Friday, October 8, 2010

Small Schools and Extracurriculars

I've written this week (here and here) about the decision of Pittsburgh's superintendent to step down.  One of the reforms he's implemented over the past 5+ years is move the district away from large, comprehensive high schools and toward smaller, specialized high schools.  It's a trend anybody in NYC would be familiar with (where the average size of a middle school has shrunk by about 15% since 2004).  In the past I've referred to this as the "charterization" of schools.  As is clear in NYC and other places, charters tend to be much smaller and have more specialized names (think "Knowledge is Power Program" instead of "PS 100" or "Washington High"), and draw from beyond the local neighborhood.

In a lot of ways, I think smaller schools are a good thing (or at least have the potential to be a good thing).  I've heard one charter operator explain that he believes in schools with about 500 students because that's what all the top private schools are like -- and I think he makes a good point.  A small school makes it easier for everyone in the building to know each other and, subsequently, for schools to be more aware of the dynamics of the school environment and the needs of individual students.

But there's one major drawback to the smaller schools that doesn't seem to get much press: extracurriculars.  A lot of students define their experiences in high school (and, for that matter, college) by their experiences on athletic teams, in school plays, in the marching band, and so on.  When a friend mentions an old classmate and you can't quite put a face to the name, what do they say?  They don't say "he really liked history" . . . they say "she played the clarinet" or "he was on the swim team".  Everybody takes classes in high school, but far fewer people make pottery or play a leading role in the school play.  Accordingly, some students -- at least to some extent -- care more about their favorite extracurricular activity (or activities) than they do about classes.  Witness this excellent Sports Illustrated piece from last year about a school in Ohio that cut all sports and started hemorrhaging athletes.

So, what do we do to ensure that kids at these new smaller schools get to experience the activity (or activities) that might make them love high school?  There are a few options.

1.) We can continue to create schools that are focused around interests and activities -- arts academies and the like -- and hope that kids with similar interests enjoy similar activities.  Though I'm skeptical that athletic leagues will want to allow the new basketball academy to join its ranks.  And I'm not sure what happens when the quarterback at the football academy wants to join the glee club or the soprano at the choir academy wants to play volleyball.

2.) We can combine schools for the purposes of extracurriculars.  This is apparently Pittsburgh's plan, at least for football.  The biggest problem with that is that it robs the power of the school play or the Friday night football game to bring the community together (both the school community and the surrounding neighborhood).  If two separate schools field one football team, are they supposed to have two separate pep rallies?  And if two small towns merge their schools, in which town do they play football?  (Here's an excellent article on this phenomenon, again in the areas surrounding Pittsburgh.)

3.) Schools can boost rates of participation -- in various ways -- so that a smaller school can support more activities.  A number of private schools (I think, historically, this is something all-boys schools tended to do) mandate that every student play on a certain number of athletic teams each year.  Or schools could allow some clubs to meet during class time (I took a journalism class in jr. high in which we also wrote the school newspaper).  Or they could just emphasize clubs and activities more to students, parents, and teachers.

4.) We can go back to large, comprehensive, neighborhood high schools ("back" meaning in urban areas -- that's still still the norm in the suburbs and only somewhat possible in rural areas).  NYC might have the highest concentration of (relatively) small, specialized, non-neighborhood high schools in the country.  But it was announced this week that a new HS in Queens will be a large, comprehensive one.  “People want one large comprehensive school. You don’t want a bunch of boutique schools, a dance school, a school for lawyers,” said the DOE rep.

5.) Kids can just learn to do without.  Historically, the vast majority of schools in the United States have been quite small (which, of course, doesn't mean that the majority of students have attended small schools).  And many might deem other things (e.g. math skills) more important anyway.  Besides, there's always the possibility that local organizations (the theater, library, YMCA, little league, etc.) might sponsor activities if a school doesn't.  Of course, that would then remove one more enjoyable activity from students' school experience.

Extracurricular activities are extraordinarily important to many students, parents, schools, and communities and we do ourselves a disservice when we ignore this during our debates and discussions about education.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

First on what small private schools can offer their students via extra-curricular -- just look around Nashville in particular at USN and FRA that really do have the smaller high schools...the offerings for the kids are incredible not only in the sports but also the arts, etc.

