Small Schools Network

SSTA Research Centre Report #95-09: 8 pages, $11.

What is a Small School? Representatives of Saskatchewan school boards have been meeting to share ideas regarding small schools.
As there are many small schools in Saskatchewan facing similar challenges, it is important to share best practice and consider initiatives. The establishment of the Small Schools Network is intended to encourage the development of a support network and to provide leadership in exploring innovations for program delivery.
Meeting the Challenges of Small Schools

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The SSTA Research Centre grants permission to reproduce up to three copies of each report for personal use. Each copy must acknowledge the author and the SSTA Research Centre as the source. A complete and authorized copy of each report is available from the SSTA Research Centre.
The opinions and recommendations expressed in this report are those of the author and may not be in agreement with SSTA officers or trustees, but are offered as being worthy of consideration by those responsible for making decisions.


Lack of clarity regarding 'What is a small school' presents a communication problem as well as a barrier to research and planning.

In Saskatchewan, funding eligibility and policy issues are linked to a school's smallness. Saskatchewan Education, Training and Employment's Foundation Grant Formula includes recognition of an enrollment factor (small school) and a location factor (sparsity) for funding purposes. Small school funding is intended to assist rural school divisions which operate schools with low enrollments per grade. Funding recognition is based on a formula of 20 minus enrollment per grade to a maximum of 10, times a per pupil rate. The location component of the formula provides from 35% of maximum funding recognition to schools that are less than 10 kilometers apart to 100% of maximum funding recognition to schools that are greater than 30 kilometers apart. For the purposes of this Network, Saskatchewan Education, Training and Employment's definition of smallness is not practical or consistent for it is intended for the allocation of funding and varies according to available funding.

While many people assume that small schools are rural schools, it is evident that many Saskatchewan schools are small schools.

In developing a definition of a small school, it is necessary to distinguish between elementary/middle level and secondary level schooling. Maintaining a high quality of education in a small secondary school is a greater challenge than in a small elementary/middle level school. It is possible to establish an effective learning environment in an elementary/middle level school when there are only a few children of the same age.

Small elementary/middle level schools frequently group students in non-traditional ways. SSTA Research Centre Report #93-02 entitled Grouping Students For Instruction provides a research response to the question of "How should students be grouped for instruction?". The findings indicate that students don't necessarily have to be taught all day in a traditional age/grade classroom grouping. While parents often take a negative view of non-traditional classroom groupings, studies consistently show that students in multi-age classes do as well as students in single-grade classes in academic achievement, study habits, social interaction, self-motivation, co-operation and attitudes toward school.

There is tendency for school systems to attempt to maintain a minimum number of students per grade at the secondary level for efficiency of delivery and optimizing the learning environment. Network participants stated that an optimal enrollment for organizing a secondary school does exist. Network participants acknowledged that many small secondary schools may eventually be closed but stressed the importance of recognizing that some small schools will remain open when busing is not a realistic option.

Secondary school size in Saskatchewan was considered in three general categories:

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Educational Opportunity

Participants expressed concern regarding the struggle of small schools to meet provincially defined education expectations. Directions (1984) established high expectations for quality education consistent across the province and recommended the development of alternative delivery mechanisms to ease the difficulty that some schools have in delivering programs and services to their students. The CORE curriculum has established high expectations for course requirements, qualified teachers and special services. The introduction of these new expectations has not been accompanied by corresponding support for program delivery. At the elementary level, curriculum development has failed to acknowledge the reality of small schools and multi-grade classroom settings. At the middle and secondary level, small schools have a limited capacity to offer electives beyond basic academic courses and special education is difficult to support.

Small schools in Saskatchewan do have a proud history of notable success in educating previous generations for successful and productive lives.

Small schools in Saskatchewan still educate a large percentage of our students under challenging conditions. As there will always be many small schools in Saskatchewan, greater attention and support is essential to acknowledge the special circumstance of small schools. Network participants stated that a defined vision of Government support for the future of education in rural areas is desirable.

