[Posted to the Blog, originally published in 2006 in my previous school’s (Saklan Valley School) monthly newsletter]

Small is Beautiful. The size of our environment has a great impact on the way we feel in that space—we all want to feel comfortable, to be recognized as a particular and distinct and even special person, and our children want that even more. One teacher often finds herself explaining the difference between teaching in a larger public school and a small independent school:

A small class enables a classroom teacher to have personal contact with each student every day.  A touch on the shoulder shows each student that their teacher believes in them, respects them, and is there to guide them on the path to academic and social success.

Just as there is a growing amount of research touting the value of small classes, and the value of K-8 schools (in contrast to K-5 and 6-8), so is there a fast growing movement to recognize and to promote the enormous benefits for students of attending a small school.

To quote Pat Bassett, the NAIS President: “The most compelling research in the education marketplace in general and by NAIS indicates that it is small schools (i.e., intimate places where all students are known) and great teachers that are the two factors that produce high achievement in students.”  In a similar vein, the Gates Foundation has made fostering and funding small schools a major priority for their investments in improving US education.

For me, the greatest significance of a small school is its ability to provide a genuine sense of connection among us all. There are no strangers here, and that sense of security is not just a “nice” feeling; it allows our brains to open widely and learn effectively.  Our frontal lobes can really open up—rather than being stuck in our limbic zone, where our anxieties generate a defensive fight or flight modality.  Allowing us to use all of our brain, the best parts of our brain, allows us to learn so much more.

Connection is key: As Dr. Edward Hallowell makes clear in his masterwork CONNECT, “what sustains us — emotionally, psychologically, physically — is connectedness.”

A meta-study of 103 separate studies offers great evidence for the value of small schools. Please see sidebar (at bottom of post) the summary results of that research. Following is a list of examples, drawn from a 2001 WestEd article, “Are Small Schools Better?”

• Students learn well and often better
Academic achievement in small schools is at least equal and often superior to that in large schools. No study found large-school achievement superior.

• Extracurricular participation increases
Students join teams and clubs in significantly higher numbers—just as you would expect. There are no cuts; everyone is included who wishes to be, proportionally there are many more opportunities for leadership.

• Parent involvement
Parents and teachers on a first-name basis can become allies in fostering student success.

• Improved teacher working conditions and job satisfaction
Teachers surveyed in Chicago’s small schools, for example, expressed great satisfaction in being able to draw on the skills and insights of colleagues as well as influence the structure and direction of the school.

• Built-in accountability
The “internal community of accountability” that develops among teachers, parents, and students promotes a culture of caring and rigor marked by hard work, high aspirations, and an expectation that all will succeed. In short, while large schools tend to be depersonalized, rule-governed organizations, small schools are able to be close-knit, flexible communities where no one is a stranger.

So if small is better, what number is small? One study set the limits at 350 students for elementary [K-8] schools and 500 for high schools (Fine and Somerville, 1998).   “In general, those who emphasize the importance of the school as a community tend to set enrollment limits lower than do those who emphasize academic effectiveness, at least as measured by test scores.”

There is, however, a case to be made for there being a “magic number” of 150, which is curiously exactly the current Saklan enrollment, and, interestingly, just about what Saklan’s K-8 population is [and pretty much the number of students in our middle and upper schools at St. Gregory].

The 150 magic number was popularized recently in the best-selling book, The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. The concept is summarized as follows:

“Gladwell remarks upon the unusual properties tied to the size of social groups. Groups of less than 150 members usually display a level of intimacy, interdependency, and efficiency that begins to dissipate markedly as soon as the group’s size increases over 150. This concept has been exploited by a number of corporations that use the foundation of their organizational structures and marketing campaigns.”

Gladwell bases this on the theories of scientist Robin Dunbar, whom is quoted to say: “The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.”

Dunbar roots this number in brain research, finding that the neo-cortex region of the brain has a cap in the number of people with whom it can easily track relationships. Supporting this number is anthropological evidence documenting that the most common “band” of human tribes has been usually limited to 150-200 people. See the accompanying sidebar displaying the Wikipedia article on “Dunbar’s number.”

