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News & Views - Dec, 1992 Issue 

School Size Can Impact The Healing Process
By Lon Woodbury

In June of 1992, I attended two High School graduations. One of my daughters graduated from the Bonners Ferry, Idaho Public High School with 104 other students. A week later, one of my clients from Virginia graduated from Rocky Mountain Academy, a Special Purpose school in North Idaho, with 22 other students.

Although both schools are small by national standards, the differences were still striking. It demonstrated how school size changes attitudes toward students. It was the difference between honoring graduates as individuals, and honoring graduates as a collective group. The individualization of graduation is almost universal in Special Purpose schools and programs around the country. These schools and programs almost always have under 200 students, and less than 25 graduates at a time. I have visited Special Purpose schools in Maine, Massachusetts, Alabama, Tennessee, Utah, Montana, California, Idaho and Oregon. In the graduation ceremonies of most of these schools, each graduate is introduced by a teacher special to that child, and each child has a chance to publically thank special people in their lives and say what is important to him or her at that moment. It is a joyous and public recognition of his or her accomplishments and importance. They are always beautiful, meaningful, extremely moving, and self-esteem building. Also, they help bring families together.

The 1992 graduation at Bonners Ferry High School was typical of most High Schools which have more graduates than can be individually heard. Four or five students speak for the whole class, and the rest are passive spectators until the brief moment they walk across the stage and accept their diploma. The desire to be recognized as special and important came out in some students through humorous accessories or antics. Although this tends to trivialize the ceremony, it was the only way left for most students to insist on being seen as individuals rather than just as part of a group. It was a lost opportunity to bring families and community together in respect and celebration. Instead, for many, it was a ritual to be endured.

Graduation from High School is an important milestone in a child's life. We should do everything we can to publically honor each child's individual accomplishments. Our children need and deserve nothing less, yet, most High Schools have lost much of the individual touch. In classes, in schools, and in graduation exercises for most High Schools, a child tends to be seen as part of a collective mass of students.

Our children have lost something as a direct result of our society's devotion to "bigger is better" and "economies of scale" in schools. Essentially, the larger a school, the harder it is to treat students as individuals. Life is always a trade-off, and we get what we promote. Students learn more than they are taught, and educators teach more than they think.

What we have promoted and taught in education for most of this century is economies of scale, but at the cost of individual treatment of students. Is this what we really want to teach? Do we really want to teach students to be passive spectators? Do we really want to teach students that responsibility to a group is more important than individual responsibility? Do we really want to teach students that the most important people in their lives are their peers rather than parents, teachers, and community adults? Do we really want to teach students that no adult has much time for them individually? Do we really want to teach students that what they want in ceremonies is not very important?

Whether we like it or not, these are some of the lessons we are teaching students when we build bigger schools. Special Purpose schools have rethought how to educate children. One thing they have done is to reject building large schools because it is so much harder to meet individual needs. The result is Special Purpose schools can better focus on children's needs, instead of focusing on the system's needs.

Copyright 1992, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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