Smaller may be better: In school design, think like a child

Imagine being three-and-a-half feet tall and staring down a 300 foot long corridor filled with hundreds of strangers.

When September rolls around again, thousands of Maine children will face this daunting environment.

Due to population growth, lack of long-range planning and tight budgets both at the state and local levels, communities may feel their  state-funded elementary school planning and design options are limited to the megaschool concept.

That’s not necessarily the case, say design professionals. But it takes strong leadership on the part of the school administration, the building committee and the architects to arrive at a solution that reflects the educational philosophy of the community, the needs of its children, and is at the same time financially feasible.

What is the optimum number of students for an elementary school? While it is difficult to pin down an exact number, both folklore and current educational research indicate that smaller is better.

We nostalgically invoke the one-room schoolhouse, where everyone knew everyone else, the children all had chores to perform–such as breaking the ice on the water bucket or chopping the wood for the stove–and the teacher boarded with one or more of the families in the community.

No doubt, the one-room schoolhouse had inherent problems as well. If saddled with an incompetent teacher or an apathetic community, the school must have provided a wretched introduction to learning.

However, a small school, with its additional resources, can overcome the pitfalls of the one-room schoolhouse. At its best, it can introduce children to the world of intellectual inquiry and give them a sense of their own ability to solve problems in a flexible, cooperative manner.

In addition, small schools are better able to welcome parental involvement, an important ingredient in both individual students’ success and the success of the school as a whole.

Just as children are intimidated by the physical size of a megaschool, parents are intimidated by the size of its bureaucracy.

Educator Deborah Meier, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and the innovative principal of a public high school in New York City, feels very strongly that high schools should be small as well.

Writing in the New York Times, she states, “Young people cannot learn democratic values in a setting that does not value individual achievement, that cannot notice triumphs and defeats, has no time to celebrate or mourn, or respond with indignation or recognition as the situation requires.

“In small schools,” she continues, “parents hear about the same teachers, students and families year after year in a variety of formal and informal ways. Trust builds and issues that arise get settled handily. Accountability to parents, as well as to the community, is a less knotty problem.”

Certainly an argument could be made that if Meier suggests a maximum of 500 students for a high school, the number should be smaller for an elementary school.

Some experts suggest 250 students should be the maximum number. Even in an elementary school of 500, it is all too easy to create an institution where waiting in line is a frequent experience and conformity an unstated objective.

Currently, the Maine State Board of Education mandates that not more than 25 students on average may occupy a classroom, but when it comes to total student population, there are no limits. Consequently, communities have to decide that question for themselves.

In the larger school districts, like School Administrative District 75 in Topsham, where students come from a number of small, diverse towns, the question of school size can be fraught with emotionally charged debate.

Not only are the parents afraid of losing touch with a school located in a distant town, but the electorate is less likely to feel personally involved in a megaschool encompassing a number of towns.

Communities vote down schools for an exasperating number of reasons, but surely feeling alienated from the project is a major cause of voter disapproval.

Why to so many megaschools get proposed? The perception is that the state funding can be received only if the town or SAD agrees to consolidate its core facilities (library, gym, cafeteria).

In fact, the state is willing to be more flexible than that, but at some cost to the communities involved.

“It takes a tremendous amount of negotiation,” says architect Steven Moore, “and it helps to have a certain understanding as to how the system works.”

As an example, Moore cites the experience of the Oxford/Otisfield school district (SAD 17). Rather than build one combined facility for the approximately 825 elementary school students in these two communities, two schools were built. Each town was able to retain its neighborhood school.

The district, however, had to bear the additional $305,000 of the construction cost over the cost of a single consolidated school.

“It was not an easy task to convince the voters,” added Moore. “But Ken Smith, the superintendent, had initiated the long-range planning and had laid the groundwork.”

The district began working with Moore/Weinrich Architects in 1978 to develop what came to be known as the “community schools plan,” now coming to fruition with the construction of the Oxford and Otisfield elementary schools.

In the view of the public, the architect’s job is to design a building. Yet architecture begins with the research and articulation of the client’s needs in a document called the “program.”

Communities should expect and require their school administration and chosen architecture firm to collaborate with them in developing a program that asks the basic questions: How do we want our school to interact with the community? What are the geographical and historical issues we should consider? What sort of an educational experience to we want to provide for our children?

In the next article in this series, we will examine how communities and their architects have dealt with these questions in several school projects around the state.

[This is the first in a series of articles published in the Portland, Maine, Press Herald in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to locate the follow-up article to this first one.]