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Education on a human scale:
Small rural schools in a modern
Mike Corbett, Acadia University
Dennis Mulcahy, Memorial University
Education on a human scale:
Small rural schools in a modern
Mike Corbett
School of Education
Acadia University
Dennis Mulcahy
Faculty of Education
Memorial University of Newfoundland
A report prepared for the Municipality of Cumberland County
Research Report 061 – Acadia Centre for Rural Education
© 2006
Table of Contents
Table of contents ……………………………………………... 4
Acknowledgements …………………………………………… 6
Part A Documentary analysis
Chapter 1 Introduction and methodology ………………………………… 8
Chapter 2 The Policy Context ……………………………………………. 18
Chapter 3 The Value and Viability of Small Rural Schools ……………… 30
Part B Analysis of data from two small rural schools
Introduction to Part B …………………………………………... 64
Chapter 4 River Hebert District High School ……………………………… 66
Chapter 5 Wentworth Consolidated Elementary School …………………... 97
Chapter 6 Conclusion ………………………………………………………. 127
References ……………………………………………………… 137
Appendices ..……………………………………………………. 152
The principal researchers in this project would like to thank the Municipality of
Cumberland for providing us with an opportunity to do a study we have both wanted to
do for a long time. Investigating the viability of small schools takes considerable time,
energy and commitment and it is the kind of project that too few decision-makers are
committed to seeing through.
Next we would like to acknowledge the people of Wentworth and River Hebert and
surrounding areas who participated so graciously in our project. We are, after all, another
group poking around in their schools and in their lives, asking them to justify themselves.
Through our research we came to understand why these citizens so want to keep their
schools alive. We also learned about the relentless and painful treadmill of the school
closure process in small communities, a process we think needs to change.
It is difficult for community members who lack resources and expertise to do the work of
defending their schools. Yet they do, in the face of being branded as nostalgic opponents
of change and even of time itself. Even when citizens successfully defend their schools,
the closure question is inevitably waiting around the corner for another year. People
grow tired. They give up. Time eventually destroys many rural schools, not because
these schools are ineffective or because there is something fundamentally better about
bigger, centralized schools. Time wins because those who hold power know that if they
push long and hard enough, people will cave in. As a result, many excellent small schools
pass into history before their time, in many ways taking communities with them. When
schools close and children are bussed up the road, families reorient their lives and find
themselves spending more and more time driving to centralized activities away from
Finally, this work could not have been accomplished within our very tight time-frame
without the support of a great research team.
Audrey Oldershaw, Research assistant, Acadia University (focus groups, policy
and qualitative analysis, editorial assistance)
Derrick McEachern, Graduate student assistant (focus groups)
Stephanie Nagy, Undergraduate student assistant (quantitative data analysis)
Jacinda McEachern, Research assistant (telephone interviewing)
Matt Arsenault, Research assistant (telephone interviewing)
Erica Strowbridge, Research assistant (telephone interviewing)
Deanna Martell, Research assistant (telephone interviewing)
Mike Corbett
Dennis Mulcahy
17 March 2006
Part A
Documentary Analysis
Chapter One
Introduction and methodology
Opening words
There are some who cling, stubbornly, to the outdated view that bigger schools are
necessarily better schools. Despite the fact that there is no research evidence to support
this view, well meaning but misguided and ill-informed policy makers continue to pursue
the closure and consolidation of small neighborhood and community schools. They
pursue this agenda apparently unaware that the educational community has moved on
from this mid-twentieth view to embrace the educational opportunities available to
students in small schools. Despite paying lip-service to “evidence based decision
making,” some educational leaders seemingly ignore the growing body of evidence that
clearly indicate that smaller schools are to be preferred over larger ones. One has to
wonder if these folks can read!
As just one indication of how the rest of the world has moved on from the old way of
thinking about schools, one has only to look to the small schools initiatives sponsored by
the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The executive director of the education division
of that foundation, Tom Vander Ark (2006), insists that,
Creating smaller, more personalized learning environments where every
student is held to high expectations works. Students stay in school, are
more motivated and achieve at higher levels.
Parents whose children currently attend small schools do not need scholars or billionaires
to tell them they have a good thing going and that they should fight to preserve it. They
know intuitively that small schools situated close to home are the best educational sites
for their children’s education. They do not need research evidence to convince them.
They know it because they feel it and they experience the benefits on a daily basis. They
do not need research to tell them that closing their school and bussing their children down
the road to a distant school will not be a good experience for most of them. They know
their children as human beings and know that such an experience may be harmful and
hurtful for many of them. They can imagine the difficulties bussing may create for
students and their families; they can imagine the negative impact on the community; they
can imagine the potential deleterious effects on their children’s education and their ability
to participate fully in the life of the school.
Apparently, some policy makers lack this capacity to imagine and think through the
consequences; but, then, they are not making decisions about their own children’s lives
and futures. It is not their children who will have to ride the bus. It is not their children
and youth that will have to forfeit viable small schools and transfer to larger schools.
In the past, parents and other members of the community had to confront the attack on
their community schools with little more than strong feelings and emotions. Today, we
have an ever increasing literature on small schools that lends very strong support to their
efforts to maintain their school in the community. Scholars and researchers have provided
rural parents with irrefutable evidence to back up what they have known and felt all along
about the value and academic viability of small community schools.
In a report entitled “Small School Might” the Northwest Regional Educational
Laboratory (2002) Kathleen Cotton reported that all over the country “staff members at
large schools are making their institutions smaller and more friendly, [so that] students
feel less alienated and teachers more empowered.” The reasons they are do that is:
In small-school environments, the studies show, all students—whatever
their ethnicity or place on the socioeconomic ladder—tend to achieve at
higher levels, have a greater sense of belonging, feel safer, are less likely
to drop out, and are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities
and go on to college. Furthermore, parent involvement is higher in smaller
schools, as is teachers' job satisfaction.
“In smaller groups,” writes Cotton (2002) “students can feel more integral, and teachers
can get to know students as individuals: what interests them, how well they understand an
idea, what particular challenges they face, what their gifts are, and how they best learn.”
We have been asked by the Municipality of the County of Cumberland to investigate
viability of two schools slated for closure by the Chignecto-Central Regional School
Board: Wentworth Consolidated Elementary Schools and River Hebert District High
School. To accomplish this task we have conducted a thorough review of the relevant
literature, analyzed various policy documents related to rural policy and rural
development and conducted our own study into the educational effectiveness of the two
schools under scrutiny.
The results these investigations are presented in this report. Based on the evidence that
we have compiled we can say without reservation that these two schools are both viable
and very valuable educational institutions. They serve the children and their communities
very well. In our considered view it would be a grave error to close these schools now or
at any point in the future. To do so would be a backward step which is totally out of
synch with the best current thinking in education in North America. It may even
jeopardize the potential for success of many schools currently attending Wentworth and
River Hebert.
In many places in Canada and the United States parents and educators are trying to get
back to and re-create the scale of schooling that current exists in many parts of rural Nova
Scotia. They are doing this because there is an overwhelming consensus that smaller
schools work better than larger ones at a number of levels.
Noted scholar and educator Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University’s School
Re-Design Network provides a compelling overview of current educational thinking in
North American on the smaller versus larger school debate:
There is a growing consensus that schools must change in fundamental
ways if they are to accomplish the goals we now have for them: teaching
our very diverse student population for higher order thinking and deep
understanding. The system we work in today was invented nearly 100
years ago for another time and another mission - the processing of large
numbers of students for rote skills and the education of only a few for
knowledge work. It was never designed to teach all children to high levels.
Caring and dedicated teachers, administrators, and parents work hard
every day within this system to educate our children for more ambitious
thinking and performance skills - and yet their efforts are often stymied by
outmoded institutional structures, most notably the large, impersonal,
factory-model school (Darling Hammond, 2006).
A growing number of educators and policymakers believe that existing assembly-line
schools that inhibit our students' and teachers' potential need to be replaced by smaller
schools which are better designed to support teaching and learning. And we have
evidence that small schools are indeed better for our children: All else equal, they
produce higher achievement, lower dropout rates, greater attachment, and more
participation in the curricular and extracurricular activities that prepare students for
productive lives. There is real potential for the current small schools movement to
transform the educational landscape in America [and Canada] for the better.
The challenge for those who continue to advocate the closure of small community
schools such as Wentworth and River Hebert is to produce the evidence that such
closures will benefit the children of those schools. Where is the evidence that larger
schools are better for children? Furthermore, it is incumbent on those who wish to
eliminate community based school to show why the people of Cumberland County
should embrace an outmoded institutional structure, when rest of North American is
trying to create what they already have. This makes no sense.
Darling Hammond concludes her remarks by warning parents and educators that “The
process of creating better schools is hard work. There is no progress without struggle.”
She advises that those engaged in the struggle remember the words that Langston Hughes
used to describe our collective quest to build a better world: “Keep your hand to the
plough. Hold on.”
For the parents and educators of rural Nova Scotia who are struggling to keep the better
schools they already have and create a better world for their children we say: “Keep your
hand to the plough. Hold on.”
In this chapter we explain the methodology employed in the small rural schools project.
Here we outline the specific methods of inquiry used to answer the fundamental
questions driving the research. This study sets out to answer four core questions:
1. What are the commonalities amongst various levels of government regarding rural
communities and sustainability policy issues?
2. What are the goals of education according to the Public School Program?
3. What is the evidence that small rural schools are structurally adequate for
achieving these goals?
4. Are the particular schools slated for closure meeting these goals?
To answer these questions we employ several specific research techniques including
documentary policy analysis, a literature review of the viability of small rural schools,
focus groups, interviews and a survey questionnaire. Our overall methodological
position is that it is difficult to address a complex problem like the achievement of the
broad goals of the Public School Program without utilizing a variety of research methods.
We combine qualitative and quantitative analysis with the methods of documentary
analysis to investigate the broad questions of the research from a number of perspectives.
We believe that the important data and analysis that can be garnered from surveys and
other forms of social research that involve qualitative analysis must be enriched by a
focus on the understandings and voices of the multiple stakeholders in the process. In
academic circles this form of research is multi-method or triangulated (Denzin, 2003)
research and at this point it is considered to be the richest methodological form available
for this kind of study.
At this point we will articulate a description of each research task involved in our
Policy Analysis
The first two questions are handled in Chapter 2 which is an examination of the
contemporary policy context in Canada and specifically in Nova Scotia. Our approach
has been to examine what various levels of government have been saying about rural
communities and about the institutions that are crucial to the sustainability of these
communities. Obviously, community schools are key institutions in all communities.
The broad purpose of Chapter 2 is to present evidence of a growing policy convergence
around rural communities and issues of sustainability which clearly include education.
Our analysis of the policy context investigates both the policy statements of
governmental bodies whose responsibility includes the communities of rural Nova Scotia,
as well as the general policy, restructuring and changes in governance that have marked
the last decade and a half in most Canadian provinces. These changes have resulted in
amalgamations and consolidations of health care and school governance structures and
have been a part of a larger process of restructuring that was precipitated by cuts to social
programs instituted in the 1980s and 1990s. More recently, the challenge for “have-not”
provinces like the provinces of Atlantic Canada and for municipal units and school
boards has been to try and maintain an adequate level of services with diminished funds.
Another recent challenge has been to rethink rural development in a way that recognizes
and respects the diversity of Canada’s rural communities, the fact that many of them will
not disappear any time soon and that the people living in rural Canada must be consulted
in governance issues because they know their specific communities best.
This policy analysis is undertaken of the basis of an analysis of documents from relevant
governmental bodies beginning with the Canadian federal government, and moving on
through the provincial government of Nova Scotia, the Municipality of the County of
Cumberland, and the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board. Here we pay particular
attention to broad policy statements contained in mission and vision statements that frame
the way that each level of government understands rural communities, rural development,
rural sustainability and the place of education for rural communities generally.
The second question above concerns the broad goals of the Public School Program (PSP)
of the Province of Nova Scotia. The PSP outlines in broad terms the kind of education
the province’s children and youth ought to receive. This document articulates a clear
vision of a modern school system which balances inclusiveness, academic breadth,
cultural and physical engagement, and a wide ranging focus on the preparation of young
people for active citizenship, caring for themselves and others and for a positive
orientation to critical problem-solving and lifelong learning. Focusing specifically on the
opening sections of the PSP, we frame the broad goals in the context of both those
students whose life trajectories take them into the various pathways available to youth
today: i.e. post-secondary education, workforce participation, geographic mobility for
education, employment and opportunity, and remaining in and around one’s home
community to make a life and a living there.