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A good deal of faith has been placed in the potential of distance education and new technologies to enhance program delivery in small secondary schools. Network participants acknowledged that reliance on technological innovation required more time, resources and leadership than were currently available.

The potential advantages of enhancing program delivery using educational technologies is currently outweighed by the costs of implementation. The effective utilization of educational technologies requires visionary leadership and considerable financial commitment. In addition, technology must be viewed as a consumable resource with a high rate of depreciation.

Increasing reliance on distance education will result in a corresponding loss of local control. Effective development and implementation is believed to require the economies of scale of a larger regional shared service approach. Reliance on distance education may force some small schools to adopt a common provincial timetable.

Many questions remain unresolved:

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Network participants identified the unique context of educational delivery in small schools.

The principal's leadership role is critical and demanding in the small school because of high visibility in the community.

Teachers in small schools face high expectations and often make sacrifices to their own detriment. CORE curriculum implementation has asked teachers in small schools to update too many subjects at one time and the course philosophy and structure is better suited to larger schools. Course development has assumed single grade delivery and is not intended for cross-grade groupings or thematic studies. Alternatives for grouping students for instruction should be explored in research, professional development, and teacher training. New roles for teachers should be explored that utilize computer assisted learning and community resource people.

The Saskatchewan Hutterian Educators' Association 'Curriculum Management Plan' presents a model of potential value to small schools. The Curriculum Management Plan integrates and aligns the objectives of the required areas of study into a teachable program for small schools.

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Participants identified several questions to be addressed regarding busing. Research is required regarding the academic, social and physical affects of busing. How far should students be bused? How much time should students spend on the bus? Is busing safe? What are the alternatives to busing? Is busing the most effective and efficient alternative for children?

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Network participants expressed concerns about school consolidation. Experience has demonstrated that the consolidation of small schools has frequently been used to try and achieve cost savings and to improve the quality of education. These assumptions are questioned. The loss of the school has a significant impact on the future of a community.

Small schools may be very good but the demographics of the school make it a candidate for closure. Participants acknowledged that schools will close, therefore, emphasis must be placed on ensuring a fair process.

Questions regarding bussing distances, assessing the quality of education, and defining 'community' were suggested for further exploration. A good deal more needs to be done to answer questions when closure is immanent, regarding timing, the location of the alternate school, and governance representation.

When the cloud of school closure hangs over a small school it is a limiting force that creates a serious teacher morale issue.

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Participants expressed concerns regarding the uncertainty of educational governance in Saskatchewan. Small schools are caught in the administrative nightmare of waiting for clarification of a future orientated vision for how the delivery of education will be organized in Saskatchewan. Issues regarding school division amalgamation or restructuring and appropriate representation will impact on whether or not many small schools will stay open.

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A new generation of sustainable facilities are emerging that service the whole community. The Battleford School Division is now building a new community school facility at Maymont that integrates a K-12 school with the village office, town library, recreation centre, and arena.

Participants expressed optimism regarding the impact of the integration of services on small schools. Developing partnerships with outside groups to share resources will enhance the viability of many small schools. Areas for partnership exploration included regional libraries, regional colleges, health boards and social services. This Small School Network can serve as a clearinghouse of information regarding best practice and options for consideration.

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Participants stated that the cost differences in educating rural children versus urban children has been well articulated but not satisfactorily addressed. For example, a lower pupil-teacher ratio is a reality in a traditionally structured small school. The grant structure has established an artificial economy that can benefit and also threaten small schools.

There has been a significant shift in the source of educational resources away from the province to the local tax base over the past decade. School board efforts to reduce spending has had a significant impact on small schools. Education funding in Saskatchewan is at a crossroads and there are significant decisions to be made. Decisions must be reached and actions taken concerning several dilemmas:

The Small Schools Network looks forward to further examination and clarification of the issues identified.

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