   

Out here in the country we may not have some of the resources that the high-ranking suburban schools like East Aurora, Williamsville, Clarence, and Orchard Park might possess, but we offer our students so much more.

It comes down to being a name and not a number.

It all starts with having access to people.

In our district, there are less than 1,200 students in grades kindergarten through 12, an average of 92 per grade level.

Let’s compare that to Williamsville. They have approximately 10,000 students.

In larger districts like that the teachers can’t know all the students, the parents and pupils can’t know all the teachers and administrators, and the students can’t know all their peers. Having the very easy chance to get lost in the shuffle has to be overwhelming to middling students or young men and women lacking in confidence or support at home.

Contrast that to smaller schools like mine. We know one another. We look out for one another. We work together to make sure no one is left behind. In a small school, students and their families have access to the educators, staff and coaches that can’t be held in larger districts. Those educators know the kids and have watched and will watch their development every step of the way. A school becomes a family and a legacy.    

Coming with those smaller numbers and that veritable one-on-one attention is a similar and equally remarkable benefit to students: Having access to experience.

The larger schools’ sports teams, choruses, and bands could be considered havens for only the elite. Due to there being only so many available roster spots not everyone has a chance to glean the experiences of teamwork, self-discipline, self-betterment and sense of urgency that extracurricular activities provide.

That’s not the story at smaller schools. Everyone has a very real chance to acquire and strive for a place on the team or band. This gives every student the chance to become elite or put their very best effort into it – and that’s what education is all about. Similarly, smaller clubs -- be it robotics or Future Farmers of America -- give each participant a heightened chance to shine, lead and change the world.

Likewise, smaller peer groups lead to better access to labs, experiments, public speaking exercises and more in the classroom, all of which lead to more experience – and that’s what adds capability and productivity to the intended results of tests and standards that all schools have to master.     
I often say that the larger an organization gets – be it a business, church or government – the farther away it gets from the people within it, the people it is supposed to serve, and the core values that defined its foundation. There’s a reason why people don’t like Big Government or Big Business. The smaller the better.

That holds true for schools, too. So many people champion the “it takes a village to raise a child” mantra because there’s something to be had in that interpersonal, intercommunity connectedness -- the direct and universal ownership of individual outcomes -- that the village mentality entails.

So, I say to the parents who wonder if they are doing right by their kids for sending them to a small school, “fret not”. The rankings may not show it, but your kids are getting a world class education. They are receiving the access, attention and experience they deserve…all of which they will put to great use as tomorrow’s workers, volunteers, leaders and parents.

From the 17 June 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

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