Our analysis of the PSP is also used in this research to inform the construction of focus
group questions and specific items for the survey schedules we describe below.
Analysis of the viability of small rural schools
In this section of the report we report on an extensive literature review conducted into the
question of the viability of small rural schools. This literature relies, for the most part on
standard scholarly sources. In the literature review we attend specifically to the question
as to whether or not there is some structural reason as to why small rural schools cannot
provide children with a modern education or meet the broad goals and curriculum
outcomes of the Public School Program of the province of Nova Scotia. We also address
the corollary question concerning whether or not academic achievement is compromised
in small rural schools. In other words, we address head-on the contention that more
program offerings equal a higher quality of education.
Once upon a time rural parents and educators were more or less alone in their struggle
with governments and school boards to maintain their small community schools.
Educational authorities and policy makers seemed united in their view that bigger schools
were better schools. If parents truly cared about their children and their education, they
would agree to close their small schools and have their children bussed down the road to
larger schools in distant community. It was assumed that the “authorities knew best” and
they only wanted was best for the children.
For the most part parents trusted the authorities and went along with the closure and
consolidation plans. Yet, in their hearts they knew something was wrong with what they
were being told. They knew that their community schools were good schools; they knew
that the children benefited in many ways by having their schools situated close to home.
But those in authority consistently said otherwise. And in the absence of evidence to the
contrary, the authorities had the power to impose their views.
That was then; this is now. Over the past thirty years there has developed a considerable
body of evidence and a set of informed perspectives that confirm what rural parents and
known and felt all alone. In Chapter 3 of this report we present the evidence that supports
the viability and value of small rural schools such as River Herbert and Wentworth. We
have conducted and extensive review of the literature that pertains to small schools and
we provide an overview of what that literature has to say about small community schools
That review has been informed and guided by extensive knowledge and experience in
rural education studies.
If we are truly in an age of “evidence based decision making” then our literature review
will demonstrate unequivocally that research and scholarly opinion supports maintaining
and developing small schools such as River Herbert and Wentworth. Small schools are
both viable and valuable sites for quality education. Joan Mc Robbie (2001) poses the
question “Are small schools better?” in a policy brief published by the WestEd a policy
group funded by the U.S Department of education. After reviewing the evidence she
states “From the perspectives of both safety and academics, new studies and experience
from the 1990s have strengthened an already notable consensus on school size: smaller is
better.” She concludes:
Small schools are not a panacea, but they may be a key ingredient of a
comprehensive approach to student success. Especially for high schools,
which often seem impervious to change, small size is increasingly
becoming part of any serious reform effort. Attention to size may be
particularly important in turning around low performance and giving
poor and minority students the extra boost that a community of caring,
competence, and high expectations offers. Finally, a more-human scale is
a potent antidote to student alienation. While impersonal bigness may
actually provoke disruptive or violent behavior, small schools conducive
to trust and respect tend to defuse it (McRobbie, 2001)
We challenge those who would advocate the destruction of community based school to
produce the evidence that shows this is a good thing.
The performance of RHDH and WCES
The final and perhaps most crucial part of our research from the point of view of the
Chignecto-Central Regional School Board’s decision-making process is an analysis of the
two schools presently under study for closure. There are a lot of myths about the
measurement of educational performance. It has become fashionable for lobby groups to
rank schools in league table fashion. In some jurisdictions educational authorities and
various levels of government actually participate in school ratings and rankings. In Nova
Scotia, at the present time the Department of Education does only a limited number of
standardized tests and so it is difficult for lobby groups attempting to produce league
tables that are actually formulated on the basis of testing data. So one myth is that the
data currently exist from which can be assembled a simplistic yet valid numerical ranking
of schools. They do not. The consequence in Atlantic Canada is the rather bizarre high
school ranking efforts of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (Audas and Curtwill,
2006) that imagines education as a marketplace the same as any other. It is not and the
data which might make it appear so in Nova Scotia simply do not exist (Corbett, 2004).
A second myth is that educational performance is standard can be measured
unproblematically. In other words, many people believe that a body of core educational
content can and should be encapsulated in test which has only right and wrong answers
(typically in the form of multiple choice questions). On the basis of this faulty and
unsupported premise, it is easy to jump to the equally faulty conclusion that a simple
compilation of “right” answers accurately measures learning. The goals of the PSP and
he structure of a modern curriculum is much more ambitious than having students learn
to fill in the right circles on standardized multiple choice tests. What is actually
demanded of schools is that they produce capable, literate, caring, engaged life-long
learners, not test taking robots. The central idea here is that school ought to be
preparation for full participation in a rich community life and satisfying employment, be
it close to a child’s home or anywhere in the world. Such ambitious educational goals
are not easily measured.
In this report we operate from the assumption that the only way to actually measure such
broad educational outcome is to actually talk with people who have finished their public
school experience. In our Life Outcomes Survey we asked a strong sample of graduates
of RHDH and young adults who attended WCES for their elementary schooling. In this
survey, based upon our reading of the broad goals of the PSP, we attempt to answer the
question: are students leaving RHDH and WCES acquiring the skills and attitudes as
prescribed by the Department of Education of the province of Nova Scotia. To answer
this level of question we have employed four basic research techniques including the Life
Outcomes Survey.
Our first technique has been a series of informal interviews and observations with school
personnel and community members who consider themselves to be stakeholders in the
life and fate of the schools. We have spoken to teachers, parents, students, grandparents,
and business people in the course of this research which included site visits to each of the
schools. Following these interviews and observations field notes were constructed by the
research team and analyzed using standard qualitative research methods.
Our second technique was to conduct a series of three community focus groups, two in
River Hebert and one in Wentworth. All teachers at the two schools participated in focus
groups. The community-based focus group participants were selected on the basis of an
availability sample. Parents, grandparents and other interested community members were
notified of the date and time of the meeting and invited to join the conversation. In the
case of the Wentworth focus group, parents and teachers were combined in a single
discussion. In River Hebert, separate focus groups were conducted for parents and for
the school staff. Guiding questions for the focus groups are included in Appendix A. In
River Hebert a total of twenty-three people participated in focus groups. In Wentworth
there were fourteen participants.
Our third technique was an online focus group conducted with a group of 8 current high
school students at River Hebert District High School. This group was composed on the
basis of an availability sample organized by one of the high school students. Members of
this focus group “met” online in a discussion group and responded to a series of 5
questions and engaged in dialogue around the issues that arose from the questions.
Online focus groups are an emerging research methodology (Markham, 2005; Denzin,
2003) which, given the nature of contemporary computer mediated communication, is a
very powerful tool both for research as well as for activists working to promote rural
education. Indeed, the facility with which this discussion group was formed and
functioned in a very short time frame is in itself strong testimony to the potential of
computer mediated learning in small rural schools.
Focus groups were recorded and transcribed for the purpose of analysis. Data from all
focus groups were analyzed using Atlas ti qualitative analysis software on the basis of
standard qualitative research procedures (Spradley, 1979).
Our final research technique was a ten-year Life Outcomes Survey of a sample of
graduates or River Hebert District High School and a similar survey of students who left
WCES. The survey instruments used can be found in Appendix B
The total numbers in the target population were 300 for River Hebert and 92 for
Wentworth. In the River Hebert survey we selected a random sample of 21% of the
students in the five most recent graduating classes, the classes of (N=63). The research
team started the process with lists of students who graduated from RHDH between 1995
and 2005. Given that this study seeks to investigate the life and educational outcomes of
the most recent graduates of RHDH, i.e. students who graduated under similar conditions
to those with presently exist in the school, the sample is slightly weighted toward the
younger graduates who left RHDH between 2000 and 2005 (N=44).
Table 1-M RHDH Life Outcomes Survey Sample
From the Wentworth population we sampled from those people who left grade 6 at
WCES between 1991 and 2005. The total sample size is 101 students, of which we were
unable to acquire contact information for 28 making a total available sample of 73.
Given that some families had more than one child, the total number of families in the
sample was 48. We attempted to interview each of these families about the experience of
their eldest child in the target population. We were able to complete 40 interviews. We
chose these particular temporal parameters in order to Given that the Wentworth students
left grade 6 and not grade 12, we focused on those students who left the elementary
school between 1991 and 2000 (N=37). This represents young people between 18 and 27
years of age which is approximately equivalent to the young graduates we surveyed in
River Hebert.
Frequency Percent
1995 5 7.9
1996 3 4.8
1997 3 4.8
1998 4 6.3
1999 4 6.3
2000 6 9.5
2001 4 6.3
2002 7 11.1
2003 8 12.7
2004 10 15.9
2005 9 14.3
Total 63 100.0
Table 2-M WCES Life Outcomes Survey Sample
Frequency Percent
1991 6 15.0
1992 4 10.0
1993 5 12.5
1994 4 10.0
1995 5 12.5
1996 3 7.5
1997 3 7.5
1998 3 5.0
1999 4 10.0
2000 1 2.5
2002 1 2.5
2004 1 2.5
2005 1 2.5
Total 40 100.0
These surveys were conducted by telephone between February 9 and March 2, 2006.
Through the use of a variety of both qualitative and quantitative research methods we
have attempted to answer the research questions both in a relatively objective way using
standard statistical techniques as well as using interview methods. This report combines
documentary policy analysis, qualitative and qualitative analysis grounded in the research
literature to provide a multifaceted examination of the study questions.
Throughout the report we make connections between the policy direction we find in key
documents and statements, the consensus in the scholarly literature and our research
findings. While we quantify and analyze available statistical data and our own survey
data we have also taken pains to use the words of participants in interviews and focus
groups to illustrate the human dimensions of both school closure as an important
community problem and the problem of measuring the broad goals of Nova Scotia’s
ambitious Public School Programs document. It is our contention however, that in a
democracy, what people say about their own lives, their competence and how their
educations have turned out are the best measure we have of whether or not the public
schools of the province or of these communities are doing a good job. The real test of an
education is life. In this project we have asked people about their lives in the context of
the broad goals of the Nova Scotia Public School Program. Recent graduates of these
two small rural schools have passed this test, with flying colors.
Chapter 2
The policy context
Many rural educators have argued that the unique nature of small rural
schools should be protected from the current national pressure to
consolidate. They have a point. Academic achievement is influenced by
the interaction of both school size and poverty level. Small schools can
reduce poverty’s negative effects on achievement …Ironically, the recent
trend to create schools within schools in many large school districts
affirms the importance of small, intimate learning relationships such as
those that existed previously in rural schools that have been forced to close
(Truscott and Truscott, 2005: 126).
Rural people generally appreciate the familiarity of place, land and kin
associate with sparse population or small towns. Maintaining good rural
schools and communities means recognizing that being small can be a
virtue and needs to be cultivated as such. Unfortunately, such recognition
is still not widespread (Howley and Eckman, 1997: 1).
As the CCRSB works toward making its decision about the fate of River Hebert District
High School and Wentworth Consolidated Elementary School, it is important that it bear
in mind the general policy direction taken by various government bodies. We call this
the policy context and in this chapter we refer to the kind of global vision for rural
communities and for rural schooling articulated by various levels of government. Indeed,
this includes the CCRSB’s own policy statements about educational delivery in the
communities under its jurisdiction.
In this section we will discuss the congruence of the overall policy course with respect to
rural education and rural community sustainability more generally. To do this we will
analyze the policy direction taken by various levels of government in published policy
documents and public statements. When we speak of congruence we are referring
specifically to the general idea that various levels of government are taking seriously both
community development in rural areas and associated questions concerning education
that follow from a vision of sustainable rural communities.
We will begin at the federal level and a more general discussion of rural policy discourse.
Following this analysis, we move to the provincial level focusing more directly on
education and policy directions taken by the Nova Scotia Department of Education.
