School size study doesn’t show whole picture

By Kim Kile

Just recently, the Indiana Chamber released a study it had commissioned linking the size of a school corporation to its students’ academic performance. The biggest takeaway from the research indicated that students from the smallest school corporations in Indiana struggle academically at all grade levels in comparison to students from larger school corporations.

According to the study, the “sweet spot” size for a school corporation appears to be between 2,000 and 2,999 students. Interestingly enough, no Hancock County school corporation falls in that student population range according to data listed in the National Center for Education Statistics and only 43 school districts in Indiana hit that mark.

This research report resonated with me on so many different levels. As a counselor, I am always looking for the best ways to support my students and to provide whatever academic advantages I can.

But, as a former student from one of the smallest school corporations in the state, I personally experienced both the good and bad of attending a small school. The youngest of three, I watched my older sister struggle with her transition from a high school class of fewer than 75 seniors to a freshman class of almost 10,000 at Indiana University. Not only was the sheer size of a state school beyond her comprehension, her level of academic preparedness, especially in math, was well below her peers.

She would call in tears and my parents felt helpless. My sister had hit her academic wall when she was away from the people who knew her best and could support her. My parents did what they could from 70 miles away, but all of us felt her frustration about being unprepared. Amazingly enough, though, that experience made her a stronger person and better student. And, it is that type of success story that the study didn’t capture.

The study also didn’t take into consideration the intangibles a small school has to offer; a complete sense of belonging, a feeling of community, and the knowledge that the school is a second family. I had all of those experiences and feelings while I was a student at my small school and I see that now with my friends whose children attend schools like Eastern Hancock or Knightstown.

One of my favorite educational sayings is, “They don’t care what you know until they know you care.” Smaller schools do that well, and the relationships they develop with their students can certainly help a student overcome some learning difficulties.

On the flip side, a student who hasn’t had the opportunity to experience academic rigor or competition at a level comparable to college may experience a rude awakening like my sister did. I watched her struggle and decided I wanted to be better prepared for my next step so I became an out-of-district transfer to the larger city school in my county.

I met my academic wall sooner but learned how to break through it with the direct support of my high school teachers and my parents. I gave up my tight-knit school family for academic rigor and that was the right choice for me. For some, however, giving up academic rigor for a school family serves them just as well and, I believe, is what the Indiana Chamber study didn’t say.

Kim Kile is the director of school counseling at Greenfield-Central High School.
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