The Value Of Small Schools, Classes

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - June 17, 2009

The Department of Education locked the doors at Wailupe Valley Elementary School last week. It had to be done. Wailupe Valley’s enrollment had fallen to 75 students, and the cost of educating each of its students was twice that at a school just a mile down the road.

Wailupe El was a victim of three trends in public education, the first older than the 50-year-old school itself.

In the late 1950s, James Bryant Conant - then president of Harvard University - authored a report on public education in the United States. It was a response to the Cold War, namely that Russia teemed with well-educated scientists and engineers who successfully put satellites into orbit, and the United States did not.

Conant lay the blame on underfunded, small, rural schools that had neither the facilities, the mass of students nor the money to provide quality science education: “quality” meaning the ability to vanquish the Russians in space.


Conant’s answer to the problem? Consolidate schools. Eliminate the small, bring in the big. Ultimately, of course, big became massive, and people no longer came to fear super-sized public education. If you don’t believe that, witness Waipahu Elementary or Kapolei High schools.

The second trend belongs to Hawaii alone. Since statehood, nothing has been more predictable in the Islands than rising home prices - at least until recently. And the highest of those rising home prices are to be found in East Honolulu.

Unfortunately for any new public school in Hawaii, the cost of housing dooms it to extinction almost from the day they cut the ribbon at its front door. Home prices will soar in the neighborhood it serves. Thus couples possessed of those wonderful attributes of youth - virility and fertility - will not be able to buy there. They will house-hunt in more affordable places, and their kids will need new schools built for them.

On the final day of tears and laughter at Wailupe (tears from the eyes of gathered alumni, faculty and staff; laughter from the 75 kids who saw a summer’s freedom stretching before them), a parent and alumnus lamented the closing of his alma mater. Citing the family atmosphere of Wailupe El and the opportunities for involvement in extracurricular activities it afforded so many kids, he said, “There’s a need for smaller schools.”

Indeed, there is. A few years ago, minority Republicans included support for smaller schools as part of their legislative package. They - and others - also have championed charter schools throughout the state, the chief virtue of which have been their small size. Now Democrat Barack Obama, Punahou Class of ‘79, has become a champion of charter schools as well.

In education, small is better - significantly better. In undergraduate education, I have long argued the case for small colleges - almost always futilely. In my experience, Island parents and their children will always opt for a big, well-known university over a small, lesser-known college. I remain convinced that they err in doing so.

To further overwork a phrase, a student is far less likely to “fall through the cracks” at a small school. The parents at Wailupe Elementary School knew that, so they cried. Teachers knew their kids. Custodians knew them. Teacher’s aides knew them. And students could not evade the watchful eyes of their fellow students. In a school where class size fell to as low as eight, everyone knows your name.

Were I king of the DOE (now there’s a title), I would not have closed it. I would have brought students from Aina Haina and Hawaii Kai elementary schools to study in Wailupe Valley, lowering the class sizes at those two schools.

Neither would I close any of the other small schools currently threatened with their final school day. I’d put more money into public education - a lot more. I would lower class size, hire more teachers, hire more teachers’ aides and move students in overcrowded schools to those where enrollments has fallen.

Public education in the United States has always played a dual role: first, in teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, but also in assimilating new Americans into the mainstream. Hawaii boasts one of the six largest immigrant school-age populations in the country; thus its schools carry one of nation’s heaviest educational burdens.

The Department of Education needs dedicated teachers, adequate funding, well-maintained facilities and small schools to support the load.

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