From there we discuss the values articulated in the strategic planning policy framework
of the Municipality of Cumberland County which returns us to a broad discussion of the
ideas of rural development and community sustainability. We conclude this section with
a discussion of the mission statement of the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board
which returns our analysis directly to the question of educational service delivery in rural
Federal Government
For many years, policy discourse around Canada’s rural communities was framed in
terms of large-scale, blanket solutions to the problem of rural development and
institutional service delivery. This policy direction can be traced back at least to the
Second World War and the rural industrialization directives of the four decades that
followed. In a sense, it was thought that the “rural problem” (Cubberley, 1922) would be
solved by history as industrialization and urbanization eventually rendered small rural
communities redundant. Industry and population would concentrate in metropolitan
growth centres and the traditional forms of rural employment and economic activity
would be transformed by mechanization, concentration and corporatism. Small farms
and small boats would be bought out by larger interests and people would move to the
cities and large towns. Policy thinking in this context was geared toward putting in place
the institutional mechanisms to ease the transition of people and economic activity from
country to city.
There is no denying that this general scenario has played out in many parts of Canada to a
considerable degree. Canada as a whole is more urban than the United States and in
terms of standard demographic measures only about 20% of Canadians lives in rural
settings. However, by the 1960s and 70s demographers began to notice that some rural
areas were actually experiencing growth and that some urban-adjacent rural areas were
actually growing faster than almost any other part of the country. In a sense the
population seemed to be shifting out of the cities. Additionally, it has become apparent
that some parts of Canada have remained predominantly rural. Large parts of Nova
Scotia serve as an excellent example. Using Statistics Canada’s definition of rurality,
four of Nova Scotia’s six health care regions were at least 59% rural in the 2001 census.
The Rural Communities Impacting Policy Group (2003) make the point that with the
exception of Halifax, industrial Cape Breton and a handful of towns, Nova Scotia is
actually between 65 and 75% rural.
Suffice it to say that rural communities have not faded into the mist, nor does it appear
that they ever will. By the 1990s the federal government began to change its thinking
about rurality away from the idea that rural communities and people are in transition to
modernity and an urban future, to a view that recognizes the importance of rural
communities to the economic and social fabric of the country. The following quote from
the federal Ministry of Agriculture and Agrifoods illustrates:
Many rural and remote communities have been built on other natural
resource and primary sector activities, such as forestry, fishing, mining
and energy, hunting and trapping. These sectors are major contributors to
the national economy through resource extraction and value-added
processing. Strong rural communities form much of the social fabric of the
country and provide a solid foundation for all of Canada. For some time
the federal government has been funding a number of agencies and
umbrella groups designed to support rural communities. These
organizations include the Canadian Rural Secretariat, The Canadian
Rural Partnership, The Advisory Committee on Rural Issues. (Ministry of
Agriculture and Agrifoods Canada)
In its 2004 report the Minister’s Advisory Committee on Rural Issues cites Bruno Jean,
Canada Research Chair in rural studies at the University of Quebec at Rimouski who
defines ten conditions necessary for sustainable rural development
Mobilization of social capital
Support for local capacity building
The ability to earn income
An educated and healthy population
Institutions that support economic and social initiatives of the rural
Awareness that we can learn from rural communities
Protection of the social diversity to which rural communities contribute
Action to foster a sustainable approach to rural development
Awareness of the multifunctional nature of the new rural economy
Support for the emergence of a new type of grassroots rural governance
Action to make rural-urban interdependence intelligible
Implementation of an appropriate public policy
What is instructive about this list is that current thinking about rural communities and the
governance of rural communities has moved on from the traditional idea that rural places
need to be shown how to transform themselves into modern places. The old idea that
rural is backward, marginal and disappearing and that urban places are modern, central
and the communities of the future has been replaced over the last twenty years as rural
development thinking has begun to understand that rural communities are not the
opposite of modern. Rural communities are being transformed by the same global
economic and social forces that are transforming urban and suburban communities in
Canada. Rural communities are no longer seen as broken places that need to be fixed or
formerly functional communities that need to be cleared of excess people (Matthews,
Federal policy discourse is now marked by a distinct understanding that rural
communities have survived on the basis of deep local knowledge and a powerful
attachment to place which is strengthened by well-supported local institutions. The
upshot is that it is now understood that governance is more productively understood as
learning from rural people. After generations of paternalism and mismanagement, it is
now generally accepted that in many (if not most) ways rural people understand their
contexts, problems, challenges better than anyone else. Residents of rural communities
have often worked very long and hard to establish community-based institutions and
organizations like schools and small hospitals that are actually very well attuned not only
to local circumstances, but also to larger global forces as well. After generations of mega
projects, resettlement initiatives, and make-work schemes, the new policy orientation is
to listen to rural people and to attempt to engage them as much as possible in issues of
governance, development and institutional delivery. There is a growing understanding in
policy circles that rural people are in the best position to understand how to develop and
sustain their communities because they are the people who have been doing exactly that
for years anyhow, often in the face of downsizing, downloading, institution-stripping and
other destabilizing trends.
Today it is also well understood in rural policy discourse that generic solutions and
programs are typically not appropriate in rural contexts given the diversity and
particularity of rural communities. Blanket solutions or solutions that are designed to
meet the needs of all rural communities have tended to miss the mark. Rather, locally
developed literacy and adult educational initiatives and other grass-roots projects have
emerged within rural communities to engage citizens in the kind of education, training
and economic and social development work that seeks to build on existing capacity, to
strengthen social capital and to help people define and develop the new skills they need
to build community.
The federal government is firmly committed to building strong rural communities that
maintain an infrastructure necessary for sustainability, a reasonable level of services in a
contemporary society and an acceptable standard of living. A concept called the “rural
lens” is one way that the Canadian government is attempting to achieve these ends by
working to understand the diversity of rural Canada and to understand how the deep local
knowledge of rural people can be utilized to design relevant policy and governance
(Rural Secretariat, 2004 The concept of the rural
lens marks a recognition on the part of the federal government that the perspective of
rural dwellers is essential if rural development policy is to be effective. The rural lens is
introduced on the web page of the Canadian Rural Secretariat this way:
What is the Rural Lens? It is a way of viewing issues through the eyes of
Canadians living in rural and remote areas. Federal departments and
agencies are increasingly aware of the effects of their policies, programs
and services on rural Canada. Consequently, when considering future
initiatives, decision makers are making a concerted effort to understand
the impact of new policies and programs on rural Canada.
This quote illustrates how policy thinking is opening up to the perspective of rural
citizens. This also marks a recognition that historically rural communities have been left
out of the policy and decision-making loop, largely due to perceptions that rural people
were insufficiently educated and knowledgeable to make good decisions in their own best
interest. This essentially colonial mentality is something we believe ought to be left
The provincial government
In Canada, education is a provincial responsibility. Educational policy, programming and
curriculum have been provincial responsibilities virtually from the beginning of the
evolution of public schooling in Nova Scotia. While this is true, public schools and
particularly rural schools received much of their funding from local funding sources in
the early history of education in the province. As the provincial educational system has
evolved, responsibility for funding the public schools has shifted increasingly to the
province. Today municipal units contribute a relatively small proportion of school
The public school system of the province of Nova Scotia serves a student population of
150 599 (2002-2003), down from 165 739 in 1990-91 and 185 585 in 1980-81 (NS
Department of Education, 2004). Enrolment projections estimate that student populations
will decline to around 133 000 by 2006-2007. While enrolment has been in decline since
the late 1970s, gradation rates1 have been on the increase moving from 52.8% in 1980-
81, to 67% in 1990-91 to 80% in 2001-2002. Through the 1990s, public K-12 education
was beset by a number of challenges including declining enrolments and an increasingly
tight fiscal regimen. The number of teachers employed in public schools in the province
declined from 10 684 in 1990-1991 to 9 592 in 2002-2003.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s educational policy was marked by a focus on multiple
discourses of change at the level of funding, governance, curriculum, accountability,
parental and “stakeholder” involvement, inclusion practices in the schools, the nature of
teacher professionalism and teacher unionism. The early 1990s saw a succession of
province-wide consultations on educational reform beginning in 1991 with the Select
Committee Hearings (essentially a Royal Commission), through a series of consultations
through the 1990s on school governance (school board amalgamation), outcome based
curriculum, school funding, and the promotion of educational change generally.
The policy shift that began in the mid 1990s has included a considerable revamping of
curriculum, the adoption of a regional school board structure that pared twenty-one
school boards down to seven (and eventually to eight when the Southwest Regional
School board was split in two), an increased focus on inclusion, changes to school
governance including the introduction of school advisory councils, the implementation of
standardized testing and other accountability measures such as school accreditation
(Corbett, 2006a), technology integration, an ongoing literacy initiative, implementation
of new math curricula, among other things. It has been a decade of considerable change.
More recently, the Department of Education has begun to focus on issues of equity in
terms of raising standardized test scores, particularly scores of comparative national and
international tests such as the OECD’s Project for International Student Assessment
(PISA), and a health promotion initiative (Nova Scotia, 2005)
The province’s schools continue to be funded by a formula that combines provincial
monies with contributions from municipal units. Through the 1990s several
municipalities withheld or threatened to withhold funds to school boards and system
budgeting continued to be precarious as it was throughout the 1980s. School Boards
have begun to exploit alternative sources of revenue such as facility fees, continuing and
1 The Department of Education now calculated graduation rates by comparing the number of students
enrolled in grade 9 in a given year with the number of students who graduate three years later.
adult education programming, the recruitment of foreign students and online
programming. Still, revenues from these sources amount to no more than 5% of total
operating budgets (see Table 1 below).
Table 1-P School Board Funding by Source, Nova Scotia, 2002-20032
Provincial Municipal Board Revenue
Cape Breton-Victoria 85.9% 9.4% 3.5%
Strait 77.1% 16% 4.9%
Chignecto-Central 80.7% 13.6% 2.7%
Halifax 70.5% 27.3% 1.3%
Annapolis Valley 79.2% 15.4% 3.5%
Southwest 78.7% 18.1% 1.2%
CSAP (francophone) 96.1% 0 0.7%
While the bulk of funding for the public K-12 education continues to flow from
provincial coffers, Table 1 illustrates how school board funding structures continue to be
markedly inequitable reflecting particularly the differential ability of municipal units to
fund educational services. For instance, the urban Halifax Regional board receives more
than one quarter of its funding from municipal units with a healthy residential tax base3
while the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional Board received less than one-tenth of its funds
form municipal contributions. This illustrates how school funding continues to mirror the
differential economic circumstances in different parts of the province.
In the most recent analysis of school funding in Nova Scotia, Hogg (2004) recognizes to
some extent the particular problems faced by regional school boards with regard to small
schools. Hogg actually recommends an additional property service allotment for schools
with very small enrolments. This is sound thinking that mirrors similar provincial
initiatives in Quebec, British Columbia and in Ontario. Nova Scotia remains largely a
rural society. In fact, one Nova Scotian rural policy group argues that there are really two
Nova Scotias, Greater Halifax and the rest. The “rest” is essentially rural. Using this
definition of rural and urban, over 75% of the provincial population live in a rural area
(Rural Communities Impacting Policy, 2003: 7). Four of Nova Scotia’s Health Zones4
are predominantly rural even using Statistics Canada’s fairly conservative classification
2 In addition to provincial and municipal along with board revenues, boards receive monies from the federal
government to fund things like HRDC sponsored initiatives, First Nations education and minority language
programs. Some boards also use monies from reserve funds to finance their operations.
3 The Halifax Regional Board also benefits from supplementary finding provided by the Halifax Regional
Municipality beyond the mandatory education tax rate levied on all municipal units. No other Nova
Scotian school boards receive supplementary funding.
4 Health Zones are units of analysis used by Statistics Canada to analyze regional sub-provincial population
trends. The Health Zones correspond roughly to the regional school board structure originally set in place
in 1997.
of what counts as rural. What is clear from these data is that large geographic sections of
Nova Scotia continues to be composed of small towns and villages, most of which are
experiencing population decline while the province’s single urban centre has one of the
fastest growth rates in Canada.
Table 2-P
Nova Scotia Health Zones- Percentage of the population living in rural areas
(2001 Census)
Health Zone Percentage Rural
Zone 1 - Southwest 77.7%
Zone 2 - Annapolis Valley 62.7%
Zone 3 - Cumberland-Colchester-East Hants 59.2%
Zone 4 - Strait-Pictou-Guysbrough 64.3%
Zone 5 - Cape Breton 35.4%
Zone 6 - Halifax-West Hants 23.8%
In terms of education, this demographic reality translates into a picture in which many
communities struggle to maintain core institutions and services. The provincial
Department of Education appears to understand something of the reality of the two Nova
Scotias and demonstrates some understanding of the consequences of these demographics
for the operation of schools. The report on school funding cited above also
recommended a compensatory funding arrangement to support the integrity of
programming in very small schools (defined as schools with enrolments of less than 100).
