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Monthly Archives: November 2009
As part of an ongoing series of thoughts inspired by the step back and reflection that is required for the Charter Renewal process, I’m thinking this month about school size.
When I started teaching in 1998, I taught at a school with 1,700 students (built for 800, my colleagues proudly told anyone who would listen). As I’m writing, I just entertained a visitor who attended DeWitt Clinton High School when there were 7,000 attendees. (Wow!) Schools that big rival the sizes of some towns and make us scratch our heads and say, “How can the adults really get to know the kids there?”
We’ve always known, since we started researching and writing our charter in 2003, that getting to know students thoroughly would be a key idea for the success of our school. It became embedded in our model as part of the home-school partnership that is referenced in our name.
We studied a lot of research on school size and class size, and found that with good teaching, and adherence to a strong curriculum, even a larger class size could yield success if teachers are properly skilled and supported. But the data we found was unequivocal about school size: more than 500 students, and you reach a tipping point wherein it becomes difficult for “everyone to know each other.” So we deliberately chose a school size of no more than 500 students (if and when we expand to open a separate middle school), and, initially, no more than 325 students for grades K-5.
Children who are at risk, families that are struggling, and, frankly, all of us who are just trying to get by and succeed in this difficult world, need to know there is a tight web of support behind us. Indeed, parents in our early focused groups talked about making sure no kids “slipped through the cracks.”
Six years later, we don’t need to reference all that research because we have our experience to validate those ideas. Students are not ostracized at our school, and with Collaborative Team Teaching on every grade, special education is simply part of the fabric at our school.
Perhaps most importantly and dramatically, there is a preponderance of adults who do know every child at our school. Our leadership has the privilege, thanks in part to our finally being in one site, of being able to welcome our children and families as they walk in with a handshake, a smile and a “Good morning.”
And this greeting ritual truly is a privilege. Some of our students already have such a firm handshake and a propensity to look one in the eye, it almost makes one want to hire them rather than educate them! For others, their infectious smile is enough to charge the weariest of batteries, and seeing the good-bye kiss of a parent dropping off a child in a school where she knows her child will be safe and cared for, a moment of true affection, is inspiring. Most exciting might be the wait for one particular family to arrive - five siblings and cousins who come bounding up to shake hands and offer smiles like natural politicians – or perhaps for Fernando, a newly minted Linkster in kindergarten, who took to the routine by breaking away from dad’s hand as soon as he entered the schoolyard, running across with a mile-wide smile and his hand outstretched, ready for those handshakes!
These small gestures are the way we officially start our day at Harlem Link. Sure, there is a standards-based reason for teaching with action an element of citizenship, but the message we send, and receive, is that in our school community, everyone matters, everyone is known, and everyone is cared for. And I think that’s enough to put a smile on anyone’s face.