There has never been a man, woman, or child who hasn’t wistfully imagined time travel. What day, month, and year would you type in the command prompt of a time machine? For many Christian educators, the selection would likely be one of the many heydays of their school’s rich history: Homecoming of ‘88 when the basketball team won state; The senior class trip of ‘92 when thirty-something soon-to-be-grads took on New York City; The spring of ‘84 when the band took home the jug at fine arts festival. Those were the days! Christian schools were stretched at the seams. More kids meant more money, and activities and programs were abundant and well-funded. More students meant more families to donate, volunteer, and cheer on the teams. How great it would be to have the glory days back. At least, that is what we tell ourselves as we imagine stepping into the Delorean, gunning it to 88 miles per hour, and heading back to ‘82, ‘94, or ‘99. Ah, the good old days!
But let’s face it, Christian schools are just plain different than they were a few years ago.
For that matter, so are most private schools across America. Over the last twenty years, the Department of Education has reported staggering statistics on the condition of both private and Christian education in the United States (Broughman, Rettig, & Peterson, 2017; Broughman, Swaim, & Keaton, 2008; McMillen & Gerald, 1990). The average private school in the United States enrolls approximately 142 students, with 46% of private schools enrolling less than 50 students. Overall, private school enrollment in the United States has declined by 18% in the last ten years and by 27% in the last two decades. Among private schools, the sector of schools claiming religious affiliation has shrunk by 14%, and the American Association of Christian Schools alone has seen a 50% decline in the number of students enrolled in member schools.
Selected Characteristics of Private Schools in the United States, 1987-2016
|1987-1988||2005-2006||2015-2016||20-year percent change|
|Average private school size||195||174||142||27%|
|Less than 50 students||N/A||33%||46%||N/A|
|Portion of private schools claiming religious affiliation||81%||76%||67%||14%|
|AACS total enrollment||151,214||125,286||73,428||51%|
|AACS member schools||1360||891||765||44%|
(Broughman et al., 2017; Broughman et al., 2008; McMillen & Gerald, 1990)
There sometimes seems to be little good news on the enrollment front in Christian education, especially in comparison to days gone by. Enrollments are lower, class sizes are down, and programs typically follow suit. The last question any of us want to answer is ironically usually the first one we ask each other at teacher conventions or ballgames: “So, how’s your enrollment?” But perhaps we’re asking each other the wrong question.
Let’s say I hired a general contractor to build a new house. Should I be as concerned with how many houses he has built, or rather, with how many of those houses are still standing? Here is the point: We are too quick to judge schools based on quantity when we judge other industries primarily on quality. It is unfortunate but true that questions about academics, teacher/student relationships, and access to learning are often a far second to curiosity about enrollments, class sizes, and extracurriculars. Do not the former aspects of a schooling fulfill the main purpose of education more than the latter? That may depend on who you ask.
There is often a tacit assumption that school size correlates to the quality of education taking place inside the building. Undoubtedly, there is much pressure in education to be big, and needless to say, there are also many perceived and actual advantages to learning within a large school (Schwartz, Stiefel, & Wiswall, 2016). Big schools are able to offer more classes and courses, spread responsibilities among more staff members, and provide programs with better amenities (Howley, 2002). While no labor in education is easy, a large school does provide its teachers with more financial stability, increased autonomy, and increased opportunities to specialize (Feldman, 2016). Certainly, a large school has its own set of challenges to contend with, and yet the small school can often seem anemic at surface-level comparison. The main point is this:
There is a temptation for Christian educators to exhaust themselves by attempting to transform their small school into something it may never be again: A large school.
Rather than accepting and embracing a small-school identity, schools work feverishly (and admirably so) to maintain a big-school persona. However, research suggests a certain irony about school size: While small schools often find themselves longing to be larger, many large schools actually desire to have smallness (Feldman, 2016). It is undeniable that large schools have many advantages, yet the uniqueness of the small school should not be overlooked or minimized. While not necessarily true of every setting, small schools generally boast lower dropout rates, greater teacher satisfaction, fewer discipline problems, better attendance, higher graduation rates, more parent satisfaction, a greater sense of community, and more variety in learning experiences (Feldman, 2016; Gershenson & Langbein, 2015; Luyten, 2014).
In other words, when it comes right down to learning, research is on the side of smallness!
More often than not, Christian educators are finding themselves serving faithfully in small Christian schools. The challenges are unique, the funds are limited, and the class sizes are not what they used to be. But rather than begrudging reality, perhaps more time should be spent discussing and embracing the blessings of being in a small school setting. Research shows ways in which many small schools are leveraging their size to their advantage. Here are just a few:
- Great small schools take pride in their identity. There is an unapologetic tone among the leadership and faculty that emphasizes the quality of what the school is, not what it is not. In fact, a mistake many small schools make is settling to be a miniature large school (Feldman, 2016; Fine, 2005). Admittedly, it is easier to scale down a familiar model than to create and communicate something unique, and yet this is where many small schools miss their comparative advantage. For example, connectedness with one’s school has been shown to have positive effects on school achievement, and yet as school size increases, connectedness with school tends to decrease (Crosnoe, Johnson, & Elder, 2004; Reynolds, Lee, Turner, Bromhead, & Subasic, 2017). Other noncognitive factors such as school attitude, behavior, and student engagement have also shown a connection to the size of the school (Luyten, 2014). Small schools should consider communicating these and other overlooked benefits of the environment in which teaching takes place, emphasizing who they are not how big they are. Rather than attempting to be a miniature version of what they may never be, small schools should take pride in being the best version of what they already are.