While at this writing the Hogg Report is still under study by the provincial cabinet, these
recommendations could have a powerful impact in the CCRSB. In changes to the
funding formula in 2005, the small schools allotment for property service stand to net the
CCRSB 1.6 million new dollars to support its very small schools. As Gillis pointed out, a
logical extension of this property services allotment would be a corollary allotment for
the maintenance of core programs to allow small schools to deliver a wider range of
programming (2005: 31).
While the property service allotment is a good start and Gillis’ call for similar program
support funding makes good sense, the arbitrary choice of 100 as the cutoff point for
supplementary property services funding is difficult to understand. How is a school that
has an enrolment of 120 in a substantially different position than a school with an
enrolment of 95? We would point out that with the Hogg Report now before the
provincial cabinet, this is perhaps not the best time to be closing small rural schools that
could receive considerable additional support should this part of the report be adopted. In
fact, the Board could join with citizens in Wentworth and River Hebert to cooperatively
lobby for this small school funding initiative.
After essentially ignoring rurality for many years, the Department of Education is finally
recognizing the challenges of rural schools. In the Department’s most recent policy
statement, rural schools have finally appeared (Nova Scotia, 2005). Much of the
emphasis on small, isolated rural schools is focused on the potential of online learning to
enhance offerings in rural communities. This would seem to indicate that the Department
is committed to exploring information technology as a vehicle for delivering specialized
programming, particularly at the secondary level to rural communities. An implication of
this policy position is that the survival of schools in small, isolated rural communities is a
priority for the department. In Learning for Life 2, the Department actually uses the
language of long-term viability of small isolated rural schools in a statement under the
umbrella concept of “closing the gap” between disadvantaged and advantaged student
Add resources to support the long term viability of isolated rural
schools, including establishing minimum standards for delivering
classroom and distance education (Nova Scotia, 2005: 31).
This is an indication that the Department now considers rurality to be an equity issue and
we see this as a very positive step. People in rural communities and rural teachers have
been arguing for years that there is a fundamental inequity in an education system that
funds on the basis of student populations rather than programs. Therefore, we see this
policy direction, if indeed it amounts to anything other than words, as being in keeping
with federal government policy thinking that is finally beginning to take rural citizens
seriously as taxpayers who deserve decent services like any other Canadian. We hope
that this is the beginning of the end of the view that rural citizens are backward people
who need to told what to do and “modernized” out of their communities; or if they do
stay, have to drive long distances to get postal services, health care and have their
children educated.
The Municipality of Cumberland County
Council identified and discussed the following as its core values as
part of the process to determine its mission statement:
To protect and enhance the rural way of life …
(Cumberland County Municipality, 1997: 4)
In its long-range strategic plan, the Cumberland County Municipality sets out the idea of
protection and enhancement of “the rural way of life” as its first core value. Other values
include the importance of responsible use of tax dollars, responsiveness to citizens,
encouraging public participation, ethical governance, a respect for diversity, and finally,
consultation and cooperation with citizens and with other levels of government. In these
value statements the municipal council demonstrates a clear commitment to similar sorts
of goals as those articulated at the federal and provincial levels.
Within these value statements is the idea that rural communities and the rural way of life
as the Council puts it, is valuable. There is also a commitment to democratic consultation
and respect for rural citizens which underscores the idea that people living in rural
communities ought to be treated with dignity and respect. Their ideas, wishes, plans and
desires concerning the use of the money they contribute through taxes should be taken
seriously. The articulation of these values represents a grassroots initiative on the part of
a rural community at its most local level of governance to highlight the importance of
rural living. For rural municipalities it has, for many years, been difficult to make the
case for support for community infrastructure in the face of population declines and the
downloading of the fiscal burden from the federal level on down. Achieving the concrete
results that might flow from a desire to protect and enhance the rural way of life is easier
to say than do.
Protecting the values of rural community sustainability has been the core challenge for
rural municipalities across Canada. The difficulties faced the Municipality of
Cumberland County are not unique to this area. The fiscal and infrastructure deficits
faced by urban municipalities have been very much in the news in recent years, but rural
municipalities face equally difficult if not more daunting obstacles. Recently the Rural
Advocacy Task force of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities (2006) released a
report calling for a federal ministry to help municipal units across rural Canada meet the
multiple challenges they face including the challenge of retaining and attracting an
educated workforce in the face of outmigration pressure.
Most rural Canadians have long understood that they represent an important part of the
fabric of the nation and that they are the people involved in most of the primary
production that supports the Canadian economy (Corbett, 2006b). The difficulty has
been to convince other levels of government that rural communities are intimately
connected with the natural resources upon which our nation has been built. Canadians
both need to understand that the health and sustainability of rural communities is not just
a nostalgic whim, it is an important part of a forward-looking strategy that involves
stewardship over natural resources that is essential to our continued economic
development as a nation.
It is rather obvious that the broad values of the Municipality of Cumberland County are
very much consistent with those articulated by federal and provincial governments. The
municipality, the province, and the Nova Scotia Department of Education are all in
agreement when it comes to supporting rural communities as places that are worth
building. It also seems rather obvious that an essential part of supporting and enhancing
the rural way of life includes advocating for the maintenance and growth of services in all
communities under the jurisdiction of the Municipal Council. This of course, includes
schools. Communities need schools in order to be strong sustainable communities that
are capable of any level of growth of the sort that both provincial and federal policy is
beginning to articulate. In its commitment to democratic citizenship and public
participation, the Municipality is fulfilling its mandate and acting on its values when it
shows leadership and encourages citizens to stand up and demand equitable and local
access to services enjoyed by most citizens in advanced democracies.
The Chignecto-Central Regional School Board
The Chignecto-Central Regional School Board is a diverse, progressive,
student-centered learning community. We are committed to developing
creative, confident and responsible global citizens who take pride in their
local community, culture and heritage. We will inspire our learning
community by enriching the quality of educational opportunities in a safe
and supportive learning environment with high expectations for all.
(Chignecto-Central Regional School Board, 2006a)
While it is not necessarily the school board’s responsibility to sustain rural communities,
there is a high level of agreement between the Board’s published mission statement and
the idea of the policy shift we are describing in this section. The board’s mission
statement indicates a focus on students and the general aim of creating community within
its operations. The board’s mission statement is very much consistent with the broad
goals of the Public School Program of the Province of Nova Scotia in the sense that it
orients the system toward the preparation of well-rounded citizens who will contribute to
their communities. This is essentially what the PSP requires. A good school system is a
strong service community and one that works well with local geographic communities.
This is indeed a powerful value and one that is in keeping with federal government,
provincial government and municipal government commitments to community and
citizenship as we have shown above.
The importance of community is also enshrined in the Board’s guiding principles. The
second guiding principle set out by the Board is phrased this way: “to support the
partnership of home, school and community in the development of students” (CCRSB,
2006b). In this principle there is recognition that real cooperation with parents is crucial
to the provision of high quality educational services. It recognizes parents and
community members generally as collaborators and allies. In order for education to work
well, parents must be involved in the process. The idea of the partnership between school
and community is further elaborated in another guiding principle, the idea that the Board
seeks, “to actively promote and maintain a climate of mutual trust, confidence and
respect throughout the organization and within the community of stakeholders.” A
climate of trust, confidence and respect is built through dialogue and exchanges of views
in which all participants share a common goal, the improvement of education in the
Other guiding principles set out by the Board demonstrate an even deeper commitment to
including community members. When schools are under study for closure, we see an
opportunity for the board to give shape and credence to principles like the following:
to encourage participation by all stakeholders in decision making processes
to increase community support for, and emphasize involvement in, public
In a sensitive decision making process like school closure such principles are put to the
test. If there is broad community support for a school, and if no evidence can be shown
that the broad goals of the PSP and prescribed educational outcomes are not being met,
then the decision to close that school against the will of the community is an arbitrary
decision, or one made on the basis of financial considerations. In fact, a school closure
decision which is based essentially on financial considerations may actually be in
contravention of the Education Act raising the possibility of legal action on the part of the
In real communities there is little need for litigation or divisive confrontation of this sort.
In community there is always space for dialogue. In the two principles discussed above,
we see again the importance assigned to the building of community and respect for the
voices of all participants in the complex enterprise of educating youth in a modern
society. All levels of government articulate a commitment to conversation and dialogue
that supports the knowledge and dignity of rural people. As Gillis (2005) suggests the
decision to close a school is very serious for the people involved. It represents the loss of
significant infrastructure for the community. Community members’ views are important
in decisions that affect them so powerfully.
It is evident from the foregoing discussion that there is a lot of common ground shared by
the various levels of government. Each level of government articulates a similar vision
of the community as a core concept. As this is a rural area, the way each group thinks
about development and education is infused with the idea of people living and working
together. Indeed, the mission statement of the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board
uses the word “community” three times in a 58 word paragraph. Most importantly, the
Board claims to be committed to support students who “take pride in their local
community, culture and heritage.”
There is also a shared vision that rural people as community members ought to be treated
as full citizens whose voices deserve to be heard and who should be included in the
process of governance. Rural citizens know their communities best and are typically
deeply committed to making their communities sustainable and vibrant. This is the
concept of voice, or the idea that all citizens have the right to a place at the table in
discussions of decisions that impact the future of communities. We are, one would hope,
emerging from the long dark nightmare of urban “experts” designing policy, and
programs for the alleged betterment of people whose lives they do not understand and
whose communities they have little stake in.
This is also a matter of what educators call inclusion. The CCRSB and the Department
of Education are openly committed to the principals of inclusion that have developed out
of the civil rights movement and the social movements that have brought all children into
the public schools. Indeed, the construction of district high school in the 1940s, 50s and
60s was in itself a mechanism for finally including rural people in the public secondary
education system. The inclusion project is now understood in much wider terms as
school systems attempt to address multiple layers of disadvantage including gender, race
and social class inequality. An additional layer of disadvantage is geographic.
Historically, rural citizens have been underserved and have watched institutions leave
their communities with little rationalization of justification. Each level of government
seems to understand that this is wrong and that the historical power imbalance and failure
to include rural people in decision making has not generally produced good outcomes.
Each level of governance also seems to share the vision that education is crucial to
community building. As we move forward into the coming decades the forces of
globalization, the challenges of demographic changes and immigration, the stress on
natural resources and the countryside will all generate new and unparalleled problems
that will require an educated, engaged population to solve. It is also becoming apparent
that some rural communities, like urban communities are now facing labor shortages as
the phenomenon of rural industrialization unfolds (Winson and Leach, 2002; Corbett,
2005). While we have no real sense of what shape our future problems will take, there is
broad agreement that education is crucial for preparing citizens to make good choices.
Chapter 3
The viability and value of small rural schools:
A review of the literature
It might happen, as it frequently does, that a school is already sufficiently
large, active, and enthusiastic to make it inadvisable to give up its identity
and become merged in the larger consolidated school. If there are twenty
or thirty children and an efficient teacher we have the essential factors for
a good school. (Kenney, 1914, p.64, cited in Howley, 1996).
Research on school size points to several conclusions about the benefits of
smaller schools. Smaller school size has been associated with higher
achievement under certain conditions. Smaller schools promote
substantially improved equity in achievement among all students, and
smaller schools may be especially important for disadvantaged students
(Howley, 2002).
The purpose of this review is to critically examine the scholarly literature that pertains to
the viability and value of small rural schools. This literature consists of research reports
and the considered and thoughtful views of both scholars and practitioners. There is
much support in this literature for the claim that the quality of education available in
small schools equals or in some instances exceeds that experienced in larger schools.
The first issue we will explore in depth is academic viability. Do students learn as well in
smaller schools as they do in larger schools? What does the evidence say? Quality
education assumes, indeed, demands, that all students learn and achieve at appropriate
and acceptable levels.
Regardless of what other virtues smaller schools may have, their viability must be
determined, in the first instance, on their capacity to provide the students with equality of
educational opportunity in terms of academic achievement. The organizational structure
of the school cannot be an impediment to students’ educational success.
