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For schools, does size matter?
Seattle Times staff reporter
Principal Joanne Bowers cherishes the small size of Viewlands Elementary in North Seattle. With 206 students to oversee, she can track each child's progress. She even knows what many of them eat for lunch because she serves the school meals.
Viewlands — one of the seven Seattle schools recommended for closure — is one of the smallest elementary schools in the district. It's also among the smallest in the state.
As decades of economic and other forces drained students from Seattle, the district not only has empty classrooms but two dozen elementary schools so small that even small-school advocates say they could grow.
Twenty-nine of Seattle's 61 elementary schools — almost half — enrolled 300 or fewer students this past school year. No other Washington school district with more than 2,000 students had that many schools that small. Many neighboring districts don't have a single elementary under 300. Some start at 400.
The Seattle School Board is scheduled to decide this week whether to close seven schools and consolidate some of those schools with others. That proposal would affect 11 of the district's regular elementaries with fewer than 300 students: Viewlands and Greenwood in Northwest Seattle; High Point and Fairmount Park in West Seattle; Martin Luther King and T.T. Minor in Seattle's Central District; and five schools in the south end: Dearborn Park, Emerson, Orca, Rainier View and Whitworth.
Size was just one of the considerations in the closure recommendations, designed to help the district reduce expenses. But when it comes to Seattle elementary schools, bigger may not be too big.
Rick Lear, director of the Small Schools Project at the University of Washington, said he wouldn't want 600 students in an elementary. But 300 to 400 — even up to 500 — wouldn't be objectionable.
At that size, he said, it's possible to maintain the sense of community that's considered one of the greatest strengths of a small school.
Schools of 200 "would be great, there's no question about that," he added. "I don't know that when a school district is financially strapped, or even when it has money ... if that's the best way."
Primary schools with 400 to 500 students have some advantages over smaller schools, according to administrators in some Seattle-area districts. They can have two or three classes per grade, for example, which allows flexibility in matching students to teachers and students with each other.
Seattle didn't set out to have such small schools. Most of its buildings can hold more students. Viewlands, for example, could hold about double what it does now, according to district administrators.
One big reason Seattle has small schools is because it didn't close enough schools to keep pace when enrollment declined from about 100,000 students in the late 1960s to about 46,000 today.
Now, when Seattle renovates schools, it designs the elementary buildings for at least 450 to 500 students and up to 550 if possible, said Chief Financial Officer Steve Nielsen.
Seattle's middle and high schools are much closer to average size when compared with districts statewide, although Seattle also has some of the state's smallest high schools. But its elementary-school size is well below average:
• Of the 100 smallest elementary schools in districts with at least 2,000 students, close to one-third are in Seattle.
• Of the 100 largest, none are in Seattle.
• The average size of K-5 elementary schools in those districts is 440 students. In Seattle, it's 322.
• Most neighboring school districts have, at most, an elementary school or two with fewer than 300 students. Eighteen have none. Mercer Island's smallest elementary had 520 this past school year.
The research is clear that small schools are preferable to giant ones, like some elementaries in California that top 2,000 students. That's one big reason behind the national push, led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to build smaller high schools or find ways to make existing ones more personal.
"You want schools to be small enough so that they [teachers] can't shirk responsibility, so that they collectively take responsibility for all the kids in their care," said University of Washington Dean Pat Wasley, who heads the UW College of Education and has done a major study of small high schools in Chicago.
The question is how small is small enough.
In its report on small schools, the Ohio-based KnowledgeWorks Foundation recommends 150 students per elementary school. There is also some research suggesting that small schools work better in areas where a large number of students live in poverty.
Some schools have special circumstances, too. At Viewlands, for example, Bowers said the small size is key to providing a supportive atmosphere for its special-education students.
And smallness alone doesn't guarantee a good school. Class size is key, too, as is the quality of instruction and whether students feel cared about.
Still, the available research — although limited — suggests primary schools should be between 300 and 600, said Lawrence Picus, a University of Southern California professor hired by the state to recommend improvements in how Washington funds its schools.
"Intimacy is important," said Wasley. "I would prefer elementaries under 500 ... but I think it's possible for kids to get a quality education in schools of that size."
Among elite private schools, she added, elementaries are often larger than the high schools, largely because elementary students stay with one teacher all day and don't need as small a school to feel a sense of community.
Sense of community
Many districts in the Seattle area aim for 450 to 550 students in elementary schools.
A few primary schools in the Tahoma School District have around 900 students, and Puyallup has two that top 1,000 — although by necessity, not design. Puyallup is now building two new elementary schools to help ease the pressure on those buildings. The new schools are designed to hold 750 — again because of need.
"We feel comfortable with 750, but we like 550 better," said Rudy Fykes, executive director of facilities.
At 450 to 550 students, many districts say they can staff an elementary with a full-time principal, librarian and "specialists" who teach art and P.E. They can offer two to three classes per grade, which, in addition to the flexibility in assigning students to teachers, also gives teachers same-grade colleagues.
When schools have fewer than 300 students, they can't afford to hire many of the support staff full time. At Viewlands, for example, the nurse comes one day a week.
The larger a school gets, however, the harder it is to build and maintain a sense of community.
"When you get above 400-500, it's not going to feel less personal, it's going to be less personal," Lear said. "You're going to have more rules."
Even if Seattle closes seven schools, its elementary-school size wouldn't reach the size of many of its neighbors. Together, Greenwood and Viewlands would be about 460 students, judging from enrollments this past school year. Martin Luther King and T.T. Minor together had 282 students. Fairmount Park and High Point combined had 333.
The largest would be a combined Emerson and Rainier View, with 518.
Definitely not small. But not what many would call too big.
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org
University of Washington dean and head of the College of Education
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company