Second...I thought the government schools small school movement were schools within schools...like is happening in Nashville...if this is true why wouldn't the academies come together for extra-curricular activities? Seems foolish to do otherwise...

what have I missed

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Yes, I mentioned that some small private schools can offer a variety of extracurriculars. Some of these schools require participation, and all are composed of hand-selected students (often with outside interests as one of the criteria for selection) who are, on average, more involved and more motivated than the average high school student (if nothing else, they're in a furious race to pad their college applications with as many activities as possible).

So, yes, it's possible for a small school to offer a bevy a bunch of activities -- I never said it wasn't -- but it requires a different way of doing things and, possibly, special circumstances.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

In response to your second point, in NYC they're often turning former schools into "campuses" containing a number of smaller schools. Other cities don't have the same space constraints and haven't done this as much. In these cases, there are worse options than to have a campus-wide football or debate team, but it's hardly the perfect solution. For one, it disrupts the small community that an individual school is trying to build as teachers interact with kids from other schools and students interact with teachers from other schools. It also might not work for all activities if you have very specialized and very different schools present in one building.

Anonymous said...

Corey -- public schools cannot have it both ways...there isn't enough funding...they have enough as it is...so, why don't they get creative and figure it out as a "corporate umbrella" with various independent subsidiaries...the "corporate umbrella" provides the extra-curricular activities for all, the "subsidiaries" are the academic academies...now the academies can do clubs, etc that fit the "theme" but sports, maybe drama, music/band, art should be open to all...

Isn't up to each academy to figure out how to connect with the student? If there are a ton of kids interested in athletics but only so many can be on the varsity/jv teams why not have intramural teams? There are ways to do this without getting more funding or requiring more fees from parents...

No solutions...just thoughts...

No one at the two private schools I mentioned are required to participate in extra-curricular activities, all however are encouraged...at MBA all are required to do a sport...hand selection...well that is a whole other story and as long as they are not playing the government schools they can and will continue to do this...the hope (I am not naive) is the kids are academically qualified...but...

Anonymous said...

I'm confused by this post. I went to a public high school in a small Midwestern town. Our high school had about 150 students. We had all kinds of extracurriculars, to the point where some parents felt they were over-emphasized. But our wrestling team and yearbook staff were top-ranked in the state, our music program was excellent, we had drama, speech, volleyball, track, baseball, softball, cheerleading, newspaper, many more... no swimming or gymnastics, I guess, because those things required expensive equipment, but I didn't feel deprived in this area and community participation was always very high. And because the school was small, there was less competition for places, so it was possible -- and normal -- to participate in 10 or 12 activities every year. For example, there were no try-outs for varsity football; the school had to work to get enough players each season. That meant there was a lot of school and even community pressure on those boys to keep their grades up, because each player was valuable and it would hurt to lose even one to academic probation.

What did suffer, at my school, were electives. We offered the state minimums: 3 years of math, one foreign language, etc. No precalculus or calculus, no AP courses, no electives in the arts or humanities, and the only voc-ed class was shop. But extracurriculars are the one thing I feel we did well.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding your point. I can understand why extracurriculars would be a problem for new schools, but there's a long tradition of them being integral to small schools.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

While there are certainly outliers, the exception doesn't disprove the rule in social science. On average, smaller schools offer fewer extracurriculars than larger schools.

You raise a good point in that it may also be the case that smaller schools have higher participation rates in extracurriculars, but I'm not really sure about that.

Also, keep in mind that I'm mainly referring to the new breed of small, specialized schools that are sprouting up in urban areas -- which oftentimes don't serve as neighborhood schools. Your school, though small, sounds like it was a comprehensive, community high school -- which is quite different.

cp said...

re: #1. They made a TV show about how that works out. It's called Glee. Maybe you've heard of it...

turducken said...

I'm late to the party, but I think it's interesting that all these extracurriculars are really a U.S. phenomenon. Yes, boarding schools elsewhere offer them, but in day schools in most of the world, you go to classes, and that's it. Soccer or whatever is not based in the school system.

I think this has pros, such as not diverting funds for education, but it also puts some of the burden for costs back on parents. Rich kids might have even better access to things like clarinet and basketball lessons.

Ged schools said...

in my point of view the government schools small school movement were schools within schools. Its not effected.