Another issue that relates to quality education and academic performance is what is
referred to in the literature is achievement equity. Achievement equity refers to the degree
a particular school serves the academic needs of all its students in a fair and equitable
fashion regardless of their socio-economic status. While the number of scholarships won
and the outstanding performance of a few privileged individuals may bring honor and
prestige to a school, a school’s true worth has to be determined on the quality of
education it provides to all its students. All parents have a right to expect that their
children will be received by the school with the same interest and attention as any others.
A third indicator of quality education is the retention and drop-out rate. Good schools
provide students with supportive and nurturing environments that encourage them to
remain in school and complete their education through to graduation. The research
literature, as well as scholarly opinion, confirms that on all three measures of quality
education, small schools equal or exceed their larger counterparts.
Although academic matters are of primary importance in accessing the viability and value
of a school, other educational goals are also worthy of consideration. Educators have to
be concerned with the holistic development of their students. This development can be
fostered in many ways including: opportunities for leadership, engendering in students a
sense of belonging and being needed, and opportunities to take part in extra-curricular
opportunities. As we shall see, the research literature confirms that in terms of social and
affective development, students excel in smaller schools.
Schools are fundamentally social institutions. Students, parents, teachers and other school
staff interact on a daily basis. The quality of the relationships and the interactions make a
very significant contribution to the quality of education experienced by the students. The
size of the school and its proximity and connection to the students’ home communities is
a crucial factor in creating a quality school. That is why there is so much support in the
current literature for neighborhood and community schools. Distance engenders
indifference and alienation; proximity creates connectedness, involvement and
commitment (Looker and MacKinnon, 1999; Newton, 1993).
Any discussion about small schools must deal with the issue of bussing. Part of the
rationale for closing small community schools has always been the prospect and
feasibility of bussing students from their home communities to larger schools situated in
other communities. The persistent efforts of educational authorities to close and
consolidate small schools and create ever larger schools has resulted in more and more
students of all ages having to endure longer and longer bus rides.
Given that educational administrators have, in many cases and situations, held
considerable power, school consolidation has often been achieved by over-riding public
opinion on the basis of claims about the educational and financial benefits of larger
schools. These alleged benefits are not supported by any significant evidence, and the
more researchers have looked at the question of school size, the more clear it becomes
that small schools are actually superior
Despite the increasing numbers of students being bussed and the enormous financial
expenditures required to sustain it, the impact of bussing on students academic, social and
psychological well being has rarely been examined critically. Most educational
authorities appear to take it for granted that no harm is being done to students and
whatever discomfort is experienced is a small price to pay for the purported benefits of
attending larger schools. These illusory benefits are supported by a system of belief
drawn from industrial production models and not from studies of educational
achievement. So just as children “adjusted” to factory labor in the 19th century, they
adapt to factory schooling today; and this, of course, is presented as progress.
Recently, however, researchers have begun to investigate bussing and the emergent
findings should give pause to those who lightly advocate additional bussing for rural
We need to understand the true cost of that ride, to the student, the family
and the school system. How far is too far? That question touches every bus
riding student. If we knew more about the effects of bussing we might
make better choices about closing, maintaining or opening new schools in
rural areas. Riding the bus should not just be a 12 year task that children
endure, but one that makes sense as an integral part of their successful and
fullest education (Zars, 1998).
Distance Education/Web-based Learning and multi-age pedagogy are considered to be
cutting edge approaches to education in the 21st century. Both of these strategies have
been pioneered in small rural schools. As part of this review we will explore how these
two small school innovations make significant contributions to the viability and value of
small rural schools.
The value of small schools to their communities is generally ignored by those who
advocate consolidation and closure. When a school in a large city closes the event rarely
concerns, or impacts on most of the city’s residents. Except for those families in the
neighborhood who are immediately impacted, the rest of the community hardly notices
the event. However, the closure of a community school affects the whole community in
many ways. Small schools play a significant and vital role in the communities they serve.
In the final analysis, decisions about sustaining or closing small rural schools come down
to the question of human and educational values. We make decisions on the basis of those
values. Small school advocates value a personalized learning environment where
students, teachers and parents know each other really well and all students feel needed
and wanted and have an equal chance of doing well. Rural parents value their community
school for what it offers their children and their community. They value the fact that they
have easy access to that school and feel comfortable and welcomed in that school where
they are known by the teachers and other members of the school staff.
What is it that those who advocate the closure of small community schools value?
School size and quality of education
It appears that keeping schools relatively small might be more efficacious
and may exhibit rare consensus as a goal of educators, the public, and
those seeking equality of opportunity for students. (Fowler, W. & Walberg
1991 cited in Cotton, 1996)
There is simply no excuse to ignore the most conclusive evidence in the
field: small schools foster achievement by all (Tom Vander Ark, 2000)
For most of the twentieth century the “conventional wisdom” in education dictated the
closure and consolidation of small community schools and the transportation to students
to larger schools in distant communities. It was pretty well taken for granted by
educational authorities that “bigger was better” and quality education could only be
achieved in larger schools. Educational authorities, convinced that they were right,
intimidated and informed parents that if they wished their children to have a quality
education, they had to agree to close their small community school and have their
children bussed to a larger school in a distant community. No additional evidence was
necessary (Howley and Eckman, 1997; Truscott and Truscott, 2005, Theobald, 2005;
Meier, 2002).
Small schools were identified as the major obstacle to any effort to improve the provision
of education in rural communities. Rural education reform demanded that smaller schools
be improved right out of existence.
For most of the twentieth century, small size was considered to be an
impediment to school improvement. Beginning with the rise of the
railroads as large firms, the organization, per se, of an enterprise began to
be understood as enhancing or detracting from productivity. Such
efficiencies, the thinking ran then (as it still does), could be realized most
immediately as economies of scale: the larger the firm (or school, or
school district), the more opportunities existed for efficient organization
and probable improvement in productivity (specialization, volume
purchasing, supervision and staffing, and so forth). School and district
consolidations were thus lynch-pins of the school improvement agenda of
the first three-quarters of the 20th century (Howley and Howley, 2004: 4-
For many educational authorities there was no need for research to support this view.
Most administrators and policy makers during this time period increasingly drew their
educational models and metaphors from business and industry. Notions of economies of
scale and the “cult of efficiency” (Callahan, 1964) provided all the “proof” needed to
justify the consolidation and closure of small schools. For many it was simply a matter of
common sense: if bigger factories are more productive than smaller ones then bigger
schools must be better than smaller schools.
Smith and DeYoung (1988) identify several factors driving this long-term
consolidation trend. One has been the desire of school administrators to
"demonstrate their commitment to the forces of science, progress, and
modernization" by seeking to make schooling "'efficient,' a notion
importantly borrowed from the private sector" (Cotton, 1996).
The research that was used to support and confirm the notion of bigger is better when it
came to schooling was primarily based on what is referred to as “input” studies. Scriven
writes that the use of “inputs” as a way of determining the value or worth of something is
“an undesirable practice of using quality of ingredients as an index of the quality of the
output or evaluand” (1991: 194).
The inputs or “ingredients” focused in these early studies included programs and courses,
teacher qualifications, learning resources, the existence of a libraries and science
laboratories. These inputs became the criteria for judging the relative merits of schools of
different sizes. The assumption was that a school that had the highest number and quality
of inputs would also have the best outputs in terms of student achievement. This
approach to evaluating the worth of schools is not unlike someone judging the quality of
a cake on the ingredients alone and not on how the cake actually tastes after being
cooked. Another metaphor we like, and will use again, it the restaurant analogy which is
the idea that the best restaurant is the one with the largest number of items on the menu.
Not surprisingly, researchers using this approach concluded that larger schools were
superior to smaller schools. The flaw in this approach was that the assumption was not
confirmed by investigating how students actually achieved.
Stemnock (1974) reviewed the literature on school size from 1924 to
1974. Of nearly 120 studies, a large majority focused on what are now
known as "input variables" --staff specialization and credentials, costs,
teaching styles, and course offerings. These are precisely the features of
schooling that educators had traditionally thought would improve the
quality of students' experience in large schools. In this period, studies that
focused on curriculum overwhelmingly called for increases in school size.
Studies that focused on other input variables generally reached the same
conclusion (Howley, 1989).
As we shall see in this review, when researchers started to investigate “outputs,”
to actually examine how students perform academically in schools of different
sizes, the administrative “big is best” logic does not hold up to critical scrutiny.
Historically, one of the most influential researchers in the school size debate was James
Conant. In 1959 he published the findings and recommendations of his research in The
American High School Today. He concluded that in order for a high school to offer a
broad and rich enough curriculum to prepare students to attend university it had to have a
graduating class of at least 100 students. Based on this recommendation, a four-year high
school would have to have a minimum of 400 students. Many educational authorities
used this study to justify the creation of larger schools that the size recommended, their
thinking being if 400 are good than 800 is better and 1600 better again. This thinking lead
to the disastrously mega schools of 3,000 5,000 students that now exist in some larger
cites in North America.
Drawing on the work of Sher and Tompkins (1977), Tom Gregory (2000) offers a
fascinating historical retrospective on Conant’s work. Noting that Conant’s size
recommendations 400 -500 students were modest in light of subsequent developments in
school size Gregory points out that:
Conant’s data did not support even this modest claim for bigness. Conant
studied 103 high schools, singling out 22 for detailed analysis. Only three
of those 22 schools had graduating classes of 100 or fewer, an inadequate
sample, Sher and Tompkins observe, from which to draw his central
conclusion. Furthermore, Conant’s three small high schools all ranked
near or above the mean of all 22 schools on his overall index of
performance. By his own account these were not inferior or substandard
schools; they were average. Indeed, Sher and Tompkins even speculate
that Conant’s central conclusion may well have been framed before he
conducted the study! (Emphasis added) (2000: 5).
This smacks a little of the old adage: “don’t bother me with the facts, I have made up my
mind” applied to educational decision making. It is hard not to conclude that those who
still insist that bigger schools are better schools are simply not interested in the evidence
to the contrary.
The first study to challenge the dominant educational ideology of “bigger is better” when
it comes to schooling was published by Baker and Gump in 1964. In Big School, Small
School they reported on their investigations into student participation and involvement in
schools of different sizes. They discovered that there was a much higher percentage of
students involved in extra curricular activities in smaller schools than in larger schools
and there were many more opportunities for students to exercise leadership roles.
Furthermore, students in smaller schools were more likely to fill important positions in
those activities and thus gain greater satisfaction from participating.
The Barker and Gump research shows that, in a small school, every
student is needed to populate teams, offices, and clubs, and thus even
marginal students are encouraged to participate and made to feel that they
belong. As schools grow larger, opportunities for extracurricular
participation also grow—but not proportionately. Typically, a twenty-fold
increase in school population leads to only a five-fold increase in
participation opportunities. Thus, in larger schools, a greater proportion of
students are unneeded to fill participation slots—"redundant," as Barker
and Gump put it. (Cotton, 1996)
This finding has been replicated many times since; furthermore a number of studies have
made a connection between participation in the life of the school and dropout rates. The
more students participate, the more likely they are to remain in school through to
graduation. Smaller schools have been shown to have significantly lower dropout rates.
They need everyone to participate to make the extra-curricular life of the school work.
This includes student clubs and organizations and sports teams. These activities give
students a sense of belonging and ownership; they feel needed and wanted.
Since Baker and Gump’s landmark work, there has been a considerable sea change in
educational thinking when it comes to the viability and value of smaller schools. In the
past thirty years especially, a body of empirical research has emerged that challenges the
conventional wisdom and taken for granted assumptions about the relationship between
school size, student achievement and quality education. This change in thinking occurred
when researchers began to investigate how well students actually do academically in
schools of different sizes. (They tasted the cake!) For the most part scholarly opinion
now favors smaller schools over large.
A large and increasingly consistent body of research suggests that we
should be moving, not toward larger high schools, but expeditiously
toward smaller ones. Even the popular literature of the past few years has
been sprinkled with articles extolling the virtues and successes of small
schools (Gregory, 2000: 2).
As a result of this new research, it is imperative that educators and policy makers re-
evaluate their beliefs and assumptions about the value and viability of small schools.
Rather than continuing a policy of closure and consolidation of small community schools,
they need to sustain and support such schools. Howley has characterized the research
into school size and achievement over the last thirty years as falling into three phases or
Studies indicating that there is no significant differences in terms of achievement
between smaller and larger schools.