From Wikipedia:
Dunbar’s number is a value significant in sociology and anthropology. Proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, it measures the “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships”. Dunbar theorizes that “this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.”In a 1992 article, Dunbar used the correlation observed for non-human primates to predict a social group size for humans. Using a regression equation on data for 38 primate genera, Dunbar predicted a human “mean group size” of 147.8 (casually represented as 150), a result he considered exploratory due to the large error measure (a 95% confidence interval of 100 to 230).Dunbar then compared this prediction with observable group sizes for humans. Beginning with the assumption that the current mean size of the human neocortex had developed about 250,000 years BCE, i.e. during the Pleistocene, Dunbar searched the anthropological and ethnographical literature for census-like group size information for various hunter-gatherer societies, the closest existing approximations to how anthropology reconstructs the Pleistocene societies. Dunbar noted that the groups fell into three categories — small, medium and large, equivalent to bands, cultural lineage groups and tribes — with respective size ranges of 30-50, 100-200 and 500-2500 members each.

Dunbar’s surveys of village and tribe sizes also appeared to approximate this predicted value, including 150 as the estimated size of a neolithic farming village; 150 as the splitting point of Hutterite settlements; 200 as the upper bound on the number of academics in a discipline’s sub-specialization; 150 as the basic unit size of professional armies in Roman antiquity and in modern times since the 16th century; and notions of appropriate company size.

American society has a bias for bigger—we like to supersize things, and we often gravitate towards the grandiose. So let me reclaim and revalue the greatness of the small, the intentionally small. Perhaps this quality is best captured by borrowing a term from another context, retail consumerism; perhaps a school like Saklan could be considered a “boutique:” intentionally small, precious, lovingly cared for and looked after by passionate loyalists, sought out by the discriminating and devoted to by the select, overlooked sometimes by the casual observer. A boutique is not large because it couldn’t be large, but because it is happy to be small, that it knows it can serve its customers best by being small, and that its customers are delighted by its being small.
What Research Has Found About Small SchoolsFor both elementary and secondary students of all ability levels and in all kinds of settings, research has repeatedly found small schools to be superior to large schools on most measures and equal to them on the rest. The studies Cotton reviewed focused on issues of achievement (31), attitudes toward school or particular school subjects (19); social behavior problems (14); levels of extracurricular participation (17); students. Feelings of belongingness versus alienation (6); interpersonal relations with other students and school staff (14); attendance (16); dropout rate (10); academic and general self-concept (9); college acceptance, success, and completion (6); teachers. attitudes and collaboration (12); the quality of the curriculum (10); and schooling costs (11). Their chief points:
• Academic achievement in small schools is at least equal-and often superior-to that of large schools. Achievement measures used in the research include school grades, test scores, honor roll membership, subject-area achievement and assessment of higher-order thinking skills, and greater achievement and years of attained education after high school. In reporting these conclusions, researchers are careful to point out that they apply even when variables other than size-student attributes, staff characteristics, time-on-task, and the like-are held constant; and smaller schools showed long-range effects independent of rural school advantages.• Student attitudes toward school in general and toward particular school subjects are more positive in small schools.

• Levels of extracurricular participation are much higher and more varied in small schools than large ones, and students in small schools derive greater satisfaction from their extracurricular participation. The single best-supported finding in the school size research, this holds true regardless of setting. Because research has identified important relationships between extracurricular participation and other desirable outcomes, such as positive attitudes and social behavior, this finding is especially significant.

• Students have a greater sense of belonging in small schools than in large ones. Feeling alienated from one’s school environment is both a negative in itself and is often found in connection with other undesirable outcomes, like low participation in extracurricular activities.

• Student academic and general self-regard is higher in small schools than in large ones.

• Interpersonal relations between and among students, teachers, and administrators are more positive in small schools than in large ones.

Why Do Students Do Better in Small Schools?
Kathleen Cotton’s comprehensive review of research for the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory distilled the chief factors to which researchers attribute the superiority of small schools:

• Everyone’s participation is needed to populate the school’s offices, teams, clubs, and so forth, so a far smaller percentage of students is overlooked or alienated.

• Adults and students in the school know and care about one another to a greater degree than is possible in large schools.

• Small schools have a higher rate of parent involvement.

• Students and staff generally have a stronger sense of personal efficacy in small schools.

• Students in small schools take more responsibility for their own learning; their learning activities are more often individualized, experiential, and relevant to the world outside of school; classes are generally smaller; and scheduling is much more flexible.

• Small schools more often use instructional strategies associated with higher student performance-team teaching, integrated curriculum, multi-age grouping (especially for elementary children), cooperative learning, and performance assessments.

From Kathleen Cotton, “School Size, School Climate, and Student Performance,” Close-Up Number 20, 1996. Portland, Oregon: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory