Protest over school closings in Arkansas
Some 2,500 students in December, 2003, protested plans to consolidate rural schools in Arkansas. Then Gov. Mike Huckabee pushed consolidation, and said the protest was a “rally to preserve the past.”

Photo: The Arkansas News
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was telling members of Congress how the people in Greensburg are trying to save their town. A mammoth tornado leveled Greensburg May 4, killing a dozen people. Whether the people of Greensburg will be successful is still an open question.

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius
Photo: M.A. Pember

The governor told Congress that Greensburg’s recovery depended on the local school’s re-opening in the fall. “If you close the school, you close the town — period,” Gov. Sebelius said. “No doubt about it. If the school doesn’t open in August, the town dies. “

The Greensburg school will reopen in August, the governor assured. But scores of other rural schools won’t survive — not because of natural disasters, but on account of man-made destruction. State governments and school boards consolidate small, rural schools and school districts with abandon, creating the same destruction as a tornado only in slow motion. Rural residents following the presidential campaign should note that Republican Mike Huckabee consolidated schools to a faretheewell as governor of Arkansas — a bureaucratic whirlwind that closed mostly schools in poor and black communities in the Delta. Vermont, meanwhile, is also considering a plan to consolidate school districts.

abandoned Indiana school

An abadoned school in Jefferson, Indiana. The school was closed after consolidation in the 1970s.
Photo: Tele Photo

States close small schools to save money. But the accounting that leads to school consolidation usually doesn’t include the cost to the town. There are studies aplenty testifying that this is a shortsighted policy: Closing small districts and schools doesn’t save money; and students do better in small schools than in large ones. The evidence isn’t that small rural schools do better. They do better in cities, too. “(I)t is the smallness of schools, regardless of setting, that is beneficial to students,” according to one study.

We at the Yonder were reminded of the importance of maintaining small schools (rural and urban) by a new report out of New York City. The New York Times reported this past week that, yes, kids who went to small high schools in the city graduated at higher rates than did students herded into schools that, in the city, can have as many as 5,000 children.

In 2002, New York took 12 humongous (and failing) high schools and divided them into 47 smaller institutions. Now, five years later, the Times reports that graduation rates at the small schools are “substantially higher” than the city average. At some of the smaller schools more than nine out of ten students are receiving diplomas — twice the rate of the big schools in 2002.

These results won’t surprise anyone who has bothered to look for a minute at the research. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg says he will create more small schools in the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan. Meanwhile, states are closing small schools in rural America — the same kind of small schools New York is spending millions to build.

We have reason to worry what the random forces of wind can do to a school and a town, but we have more to fear from the considered intentions of people.

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