Studies indicating that there are smaller schools are somewhat superior to larger
schools in terms of achievement
Studies indicating that small schools are especially beneficial in mediating the
effects of socio-economic status (SES) (1996: 6).
Cotton (1996) identified thirty-one (31) studies that fit into the first phase of research into
the effects of school size on achievement. Sixteen (16) of these studies (Burke 1987;
Caldas 1987; Edington and Gardner 1984; Fowler 1995; Gregory 1992; Haller, Monk,
and Tien 1993; Howley 1996; Huang and Howley 1993; McGuire 1989; Melnick, et al.
1986; Smith and DeYoung 1988; Stockard and Mayberry 1992; Walberg 1992; Way
1985) reported “no difference” in academic performance between students attending
large schools and those attending smaller schools.
Eight (8) studies (Bates 1993; Eberts, Kehoe, and Stone 1982; Eichenstein 1994; Fowler
and Walberg 1991; Kershaw and Blank 1993; Miller, Ellsworth, and Howell 1986;
Robinson-Lewis 1991; Walberg 1992) reported that academic achievement in small
schools was superior to that in larger schools.
None of the research finds large schools superior to small schools in their
achievement effects. Consequently, we may safely say that student
achievement in small schools is at least equal—and often superior—to
student achievement in large schools. Achievement measures used in the
research include school grades, test scores, honour roll membership,
subject-area achievement, and assessment of higher-order thinking skills
(Cotton, 1996).
A very significant line of research, especially for those concerned with small rural
schools, is a series of studies that has investigated the ways in which smaller schools
mediate the effect of SES and enhances achievement equity (Berlin and Cienkus 1989;
Eberts, Kehoe, and Stone 1982; Fowler 1995; Friedkin and Necochea 1988; Howley
1994, 1995; Huang and Howley 1993; Jewell 1989; Miller, Ellsworth, and Howell 1986;
Rutter 1988; Stockard and Mayberry 1992). The work of Friedkin and Necochea (1988)
is a very influential early example of this research. Their work made a strong case for the
benefits of small schools in terms of achievement equity; they clearly demonstrated that
smaller schools really benefit those who traditionally have difficulty with achievement
such as the poor and ethnic minorities.
The research base supporting the effectiveness of small schools in providing students
with equality of education opportunity continues to grow. In an aptly titled article
“Anything But Research Based: State Initiatives to Consolidate Schools and Districts”
published in Rural Policy Matters (Rural School and Community Trust, 2006)
researchers with the Rural School and Community Trust write:
Each year hundreds of communities face the closure of their local school
State policies promoting consolidation have existed for most of the 20th
and now 21st centuries.
The research evidence supporting this widely implemented policy,
however, is virtually non-existent (emphasis added). In fact, research on
the effects of school size on student achievement and well-being is
extensive, spans the political spectrum, and is unusually consistent in its
findings. … Few educational issues are better documented than the effect
of school size on student achievement and well-being, and the evidence
overwhelmingly supports small schools and districts. When socio-
economic factors are controlled, students who attend smaller schools are
more likely to graduate and participate in a greater number and wider
variety of extracurricular activities
The most authoritative scholar and researcher on the relationship between school size,
SES, achievement and equity is Craig Howley. Howley, perhaps the most widely known
and respected rural and small school scholar, is a researcher based at Ohio University. He
has written extensively on a wide variety of questions related to small rural schools. For
the past ten years he has focused much of his research on investigating the ways in which
smaller schools mediate the effects of SES on achievement (Howley and Howley, 2004;
Howley, C. 1995; Howley, C. 1996a; Howley, C. 1996b; Howley, C. 1999a; Howley, C.
1999b; Howley, C., & Bickel, R. 1999; Howley and Eckman, 1997; Howley, C. 2001;
Howley, C. 2002; Huang, G., & Howley, C. 1993).
Howley’s scholarly work is valuable because in addition to doing original empirical
studies he has also provided very useful critiques of the history of size effects and
achievement research. In one of his recent publications, co-authored with Aimee
Howley, he offers these conclusions based on his own research and a comprehensive
review of the literature:
Smaller school size confers an achievement advantage on all but the highest-SES
Smaller size mediates the powerful association between SES and achievement
The relationship between school size and achievement is predominantly linear
Size effects are at least as robust in rural schools as compared with schools overall
(Howley and Howley 2004: 26).
A persistent concern in the literature, especially for rural educators, has been the issue of
whether a school can be too small to be considered academically viable. Howley &
Howley note that “contrary to the assertion of Lee and Smith (1997), these results do not
disclose any lower limits for school size” (2004: 26). In other words academically
effective small schools may come in all sizes. Howley and Howley also note that,
“contrary to our own previous work, this study suggests that larger size does not
significantly improve performance among affluent students” (2004: 26).
The key is that schools must be small enough to foster the sort of learning community
that can support the learning of disadvantaged children and youth. Actually, many large
schools are now attempting to create this sense of community within a large school
structure by creating “schools within schools.” The school within the school movement
essentially breaks large schools down into smaller internal schools or “houses” to create
the conditions that are present in small schools. In other words, these large, typically
urban schools are attempting to create the social conditions which exist naturally in rural
schools, conditions which are ironically destroyed by consolidation.
The research of the last thirty years clearly justifies educational policies that support the
creation of new small schools and, more importantly for rural areas, sustaining and
supporting existing small community schools. There is little if any justification for
closing small schools as a matter of policy. All fair minded people have to wonder given
this research base:
Why do so many states [and provinces] continue to develop consolidation
policies that are anything but research-based? Why is this irrational and
failed approach to educational improvement forced upon rural
communities, despite their widespread and often vehement opposition?
(Rural School and Community Trust, 2006)
To continue to pursue a policy of closure and consolidation in the face of the research
evidence is to put the education of rural children and youth at risk.
Many rural areas in North American (including Atlantic Canada) face a number of
challenges that impact on educational decision making. These include out-migration,
declining birth rate, declining school enrolment, and economic challenges of various
kinds. Closing and consolidation of small schools should not be seen as a solution to
these challenges. The research would appear to indicate that small schools offer the
children of these rural communities their best chance of success. Rather than closing such
schools, educational leaders should be searching for ways to sustain and improve these
important rural assets. Howley and Howley suggest that
Policy makers can change the rules under which state [provincial] systems
operate, from big-school to small-school norms. They might, in other
words, un-rig the game that requires schools to be large. This study and
others show that large size is not the criterion of “excellence” it was once
thought to be. And smaller schools have now been shown to exert an
evidently robust effect on equity. It is interesting to observe that at the
time large-school norms were instantiated—the early and mid-twentieth
century—few educators or legislators worried about equity. Such norms
seem to have outlived their utility (2004: 27).
Howley and Howley conclude their most recent work with a number of practical
recommendations for educators and policy makers concerned with making the
most educationally sound decisions regarding small rural schools. They base
these “considered judgments” on the current body of research on this topic as well
as their own and others experiences working with rural communities:
Sustain the smallest schools in the poorest communities.
In communities that serve all social classes, do not build large
Keep elementary and middle schools proportionately smaller than
high schools.
When building new, keep schools everywhere smaller than
recommended in the 20th century.
Provide appropriate and adequate support to smaller schools: small
size improves the odds of success, it does not guarantee it.
Regard smaller school size and reform as distinct issues, but do not
hesitate to innovate in smaller schools.
Doubt that an educationally-relevant lower limit of school size
exists. (emphasis added) Much depends on context, and even in the
contemporary world, dedicated parents educate very small groups
of children with remarkable success at home (2004: 28-29).
The schools that are the focus of this study are small schools. From a national and
international perspective they are very small schools. The body of research that
has been amassed over the last thirty years confirms that small size is no
impediment to academic performance. In fact for some groups of students a
smaller school provides them with their best chance of academic success. To bus
them out of their home community to a larger distant school may put their
academic lives at risk.
In forthcoming sections of this report we present the data on how well these
students were served (educationally) by their schools. Their experiences in these
very small schools prepared students quite well for their life choices after school.
In Chapters 4 and 5 we investigate the extent to which this is the case for the
schools in Wentworth and River Hebert. These schools add support to the
assertion by Howley and Howley, (2004) referenced above, that there is no lower
limit in terms of enrolment on effective small schools.
The curriculum issue
It does not follow necessarily that more opportunities exist in larger
schools (McGuire, 1989)
The criticism that smaller schools cannot offer as broad a program of studies as can larger
schools has been around for a very long time; it is often used as a justification for closing
smaller schools. Educational authorities, pursuing an agenda of school consolidation,
point out the obvious: larger schools can offer a wider range of programs and more
courses than can smaller schools. “Therefore, goes the argument, operating small schools
with more limited curricula is unfair to the students who attend them” (Cotton, 1996).
However, as Cotton (1996) points out:
While this has a certain common sense appeal, examination of the research
reveals that there simply is no reliable relationship between school size
and curriculum quality. For one thing, researchers have found that "it takes
a lot of bigness to add a little variety"—that is, "on the average a 100%
increase in enrolment yields only a 17% increase in variety of offerings"
(Pittman and Haughwout, 1997). Moreover, "[t]he strength of the
relationship between school size and curricular offerings diminishes as
schools become larger.
This broader curriculum purportedly improves achievement, provides students with more
choice in terms of courses and better prepares them for post secondary participation. This
argument was first popularized fifty years ago with the publication of Conant’s The
American High School Today (1959) and it has been used ever since by those advocating
The assumption that a broader curriculum somehow equates with a high level of student
achievement does hold up to critical scrutiny. The research evidence presented earlier in
this review clearly demonstrates that the number of courses offered in a school has no
effect on overall student achievement. Students in smaller schools perform as well or
better academically compared to students in larger schools regardless of the number of
programs and courses either set of schools offer. The broader curriculum does not,
necessarily, have a positive effect on student achievement.
Research into this issue has called into question the claim that the larger school offers a
more varied and richer curriculum (McGuire 1989; Monk 1992; Rogers 1987). What one
tends to find in larger schools is not more advanced courses in key academic areas but
more introductory courses in non core areas. (Many parents whose children attend larger
schools are often amazed and dismayed at how little choice there is when they help their
children pick out courses). Another relevant and interesting finding from the research is
that “only five to twelve percent of the students in large schools avail themselves of the
extra courses these schools typically offer” (Cotton, 1996).
The work of Haller, Monk, Spotted Bear, Griffin, and Moss (1990) is of particular
relevance for those concerned with very small high schools. They found that it is possible
for schools graduating as few as 25 students were able to offer a mathematics program
equal to that of a much larger school. The notion that larger schools with the larger
number of courses better prepare students for post-secondary participation has also been
investigated by researchers. Again, the research has disproved this belief.
Like the curriculum argument, the assertions about college readiness have
been disproved by research. Six documents address the relative merits of
large and small schools vis à vis college-related variables—entrance
examination scores, acceptance rates, attendance, grade point average, and
completion. Five found small schools equal (Rogers 1987; Fowler 1992;
Jewell 1989) or superior (Burke 1987; Swanson 1988) to large ones in
their capacity to prepare students for college entrance and success (Cotton,
Whatever the perceived merits the dubious curriculum argument may have had in the
past, current developments in distance education and web-based learning make any claim
of program inadequacy in smaller schools totally irrelevant today. In the 21st century
through the use of information and communication technologies access to a rich and
varied curriculum is available to any student regardless of where they live or the size of
the school they attend.
Students attending small community schools can have the best of both worlds. They can
enjoy the many advantages that come with small scale learning communities and have
access to any course or program to which they aspire. The common use of distance
education in small rural schools has a long history. The availability of computer-based
courses is at least fifteen years old. In 1996 Theodore Roellke wrote,
Advances in computer and video technologies have permitted many rural
school districts to electronically import courses otherwise unavailable in
the school system at a cost of one third to one half of a resident teacher's
salary (Smith, 1990). Computerized learning programs, interactive
television, and Internet access are additional resources that can enhance
the curriculum of small high schools. Success has been reported in using
these technologies to provide advanced placement and college credit
courses as well as instructional services for students with special needs.
