Letter | Improved learning not just dependent on school size
March 29, 2012 · 12:27 PM
Dear Mercer Island Community,
This letter is written outside of my capacity as a principal and employee of the Mercer Island School District. My sentiments below derive from my experience as an educator and citizen, but equally importantly, they are my beliefs as a parent.
Let me begin by disclosing that I do not live on Mercer Island nor do my children attend school in the Mercer Island School District. (My wife and I would love for our kids to attend any of the three MISD elementary schools; we just do not want them to have to be “the principal’s kid!”) Since my taxes are not at stake, some readers may conclude that it is easy for me to support the bond and urge the citizens on Mercer Island to vote yes. Actually, I will be voting yes in April. I will be voting yes for the Issaquah School District Bond because a yes vote will replace my children’s 1950’s school, will attract innovative teachers, will inspire the current staff and will equalize the educational learning environment with the surrounding Sammamish Plateau schools. With that said, my wife and I do not need our kids to attend a new school simply to “keep up with the Jones.'” We just know what opportunities and enthusiasm come with a new school. The experience will enrich our kids’ lives.
Like some residents here on Mercer Island, I have neighbors in Issaquah who will not support the school bond simply because of the tax implications. If this is your fundamental issue with the initiative then I respect your values. However, I would like to address those who oppose the current bond on the premise that it is the wrong solution or that the proposed plan is flawed.
My first principalship was in a suburban elementary school south of Denver, Colorado. Like the schools on Mercer Island, we ranked in the top 8 percent in the state, thrived in part because of the tremendous support by parents and benefited from high expectations by all. The notable difference, we had a student enrollment of 850 K-6 students (250 more than the current Lakeridge population). Was leading a school of that size desirable or ideal? No. However, we still delivered a terrific experience for kids in a building constructed in 1999, not 1954.
I admit, a school size of about 450 or 500 sounds great and sounded even better back when I had 850 students. However, operating schools with this enrollment comes with costs to other programs. Our state and local funding, otherwise known as the per pupil allocation, simply does not afford us the luxury to finance all of the current programs across the district AND operate four elementary schools with under 500 kids. The opportunity cost of doing so would come at the expense of something else for kids. The benefits of small schools do not outweigh the loss of instructional and co-curricular activities.
Given the constraints just mentioned, I would rather endure the challenges of leading a school of 650 than one with 500 provided that the infrastructure makes this feasible. When enrollment begins to dip below 500 a school often feels the unforeseen consequences of its size because revenue is based entirely on the kids. Even a small school on Mercer Island would not generate the financial allocation to fund full-time psychologists, counselors or specialist teachers. A child could be in crisis on Tuesday afternoon, but the counselor might only work Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, leaving other staff with the obvious obligation to stop their assigned responsibility to help. Similarly, the potential scheduling improvements offered by small schools are nullified by the limitations of working around fractional assignments for our P.E., music and other specials teachers. Given the realities of school funding, these are just two small illustrations of the shortcomings we might encounter should we conclude that four small elementary schools are more desirable than three.
In my experience, the sweet spot for efficiency is between 550 and 650 students. In fact, we achieved this at my last school in Colorado when our enrollment dropped to 615 after a new school was built to relieve ours. Enrollment at this level provides a solid base for PTA initiatives, offers a large pool for volunteering, more adequately funds programs and staff, and still promotes a sense of community for the kids. As the population increases and decreases across decades, the question is how to utilize the current space at each of the three schools not whether or not to close a school completely.
School size aside, I just want the kids on Mercer Island to engage in schools that reflect the world they now confront. During eight years as an educator in my last district I saw fourteen elementary, four middle and four high schools intentionally designed to meet the needs of our kids today. Changes in building architecture and functionality from the schools built circa 1999 to the ones erected in 2009 (10 years) were stunning. Now imagine the disparities between a remodeled 1950s school and a 2012, 21st Century learning community. Coming to Mercer Island has been an incredibly fulfilling professional adventure, and I have absolutely no plans to leave regardless of the decision on April 17. However, when I think about those schools in Colorado or in my Issaquah neighborhood (my children’s school not withstanding), I cannot help but dream about bringing the same to your kids and this great school district.
Principal, Lakeridge Elementary School