Tuesday, September 08, 2009

what's that? way off in the distance...

I remember thinking over the summer that maybe we’d be better off with smaller and more locally-managed schools; I mean much smaller. In particular, I was thinking about elementary schools and the idea that if they were broken down to far less than a quarter of their current size we might be better off. The idea was unwittingly supported last night when there was a quick search of the elementary school Web site to find out what class one of the boys would in this year: there were either five or six sixth grade classes with 20 or 25 students in each. I hadn’t realized the school was large enough to accommodate 120-150 sixth graders. I don’t think all the grades are so large – no reason why I would think this way – but we’re still looking at 700-800 kids in one elementary school. I know this sounds crazy but what if there were 6-8 smaller schools located throughout the catchment area? The position of principal, all the administration, and all the maintenance could still be performed from a much smaller ‘school HQ’ located in the area. Since there are already six teachers working with sixth graders we could simply disburse them – and the locally-grown students – to one of the smaller schools. Instead of having a single 800-kid structure we could have 7 or 8 100-kid schools that I think would function on a much stronger academic and community basis. If there were eight small schools throughout a current school catchment then you’d have to believe a good bit of the buses and associated costs could be vastly reduced, if not eliminated. I understand there would be issues as families stay put, kids grow up, and configuring students-to-schools might become harder but I don’t think it’s impossible. Part of what drove this was thinking over the summer was when I thought about H’s school which has something like 120 kids, grades 4-12, that manages to utilize a fairly small geographic footprint but still has plenty of room and resources to have classes (entire grades) of 8-12 students. There are so many of the problems that bother me about public schools that could be eliminated with smaller, concentrated, and more focused schools. His school doesn’t even have a cafeteria – something that I find untroubling; I have no faith in the crap that most schools are feeding kids anyway (imagine the cost saving with no kitchen or staff?). That would mean that parents send lunch to school with kids, and I know that might be an issue, but at least if you want to poison your kid with junk then feel free; no one else has to actively support that decision. Why do we feel the need to continue even further down the big school road?

Another contributor to this idea rising again today is an article on the health care system by David Goldhill at the Atlantic. What strikes me most, within my idea of schools, was his premise that huge hospitals aren’t necessarily the best solution: consolidating everything into one behemoth that handles both catastrophic care and a good bit of the non-catastrophic care dulls competition. (Maybe I’m sort of paraphrasing.) If you can configure the system to where small, specialized clinics can meet the basic preventive care and minor needs of a smaller community then we might be onto something. I’m well aware that schools and health care seem like two completely different issues, but are they? Both require all of us to provide funding – via premiums or taxes – yet we often don’t get the say of the consumer: is it working? Is it quality? How do I feel about it?

Imagine a community where the schools and doctors were smaller planets that orbited much close to your environment? What about an elementary school that had five or six teachers that all the kids and parents were familiar with? I think it would much harder for a kid to get lost in the mix, or bullied, or fall behind if he’s in a smaller pool. As with the piece on health care, it’s not like anything of this magnitude can or will happen overnight: maybe it would take twenty or twenty-five years to get fully online. Well, so what? The greatest mistake we all make – when talking politics or thinking about exercising – is that we don’t ever really sell the future self idea. It seems so far away that we can’t get up the good head of steam needed to start pushing. Everything slips even further down the road while we ponder what to do. As X told me the other day, and duly cited the source, “Twenty years is going to pass regardless of what you do. You might as well get started.”

Ah, the future self.

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