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At issue in Southern Berkshire: Are small schools worth keeping?

The superior experience most parents say their kids have in the very small schools has less to do with scale, and more to do with quality teaching and the right kind of leadership. -- Susan Engel, director of the Program in Teaching at Williams College, and a resident of New Marlborough

Sheffield — Though not quite as old as the Berkshire Hills, it’s a debate that’s been kicking around at least since the school consolidation movement began a hundred years ago. Which is better for students and taxpayers? Small schools or larger ones?

Nowhere is that discord better illustrated than in the towns of Egremont and Monterey, where officials from the Southern Berkshire Regional School District have suspended the operations of the towns’ tiny community schools, creating tensions between the towns and the school committee, resulting in a lawsuit from Egremont  and a budget proposal that was defeated at town meetings  last month.

The Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee meeting to decide how to respond to a 2017 budget that had been rejected by two towns, Monterey and Egremont.
The Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee meeting to decide how to respond to a 2017 budget that had been rejected by two towns, Monterey and Egremont.

As one might expect, experts differ on the best approach to educating youngsters. For the youngest students, small schools offer intimacy, more individualized instruction, greater parental involvement and an enhanced sense of community. One the other hand, they offer fewer programs than larger schools such as Undermountain Elementary, which will likely be where most of the South Egremont Village School’s 15 students wind up next year.

Advocates for the closed schools in Egremont and Monterey — and the one remaining community school in the district, New Marlborough Central — are quick to defend their schools against charges that they’re anachronisms whose charm and quaintness far outstrip their educational and fiscal outcomes. Besides, both Monterey and Egremont only cost a little more than $100,000 per year to operate, they say.

They point to the record of high achievement kids from those schools have and the how the tiny schools can become marketing points for young couples with children who are thinking of moving into town — an enticement that is especially critical in an era of shrinking enrollments and declining birth rates.

Egremont resident and community school advocate Susan Bachelder insists the movement to consolidate schools was fueled by a post-war rising baby-boomer population and fewer college graduates trained to be teachers.

The Egremont Village School. Photo: Terry Cowgill
The Egremont Village School. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“Kids who experience the Egremont School, they come out with an extra something created by the environment, the smaller classes,” Bachelder said. “We need to be creating small and supportive communities.”

Between 1930 and 1970, average school size in the United States increased from 87 to 440 and average district size increased from 170 to 2,300 students. During that time, more than 120,000 schools and 100,000 districts were eliminated via consolidation.

Much of the research on small schools vs. larger schools is centered on efficiencies gained by larger districts and greater economies of scale. Many studies have concluded that, in terms of test scores, the best indicator of school achievement is the percentage of students on free- or reduced-price lunch.

“Economic status is the best predictor of test scores,” said New Marlborough resident Susan Engel, who holds a Ph.D. in developmental psychology. “But using test scores as a measure is problematic because many of us don’t think it’s the best measure of success.”

A Harvard and University of Chicago study in 2005 found that while larger districts “were associated with modestly higher returns to education and increased educational attainment in most specifications, any gains from the consolidation of districts were far outweighed by the harmful effects of larger schools.” Those harmful effects include lower wages later in life. And the study also found that African Americans and lower-income students were disproportionately harmed by larger schools.

Susan Engel, Director of the Teaching Program at Williams College. Photo: Terry Cowgill

South County education experts contacted by The Edge agree that there is something special going on at many of the very small schools. But they are not convinced that size and location alone make the difference.

Engel teaches psychology and is director of the Program in Teaching at Williams College and has over the years been heavily involved in both the Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Hills regional school districts.

She sent her oldest son to New Marlborough Central and her middle son to Monterey for kindergarten. Her youngest attended Undermountain and later choiced out to Berkshire Hills, where she eventually served on several hiring committees.

“If I were in charge and we didn’t have enough money, I could see closing those small schools, but only if we could offer those families as good an educational experience,” said Engel, who was a member of the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee from 1993 to 1997.

Engel attended a one-room schoolhouse in eastern Long Island, where she grew up on a potato farm. As she sees it, the superior experience most parents say their kids have in the very small schools has less to do with scale, given that even the bigger school is not very big or far away, and more to do with quality teaching and the right kind of leadership.

Undermountain Elementary School on the Sheffield campus of Mt. Everett Regional High School.
Undermountain Elementary School on the Sheffield campus of Mt. Everett Regional High School.

Many parents speak very highly of New Marlborough Central, which has between 75 and 85 students in grades pre-k to four, and say they prefer it to Undermountain, which has 335 students in grades pre-k to six.

“For various reasons, people felt better about New Marlborough than Undermountain,” said Engel, who emphasized that she has not been connected to either school for 13 years, when her youngest left for Berkshire Hills. “But New Marlborough also had a critical mass of lively teachers who worked well with one another and had the freedom to do interesting and new things.”

Great teachers are often what makes small schools so special. And Engel cites Susan Anderson, the now-retired teacher who led the way at Monterey’s one-room schoolhouse, as an example. A great teacher can make or break a very small school. By that same token, a weak teacher plays an outsized role in a very small school and can do more damage than a subpar teacher at a larger school.

“It’s magnified, though, if the teacher is not so good,” Engel said. “That is the risk.”

Engel, who also served as director of teaching and learning at Berkshire Hills while on sabbatical from Williams, points to Undermountain teacher Eileen Brennan, whom she described as “a brilliant teacher” who created a “one-room atmosphere” in her classroom.

“The real question for Undermountain is, ‘What is it at the one-rooms or NMCS that makes those schools work so well?'” Engel asked. “In the end, what matters is what’s going on inside the building.”

Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon.
Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon.

Peter Dillon, the Berkshire Hills superintendent of schools since 2009, previously worked as policy director for the New York City Board of Education and headed a laboratory school in East Harlem.

“My sense is that people use the research to make arguments both ways,” Dillon said in an interview. “The advantage of small schools are often centered around relationships. The disadvantages are the lack of range of offerings and less specialization.”

Dillon was quick to add, however, that range and specialization are less relevant in the lower grades such as those at Monterey and Egremont: “As they get older and you want to afford them a greater range, being slightly bigger lets you do that. Then you hit a tipping point where you get too big and you can have other problems.”

In 2009, Dillon took over a school district that five years earlier had closed its community schools in Stockbridge, Housatonic and Great Barrington, in favor of a consolidated campus near Monument Mountain Regional High School.

Now he is in the unusual position of presiding over a consolidated campus while also serving, as part of a sharing arrangement, as superintendent of Shaker Mountain School Union #70, a district that includes several small towns in northern and central portions of the county.

One of Shaker Mountain’s schools is Hancock Elementary School, which houses 36 students from pre-kindergarten to grade six.

“That’s very small, but the community made a commitment to that school and invested in it,” Dillon said. “The teachers are very focused on literacy and student writing and they’ve been very successful.”

Dillon worked for the New York City Board of Education at a time when the city was breaking up larger schools, both for better educational outcomes (graduation rates were improved) but also because they were seen as difficult to manage.

Dillon added that “there are outliers in every case.” There are some small schools that have a wide range of offerings, while there are larger schools that are highly personalized through advising and house systems.

And there is the question of social interaction. In a small school, “If you’re on the outs for some reason, it’s really hard to undo that … in a larger school you might be able to travel across multiple circles,” Dillon said.

The Monterey School.
The Monterey School.

Susan Anderson, who taught at the one-room Monterey School for 37 years before retiring in 2010, sings the praises of the tiny schools. She acknowledges that one-room schools are typically “expensive and old,” but says there are “fewer distractions and you have lots of latitude in terms of when to say when.”

At various times during Anderson’s much-admired career at Monterey, there were anywhere between 14 and 28 students in the school. The former number was the approximate size of the student body when Anderson retired almost seven years ago. Enrollment had dwindled to a handful when the School Committee made the decision to defund the school and close it last year.

“If you need to work with people, five- and six-year-olds represent everything that’s good on the planet,” Anderson said in an interview.

She said discipline problems were rare in Monterey, in part because of the young age of the students but also because “it’s impossible to hide.” And she resisted the use of technology while at Monterey.

“I said computers breed social avoidance,” Anderson recalled when administrators asked her about it. “With my own kids, I could come into the house with my hair on fire and no one would look up. It really bothered me.”

Anderson says her choice to eschew electronics “was a conscious decision” and that she “was almost overruled.”

“The tech guy asked me when I was going to retire,” she quipped.

There are some things that these very small schools do well. Their intimacy allows bonds to form easily.

“Not every kid comes to school knowing how to be a friend,” Anderson explained. “That would be harder to learn in a larger school.”

She also points anecdotally to the high level of achievement among her former students. Many have become writers and musicians. Three of her students, for example, were winners in the Edith Wharton Writing Competition a few years ago.

Anderson taught briefly in larger schools in Kansas and in eastern Massachusetts but, for obvious reasons, cherishes her experience at Monterey.

John Hockridge chair of the Berkshire County Education Task Force.
John Hockridge chair of the Berkshire County Education Task Force.

John Hockridge chairs the Berkshire County Education Task Force, a panel formed two years ago to examine problems and recommend solutions to the issue of declining enrollments. Specifically, according to its mission statement, the task force is looking to “create economies of scale (financial savings) through new collaborations, technologies, partnerships, and regional agreements between towns/cities and districts.”

Contrary to a popular belief about the task force’s mission, achieving economies of scale does not necessarily mean closing schools or merging districts, Hockridge says.

“We’re purposely staying out of the local politics and keeping a neutral position,” Hockridge said in an Edge interview. “We’re going to be coming up with some solutions that don’t impact the districts directly in terms of their facilities or having to bus kids long distances.”

Hockridge says there are ways to create regional models “without closing schools or moving kids around, while taking a look at other creative ways to make districts more efficient and increase the quality of educational offerings.”

The task force is about to finish up phase two of its business and release its findings, though Hockridge could not say when they will be released. He mentioned the panel’s June 24 meeting in Dalton meeting as a possibility. More likely it will be later, though, perhaps even in the fall.

Hockridge said the discussions surrounding small schools hinges on the definition of “small.” There are 12 high schools in Berkshire County, which Hockridge characterized as “too many.” There are about 32 elementary schools, with most having enrollments of between 200 and 400.

“For a lot of places in the country those would be considered small, with Monterey and Egremont the smallest by far,” Hockridge said.

Hockridge, a member of the North Adams School Committee, says there might be strong arguments to keep Monterey and Egremont open. Hancock and Savoy elementary schools are also quite small and they survive.

And there is little guidance from the state on the subject. Jackie Reiss, a spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, says the state has not taken a position on the matter.

But state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli has said for years that if school districts don’t consolidate, then the state might force them to do so on the grounds that the state wants efficiencies if it is to continue to fund a large portion of the districts’ operating budgets. If indeed the state twists arms to make consolidation happen, it doesn’t look as if it will happen anytime soon.

“In choosing what size school a community should have, it’s up to that community to weigh people’s preferences about a variety of factors, including the educational program, per pupil costs, and potentially lengthy bus rides,” Reiss said.


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