Indeed, the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board is a provincial leader in the area
having established the province’s first virtual high school to serve the needs of students in
small, isolated high schools. This development is in keeping with similar cutting-edge
rural education work in Saskatchewan and in Australia where online learning in small
rural communities is now well established. Indeed, recent proceedings of the National
Congress on Rural Education in Saskatchewan have been filled for the last several years
by presentations that focus on online and other forms of distance learning. Given
contemporary technology, synchronous, real time teaching and learning possibilities in
small, isolated communities are opening up at a rate that is only constrained by our
Improved technological literacy and Internet access have enabled
educators and governments to establish virtual schools as partial solutions
to the problems of curriculum equity, changing demographics, shortages
in specific teaching disciplines and the need to be cost-effective (Fury &
Murphy, 2005).
In a policy brief entitled “The power and promise of distance learning in rural education”
Hobbs states that, “A rapidly growing number of rural students are increasingly involved
in some form of distance learning for all or part of the school day (or night).”
Research shows that it (online distance learning) can be as effective as
classroom learning in terms of student performance. It offers the
opportunity for enhanced curriculum and advanced classes, as well as for
students to participate in low-enrolment, high-cost classes such as physics,
anatomy, chemistry, music theory, or calculus. Along with the academic
advantages come economic ones: school size no longer determines the
scope or breadth of curriculum offered. Schools of any size can offer a
virtually unlimited curriculum without incurring the costs of hiring
additional teachers. Savings increase even more if schools participate in
distance learning consortiums to share master teachers, personnel and
technology costs (2004: 5).
“Most importantly,” says Hobbs, “distance learning can enable small schools to remain
open and small—thereby embracing more than a half century of educational research
showing that smaller schools offer a multitude of educational advantages for students
over larger schools” (2004: 5).
Today distance education and web-based learning are essential features of all progressive
education systems. Technology is used by both rural and urban schools as a way to
supplement the programming offerings available to students. It is hard to believe that
educational authorities anywhere continue to use the curriculum inadequacy argument to
make a case against small schools.
What really counts?
A final point on the matter of curriculum needs to be made. The fact that a school can
boast of a broad and varied curriculum may or may not mean that students in such a
school are provided with a quality educational experience. There are often many gaps
between the intended or official curriculum and that actually experienced by the students.
Curriculum theorists now understand that the actual school curriculum is not limited to
the taught program and that it also includes a much wider range of formal and informal
educational experiences (Pinar, 2005, Portelli and Vibert, 2001). A school’s program of
studies says nothing about the actual delivery of such courses, the quality of the teaching
or the extent to which students avail themselves of the cafeteria style curriculum menu of
some larger schools. The presence of programs is no guarantee that students will be
willing or allowed to take them.
What is more important than the number of courses and programs is the quality of the
teaching and the degree of engagement and motivation engendered in the students in the
pursuit of high achievement. Lee et. al. (1995, cited in Roellke, 1996) has identified three
curricular features that ensure effective instruction. They can be a component of any
school regardless of its size and are a greater guarantee of high levels of learning than any
impressive list of courses:
1. A common academic curriculum. Student achievement gains were
found in schools with a common academic curriculum, where course
offerings are narrow and academic content is strong. (Emphasis added)
2. High levels of academic press. This curriculum expectation centers on
the notion that all students will meet high academic standards and devote
considerable effort to academic endeavors.
3. Authentic instruction. Students are engaged in sustained, disciplined,
and critical thought through a variety of instructional approaches, such as
independent study, project-based learning, and real-world problem solving
Why small schools work
Why does smaller seem to work better?...people seem to learn, to change,
and to grow in situations in which they feel that they have some control,
some personal influence, some efficacy (Berlin & Cienkus, 1989, cited in
Cotton, 1996)
It appears that keeping schools relatively small might be more efficacious
and may exhibit rare consensus as a goal of educators, the public, and
those seeking equality of opportunity for students (Fowler and Walberg,
1991cited in Cotton, 1996)
The research evidence is quite clear and unequivocal: small schools are academically
viable. Smaller schools can provide a learning environment that is at least as good as
larger schools. For those students who may be considered at risk, small schools are
especially supportive. Achievement equity is more often achieved in smaller schools.
Small schools have always been able to provide a program of studies that prepared its
graduates to enter the work force or participate in further studies at post-secondary
institutions. Testimony to this fact can be found in even the most casual review of
graduates of small schools who have gone on to successful careers in whatever field of
endeavor or academic program they may have chosen. Many famous Canadians received
their education in small schools (e.g. Rick Hillier, Rex Murphy, E.J. Pratt).
Smaller schools offer their students much more than academic productivity, however.
They provide a learning environment that is supportive and nurturing of a wide variety of
desirable educational goals for all students. Why do small schools work so well? Why do
they work academically? Why do they appear to do a better job of developing the whole
person? These are the questions we want to try and answer in this section of the review.
There is one note of caution, however. Just because a school is small is no guarantee that
it is a good or effective school. Size alone is not the determinant of quality. To be an
effective small school a school should exhibit these characteristics:
Staff and students are focused on a few important goals.
Staffs have high expectations for all students and a shared vision of good
Staffs have time to collaborate to improve instruction and meet shared challenges.
Instruction and promotion are based on demonstrated learning.
Every student has an advocate at school.
The school environment promotes respect and responsibility.
Technology is used as an effective teaching and learning tool (Vander Ark, 2001).
Any school can strive to create these characteristics. However, desirable practices that are
supportive of student learning are easier to implement in smaller schools because of their
School size acts as a facilitating factor for other desirable practices. In
other words, school characteristics that tend to promote increased student
learning—such as collegiality among teachers, personalized teacher-
student relationships, and less differentiation of instruction by ability—are
simply easier to implement in small schools (Toche, 2003 cited in Hylden,
2004: 18).
But, it still takes a core of dedicated and committed teachers to make those practices
work. But getting the size right is the necessary first step:
A good school is a work in progress: a place to tinker, fix, and sometimes
even to throw out and start over. Creating such a school requires keeping
in mind both visionary ideas and mundane daily details. A good school is
never satisfied with itself. As a result, there’s never enough time. But it
turns out that everything is easier when we get the scale right. Getting the
size right is the necessary, though not sufficient, first step (Meier, 1996:
A personalized learning environment
Small schools have fewer students and teachers and because of this students (and
teachers) experience a personalized learning environment that is simply not possible in
larger institutions. Students are known to each other and their teachers; there is less
opportunity to fall through or hide in the cracks in a smaller school. There are no
strangers in small community schools. In smaller schools:
Teachers talk about how students are doing, and compare information
across classes and over the years. All of the students know each other. If a
student is having trouble, all the student's teachers can meet with the
student and/or parents to talk about the problem and create a plan to help.
(Wasley, et al, 2000).
This personalized environment serves to nurture some very important individual and
social educational goals. Berlin and Cienkus (1989) claim that students “seem to learn, to
change, and to grow in situations in which they feel that they have some control, some
personal influence, some efficacy.” That efficacy or feeling of empowerment is
connected to feelings of belonging and feeling needed in small schools and the social
opportunities that exist.
Arguably, participation in a smaller enterprise enables a more sure-footed
construction of self in the company of trusted others as well as a greater
investment by all participants in the construction of common purpose (see
e.g., Meier, 2003). (Howley and Howley, 2004: 27-28)
Writing in Educational Leadership, Deborah Meier argues that small schools enjoy
advantages over larger schools along seven dimensions: governance, respect, simplicity,
safety, parental involvement, and belonging:
In small schools, the other 70 percent belong. Every kid is known every
kid belongs to a community that includes adults.
Relationships are cross-disciplinary, cross-generational, and cross-
everything else. The good news is that kids like to be members of such
cross-generational clubs. (Or at least most do, at least some of the time!)
And, if parents are part of the process, they like to join, too—even part-
In small schools, we're more likely to pass on to students the habits of
heart and mind that define an educated person—not only formally, in
lesson plans and pedagogical gimmicks, but in hallway exchanges,
arguments about important matters, and resolutions of ordinary
differences. We're more likely to show kids in our daily discourse that
grown-ups—models outside their homes—use reasoning and evidence to
resolve issues. We can teach them what it's like to be a grown-up—bring
them into our culture, but only if we're part of a world that they find
compelling, credible, and accessible (1996: 15).
Many researchers have formally studied the effects of school size on students feelings of
belongingness and alienation (Burke 1987; Campbell, et al. 1981; Edington and Gardner
1984; Foster and Martinez 1985; Fowler and Walberg 1991; Gregory 1992; Gregory and
Smith 1983, 1992, Howley 1994; Pittman and Haughwout 1987; Smith, Gregory, and
Pugh 1981; Stockard and Mayberry 1992; Stolp 1995; Walberg 1992). After reviewing
these studies, Cotton (1996) reports:
It is not surprising that these investigators have found a much greater
sense of belonging (sometimes expressed as a lower level of alienation)
among students in small schools than in large ones.
Patricia Wasley argues, in an article entitled “Small Classes, Small Schools: The Time is
Now” that the time is ripe for educators and policy makers to make the case for what the
research suggests and what our experience has been telling us for years:
Students do best in places where they can't slip through the cracks, where
they are known by their teachers, and where their improved learning
becomes the collective mission of a number of trusted adults. We have the
resources to ensure that every student gets a good education, and we know
what conditions best support their success. It is time to do what is right
(2002: 10).
Why do small schools work? A large part of the answer is situated in the feeling students
have in small schools of being known, cared about, and where they possess a sense of
belonging. The personal attention that is possible in a small school is the single most
important feature that contributes to successful student learning. There is no mystery
here. Perhaps Meier says it best:
Small schools mean we can get to know a student’s work, the way he or
she thinks… This close knowledge helps us demand more of them; we can
be tougher without being insensitive and humiliating. It also means we
know their moods and styles—whom to touch in a comforting way and
whom to offer distance and space in times of stress. It means that every
school feels responsible for every kid and has insights that when shared
can open up a seemingly intractable situation to new possibilities (1996:
In other words, small schools offer more structural potential and more overall affordances
that increase the likelihood that high-quality educational exchanges will occur and that a
genuine, powerful and supported/supportive learning community will emerge. Small
schools are also more accountable to their communities because the teachers are known
to parents and to other community members (Shelton, 2005).
Extra-curricular participation
Small schools allow greater student participation in extracurricular
activities (Kearney, 1994).
Earlier in this report, we made reference to the work of Baker and Gump (1964) and their
pioneering investigation of extra-curricular participation in small schools versus large
schools. As they noted, in small schools students are less likely to feel “redundant” and
more likely to feel needed.
Many investigators since then have studied this issue and these findings confirm the
conclusions of the original study: extra-curricular participation is much higher in smaller
schools than larger ones ( see e.g. Burke 1987; Cawelti 1993; Foster and Martinez 1985;
Fowler 1995; Fowler and Walberg 1991; Grabe 1981; Hamilton 1983; Holland and
Andre 1991; Howley 1996; Kershaw and Blank 1993; Pittman and Haughwout 1987;
Rogers 1987; Schoggen and Schoggen 1988; Smith and DeYoung 1988; Stockard and
Mayberry 1992; Walberg 1992).
Significant findings include:
Students in small schools are involved in a greater variety of activities and
that they derive more satisfaction from their participation than students in
large schools.
Students in the large schools were more polarized, with a group of active
participants at one end of the continuum and a large group of students who
did not participate in any extracurricular activities at the other. In the small
schools there were few students who did not participate in anything
(Hamilton, 1993)
The average large school student does not utilize these opportunities.
Although the small school does not provide such a wealth of activities, the
average student has a better experience as measured by the amount of
involvement in the available activities (Schoggen and Schoggen, 1998)
Findings about participation rates in smaller schools hold true regardless
of setting and are most applicable to minority and low-SES students.
Because research has identified important relationships between
extracurricular participation and other desirable outcomes, such as positive
attitudes and social behaviour, this finding is especially significant
(Cotton, 1996).
Opportunities to participate and take on leadership roles in the social life of the school are
crucial developmental and growth experiences for all students. As these and other
researchers have found, small schools provide more of these opportunities for more
students. There appears to be this recurring theme in the literature. While the larger
school appears to have quantitatively more of everything to offer, only a small percentage
of particular students benefit. On the other hand, the smaller school has less to offer, but
most, if all students benefit. When it comes to quality education less seems to be more.
What good is a comprehensive menu if only a few of the items are actually available to
all patrons?
Attitudes towards school
Students in a small high school increasingly more positive
attitude toward school (Gregory and Smith, 1987).