- Great small schools emphasize the variety of choices they offer within classrooms. Large schools are able to provide a wide horizontal curriculum, providing students with many electives and a greater variety of extracurricular activities (Parkay, Anctil, & Hass, 2014). Admittedly, it is difficult to discount the luster of options, and yet having more students within a classroom necessarily reduces the number of options within that classroom (Feldman, 2016). In a large-scale setting, efficiency necessarily becomes king as learners are taught, assessed, and enriched in unison. Small-school classrooms have unique opportunities for much greater variety in assessments and activities as well as time for greater depth in the courses they do offer. Small schools can be content for their curriculum to be deep rather than wide, for a very broad curriculum has actually been identified as a detriment to the learning of most students (Leithwood & Jantzi, 2009). Another benefit to learning that takes place in a small school is that instructors often teach several subject areas, allowing for greater connections across the academic disciplines. This scenario is most often created by having fewer staff available, and yet the alternative actually has the potential for a segmented educational setting. When the math instructor also teaches science, or when an English teacher also agrees to teach history, students actually benefit from the increased curriculum integration (Van Brummelen, 2002). Busy, small-school educators can take consolation in knowing their harried, diverse teaching schedule can actually benefit students due to the opportunity for increased connections across subjects.
- Great small schools enjoy philosophical harmony. From their inception, small schools are generally the offspring of some unique philosophical seed. This is not true only of Christian and religious schools but also of charter, parochial, and other non-profit schools (Feldman, 2016; Van Brummelen, 2009). Most private schools have a philosophical reason for existing and have been designed by very specific ideologies. However, in larger, more-resourced schools, deep questions of purpose and mission may not rise to the surface as readily (Schwartz et al., 2016). Far from academic safe zones, smaller institutions attract faculty members who bring no hidden agenda and are like-minded in the non-negotiable beliefs upon which the school was founded. Values such as human origin, marriage, gender, and human nature are not open for discussion, and were a team member to deviate off mission, there is a greater potential for accountability. A sense of unity and faculty collaboration around a central philosophy is of benefit to the families who bring their children through the doors of the school (Vangrieken, Dochy, Raes, & Kyndt, 2015). For one, the administration and faculty body are not fragmented by a variety of core beliefs but rather operate as a cohesive unit. This approach allows for a specialized, shared set of values and goals to be dispensed into the school culture, leading to stronger learning outcomes (Tichnor-Wagner, Harrison, & Cohen-Vogel, 2016). However, as members of a largely philosophical enterprise, teachers in private schools should also sense a pressure to develop themselves as professional educators. As both a professional educator and standard-bearer of Biblical philosophy, a Christian has the potential to be dually equipped as one of the best teachers in the industry (Brown, 2002; Knight, 2006).
- Great small schools provide more individual attention. The arithmetic is simple–the fewer students there are, the less the teacher’s attention is divided. As a result, each teacher in a small school has an amplified influence and can enjoy richer personal relationships than in a larger setting (Crosnoe et al., 2004). The individual attention learners receive in a small setting influences their learning, especially for those with learning difficulties (Gershenson & Langbein, 2015; McMillen, 2004). Most parents desire big school experiences for their children, but given the choice, few parents would desire for their child to only be part of the scenery in a crowded classroom. Most Christian schools are not in danger of overcrowding, and yet arguably, there is some point at which the learning of students begins to be crowded out by the number of students (Feldman, 2016). Smaller classes can provide learners with a greater individualized experience: One-on-one attention, meaningful creative activities, and small group experiences. These opportunities also serve to deepen relationships between teachers and students–an incredibly valuable aspect of learning (Tichnor-Wagner et al., 2016). Why do parents cringe at the mention of large class sizes? Because largeness means less personal attention, less attention can result in less learning, and no one desires that for their child. Unfortunately, the driving force behind some parents’ desire to enroll children in a large school may have less to do with learning opportunities than with duplicating the school experiences they themselves once enjoyed. In such cases, learning becomes secondary.
Research on small schools reveals an abundance of readily-available learning opportunities and unique options for great teaching.
Despite the challenges, smallness offers far more benefits than drawbacks, and yet the reality is that learning is often not as exciting as the experiences of football, robotics, and marching bands.
As Meyer (2002) puts it, the case is unfortunate but often true that “the heart of the school, its capacity to educate…seems almost beside the point” (p. 32). Yet in their current condition, Christian small schools are especially blessed with more opportunities to impact each mind and heart than ever before.
The Master Teacher reminds us in Matthew 25 of His concern for quality over quantity. Whether our talents are five, two, or one, or whether our student body numbers six, sixty, or six-hundred, all things are small in God’s eyes. Let’s set our minds aright: Christian educators have not been given a raw deal, and neither are we failing in the good fight because of classrooms not filled to capacity. We must keep working to attract good families, work harder to educate students well, and continue to increase our influence for Christ’s kingdom regardless of the numbers He gives. Communicate the strengths of smallness, brag on the many benefits, and labor to be the biggest small school in your town!