How a small school can offer big advantages
“We don’t know who we are until we see what we can do.”
– Martha Grimes
As many of us exited the theater last weekend, we were humming or singing our favorite song from the musical “Grease.” Students in the upper school acted beautifully, danced with aplomb, and sang with gusto the many hits from this well-known play portraying life in the late 1950’s. Congratulations to the cast, crew, Ms. G, and Mr. C for an excellent series of shows to sold-out crowds.
Watching the play, I marveled at how many students in the show were deeply involved in the other areas of school. For example, so many girls basketball players had roles in the show and on the tech crew that we couldn’t have any games during final rehearsal week. Similarly, there were thespians who starred on other athletic teams, were members of the Literary Magazine, and participated in a variety of activities around school. It was if students quickly traded a uniform for a costume and kept right on going.
The ability to participate in a variety of activities can be one of the hallmarks of a small school with a supportive culture. Schools with smaller classes than the norm enable teachers and students to know each other on a deep level and work closely together. Faculty and staff members can recognize students’ strengths and weaknesses; consequently, they can challenge and support them accordingly. In the process, children and adolescents can perform at a high level and discover their interests and passions. Sadly, too many people can probably empathize with the founder of Khan Academy, Sal Khan when he said, “I spent years where I did not have a meaningful conversation with a teacher.”
In addition to having classes with fewer students, small schools offer children and adolescents the opportunity to play a participatory role in their school. Students can advocate for themselves and their peers and have a larger role than in larger schools where they may be one of hundreds or thousands of young people.
At Keystone, it’s de rigueur for students to approach administrators with an idea or a concern; candidly, this may be one of the most pleasant elements of working here. I always appreciate when students have digested and understood the school’s mission to the degree that they speak up when they see something that may not be in line with their understanding of the school’s core pillars or our Cobra Code.
It’s difficult for a child to get lost in a small class; similarly, students in a small school may receive more notice than in a bigger school, and their ideas can be heard by a receptive ear.
Although it may sound counterintuitive, being in a small school can offer students even more opportunities than in a larger school where there are pecking orders or informal barriers to entry. Children and teens can try a multitude of activities in a variety of areas and find new interests and possibilities. As opposed to having to struggle through a number of hoops, students are able to jump in and stretch themselves. By virtue of their size, small schools require student curiosity and flexibility,and this is to the student’s benefit.
However, school size cannot be the only determinant for students to become Renaissance people. There must also be a culture of mutual support and encouragement. Children need to know that it’s ok for them to try a new sport or activity and they will not be subject to ridicule. Adults should stress that there will be inevitable challenges as children venture into new areas, but the only thing worse than not doing something well immediately is not trying it at all.
Repeatedly at Keystone, we witness students join a team or participate in an activity with no previous experience. They demonstrate a remarkable degree of courage in putting themselves out there. In the process, children and young adults learn a new skill or find a novel talent previously hidden or unrecognized. They grow as academicians, artists, performers, athletes, and human beings, and it’s a pleasure to observe.
Several times during last week’s performances of “Grease,” adults and students in the audience looked at each other and expressed with a combination of surprise and glee “Wow, who knew that person had such a beautiful voice!’ In a small school, we all benefit as students stretch themselves, grow, and develop. How fortunate we are!