It’s disappointing when advocates for low-income students support measures that would seriously harm those very children. But that’s the situation with Care to Learn and the Greater Springfield Center for Diversity and Reconciliation. While no doubt well meaning, those two organizations have endorsed Springfield Public Schools’ proposed $189 million bond issue, a measure that could prove devastating to thousands of this community’s poorest youngsters.
The centerpiece of the building program is $124.3 million earmarked to consolidate eight elementary and middle schools that have some of the city’s highest poverty rates into four K-8 mega-schools. Decades of social science research has showed that low-income children suffer severely in such large schools.
An example is SPS’ Westport K-8, which has been plagued by low academic performance and discipline problems since opening several years ago. The reasons poor children are more likely to thrive in small schools than large ones include: Small schools promote closer pupil-teacher-staff relationships, widely recognized as a critical element in educating poor children; small schools offer low-income children a stronger sense of belonging because they are more likely to be recognized as unique individuals rather than being lost in the mass blob among hundreds of other students; parental involvement is stronger in small schools because many low-income families feel alienated in impersonal large schools; small schools mitigate the effects of poverty in poor areas because people claim ownership of their neighborhood school, which often serves as a community focal point.
I suspect that Care to Learn and the Center for Diversity and Reconciliation fell into the mindset that any additional spending on public schools, for whatever reason, is a good thing, and they weren’t fully aware of the damage mega-schools present to poor children. The willingness, however, of SPS leaders to accept the likely harmful consequences of the bond issue is unconscionable and violates their duty to provide the best possible education for all — not just economically privileged — Springfield children.
Interestingly, the primary advantages researchers give for large schools are that they are easier to manage and cheaper per pupil to operate than small ones. In other words, quality education for low-income kids is sacrificed for the convenience of central office bureaucrats. The brutal truth is that many Springfield schools are educational wastelands for thousands of low-income children who will never acquire the intellectual and social skills to thrive in a 21st century economy. But rather than devote precious tax resources to enhancing teacher quality, renovating a weak curriculum and making other needed reforms to give these kids a chance in life, SPS wants to spend millions of dollars on scholastic warehouses that even SPS officials acknowledge won’t significantly improve student outcomes.
Bigger does not always equal better; as regards schools for low-income children, small is indeed beautiful. Voters should reject the SPS bond measure and demand that the school board draft an alternate measure that addresses legitimate building deficiencies and offers hope to the community’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens.
David Awbrey lives in Springfield.