Given what small schools have to offer in terms of a personalized environment and
participation opportunities, it is not surprising that attitudes are quite positive and
students elect to stay in school to complete their education.
Student attitudes towards school have long been recognized as a key element in terms of
staying in school and overall academic performance. Many studies have investigated the
differences in attitude between students attending small and larger schools (see e.g.
Aptekar 1983; Bates 1993; Edington and Gardner 1984; Fowler 1995; Fowler and
Walberg 1991; Gregory 1992; Gregory and Smith 1983, 1987; Howley 1994, 1996;
Kershaw and Blank 1993; Miller, Ellsworth, and Howell 1986; Rutter 1988; Smith and
DeYoung 1988; Smith, Gregory, and Pugh 1981; Walberg 1992)
The research is very consistent in finding that as far as attitude towards schooling is
concerned students in small schools have a much more positive attitude towards school
than do students in larger schools. Unlike large schools, in small schools, the more
disadvantaged the students, the more positive are their attitudes. There is nothing
surprising in these findings. If you feel wanted and needed, have good and productive
social relationships with your peers and teachers, more than likely you are going to enjoy
school and do well. Related studies that investigate attendance and retention all favour
the smaller school.
Virtually all educational research from every theoretical perspective, methodological
orientation and disciplinary foundation over the last hundred years has confirmed that in
order to be successful in school students must possess positive motivation
Social behavior
Behavior problems are so much greater in larger schools that any possible
virtue of larger size is cancelled out by the difficulties of maintaining an
orderly learning environment (Stockard and Mayberry, 1992).
Many teachers working in large schools report that they spend as much as 40% of their
time dealing with behavior problems in their schools and classrooms. In smaller schools
that percentage of disruptive time is minimal. Teachers in smaller schools are able to
focus practically all of their energies on teaching and learning activities. Cotton (1996)
succinctly summarizes the research on school size and behavior:
The research linking school size to social behaviour has investigated
everything from truancy and classroom disruption to vandalism,
aggressive behaviour, theft, substance abuse, and gang participation. This
research shows that small schools have lower incidences of negative social
behaviour, however measured, than do large schools (Burke 1987; Duke
and Perry 1978; Gottfredson 1985; Gregory 1992; Kershaw and Blank
1993; Rutter 1988; Stockard and Mayberry 1992). The social behaviour of
ethnic minority and low-SES students is even more positively impacted by
small schools than that of other students.
Small schools are much safer places according to Deborah Meier (1996). They are
safer because of their smaller scale which means people know and work closely
with each other. Larger schools create anonymity, the breeding ground of anti-
social and violent behaviour:
Anonymity breeds not only contempt and anger, but also physical danger.
The data are clear that the smaller the school, the fewer the incidents of
violence, as well as vandalism and just plain rudeness. Strangers are
easily spotted, and teachers can respond quickly to a student who seems
on the verge of exploding. Small schools offer what metal detectors and
guards cannot: the safety and security of being where you are known well
by people who care for you (1996: 14).
Wasley et. al. (2000) reported on a two year study of Chicago’s small schools
conducted by the Bank Street College of Education. She and her colleagues found
that Chicago’s smaller schools to be safer because for the most part in smaller
schools students feel a greater “sense of identify and community.”
Small School researcher Michael Klonsky (2002) states that the “The difference
between large and small schools, according to much of the research, lies not in the
schools' concern for student safety but in their ability to implement effective
strategies that produce desired outcomes.”
Whereas large schools rely much more on external measures for
controlling student behavior—metal detectors and security guards—
smaller schools stress engagement of the faculty, school community, and
students (Klonsky, 2002).
Writing in Educational Leadership, Klonsky (2002) in an article entitled “How Small
Schools Prevent Violence” makes these additional points:
Small schools create the opportunity for knowing students, for intervening
as professionals before problems reach a crisis stage—before students
resort to violence, suicide, or other forms of destructive behavior.
In small schools, faculty can more readily share responsibility for
recognizing and responding to troubled students and can designate the
adults who will provide assistance.
Simply stated, small schools obliterate anonymity—the handmaiden of
many forms of youth violence—and create an environment where students
are visible to those charged with their education and many aspects of their
social and cultural development—their teachers (2002: 67).
Parental involvement
Several generations of effective schools research have consistently found that one
of the keys to high levels of student achievement is parental involvement in the
school. There are two characteristics of schools that work against parents being
involved with the schooling of their children. One is the size of the school and the
other is the distance the school is from the home community of the family.
Meier (1996) addresses the issue of school size as an impediment to parental
involvement. “Schools are intimidating places,” she writes, “for many parents
parents feel like intruders, strangers, and outsiders.”
And nothing seems more foolish than going to parent night and seeing a
slew of adults who don't know your kid, have very little investment in him
or her, and whose opinions and advice make one feel less, not more,
powerful. When kids reach high school, schools usually give up on parents
entirely (except to scold them). But high school students don't need their
parents any less, just differently.
When the school is small enough, probably someone there knows your kid
well enough, and maybe also likes him or her enough, to create a powerful
alliance with you. Smallness doesn't guarantee such an alliance, but it
makes it reasonable to put time into creating one (1996: 13).
When that larger school is in a distant community, that feeling of alienation for parents is
intensified. In addition, travel distance and time become additional barriers for parents to
be involved with the school and get to the school for special meetings. In some
circumstances having access to transportation can be a problem for parents.
The very best way to facilitate parental involvement in a school is to maintain community
and neighborhood schools. Small size works for parents as well as for students. They feel
the same sense of belonging and connectedness with the school and the teachers. It is a
personalized environment for them as well. When the school is located in the
community, it is much easier and convenient for parents to visit the school and take an
active role in a large variety of activities. In addition, there are opportunities for parents
to encounter teachers outside the school where an informal and casual conversation can
take place regarding their children.
Why do small schools work? As we have demonstrated there are many reasons, all made
possible by the scale of the learning environment and the proximity of that environment
to the homes of the students. The North West Regional Educational Laboratory’s 2002
report, “Small School Might” offers a succinct answer to the question:
In small-school environments, the studies show, all students—whatever
their ethnicity or place on the socioeconomic ladder—tend to achieve at
higher levels, have a greater sense of belonging, feel safer, are less likely
to drop out, and are more likely to participate in extracurricular activities
and go on to college. Furthermore, parent involvement is higher in smaller
schools, as is teachers' job satisfaction
Transportation of students to school has become a costly and socially
questionable activity (Fox, 1996).
School bussing has been part of the reality of rural schooling in North America since the
first school closure and consolidation campaigns were launched by educational
authorities in the first decades of the twentieth century (Nachtigal, 1982). It wasn't until
the middle of the century, however, that bussing became a reality for the majority of rural
communities in Canada. Before that, the absence of a decent network of roads made
bussing difficult. Since that time, however, more and more small community schools
have been "improved out of existence" (Mulcahy, 1996) resulting in increasing numbers
of rural children riding the bus.
Rural communities value their local schools for what they can offer the children and for
what they mean to the life and vitality of the community. Rarely does the initiative for
closure emanate from the community; few schools close without resistance and
opposition from rural citizens. Nevertheless, in the name of educational reform
educational authorities have demanded that rural communities give up their local schools
and agree to have their children bussed to another community. “Because policy makers
focused on the benefits of school consolidation, however, they tended to overlook its
drawbacks” (Ramage and Howley, 2005).
Historically, increased student transportation has been the by product of
school consolidation, but the cost of transportation is the most under-
studied issue in the consolidation debate. Rural children are most affected.
They are the ones who most often have had their community schools
closed. Some research and much anecdotal evidence suggest that long
bus rides have negative effects on family life, the ability of students to
perform well in school, and students’ abilities to fully participate in the
school experience (Spence, 2000)
In some instances, the bus ride is relatively short. In the majority of cases, however,
restructuring the educational system has resulted in more students spending increasing
amounts of time riding the school bus.
Although the issue has been all but ignored by governments and educational researchers,
rural parents and educators are well aware of the impact of long distance bussing on
students (Mulcahy, 1996). When given the opportunity to speak on the matter they
readily describe their concerns regarding the impact of long bus rides on their children's
lives and their education (Mulcahy, 1999).
While they may acknowledge parents' concerns, educational authorities tend to give these
concern little credence or legitimacy. The consistent argument put forward by school
board and government officials is that by closing small schools and implementing long
distance bussing, rural children will have access to, “the increased educational
opportunities available only in larger schools.” This purported advantage of larger
schools supposedly compensates for all of the expressed concerns of the parents. But
does it?
Although every school administrator and transportation coordinator I
spoke with expressed concern about the costs—both financial and
human—of the present system, none had examined the effects of bussing
on children and families or had looked for correlation between school
achievement, parent participation, dropout rates or attendance with the
length of the bus rides (Zars, 1998).
The Research Literature on Student Transportation
Despite the fact that millions of students of all ages are bussed to and from school in
North America everyday and the cost of providing this service consumes a very
significant portion of every districts budget, there is very little research into bussing and
its effects on students and their families. Consequently, we do not know with any
certainty, from a research perspective the effects of bussing. One has to wonder, given
the extent of bussing, why this issue has not been more thoroughly investigated. Is it that
the educational community is not interested in this issue? Is it that they just assume that,
despite the many expressed concerns of parents and teachers, there are no problems? Or,
is it that policy makers fear what a more rigorous program of research might reveal?
Parents have a right to be concerned with the potential impact of bussing on the quality of
education their children receive. When faced with the potential closure of their
community schools and the prospect of having their children bussed to distant schools
parents raise many legitimate and important questions. What impact, they ask, will
having to ride the bus to school have on their children’s academic achievement and their
ability to participate fully in the social life of the school? Parents also express concerns
about the health and safety of their children and their ability to fully participate in family
and community life. Unfortunately, definitive answers to these questions are not
The most heavily cited study in the literature was one completed more than 30 years ago
by Lu and Tweeten (1973). They investigated the impact of bussing on student
achievement in rural Oklahoma. They compared the academic achievement of 440 bussed
and non-bussed students and determined that there was some association between longer
bus rides and lower academic achievement as measured by standardized tests.
Perhaps the second most referenced study was completed by a geographer, not an
educator. Michael Fox is a professor of Geography at Mount Alison University in New
Brunswick. In 1996, he investigated the effects of long-distance bussing on children and
their families. The focus of his study was the constraints bus rides put on students’ lives.
In this study he asked students what they would or could do with the time that they now
spend on the bus. Fox reported that students considered, "time on the bus as empty time,
with few possible activities to engage in." If they could reclaim the time from the bus
rides they would sleep more, engage in social and recreation activities and work.
According to Fox,
As time on the bus increases, students participate in fewer non essential
activities (those activities other than sleep, personal care, school and bus
ride). The individuals with large average times on a bus report lower
grades and poorer levels of fitness, poorer study habits, fewer social
activities and overall loss of sleep time." (Fox, 1996: 23)
A number of researchers highlight the fatigue factor that results in students being less
attentive in school and less willing to put in extra time on home work assignments.
Spence (2000) notes that long bus rides can affect the academic choices students make:
“There’s a myth you get a better education here,” said a Webster County
student. But he and his classmates say they avoid higher level classes
because they don’t have time to do the required homework. “I’m just
involved in the basic classes it takes to get out of high school.”
A parent who attended the same high school offered an explanation. “The
more advanced classes you take in high school, the more homework you
have that evening. So you bring home five or six courses of homework in
the evening and you’re getting home at 6 or 6:30 anyway, it kind of
depresses you and you don’t have that zeal the following year to go the
next step.”
The amount of time and the distance traveled affect students and their families in a wide
variety of ways. Fox (1996) made the following points in his study “Rural School
Transportation as a Daily Constraint in Students' Lives:”
Bussing times and distances affect activities such as homework, recreational
activities, employment (ability to have a part time job) and especially sleep.
Students living farther away from school must drop non essential activities from
the lives to compensate for the time spent on the bus.
Bussing affects the life of other members of the student’s family in a variety of
ways. The greater the time/distance the greater impact on the family. Interaction
among and between family members is affected.
“In general, there was a feeling that the time devoted to riding a bus was a great
waste of physical and intellectual time. Regardless of distance, most students
suggested that hey tend to do less homework than they would if they could walk
to school”(p. 25)
“They also suggest that the time devoted to travel causes fatigue so that they are
not as attentive in school, nor are they as willing to put the required time and
effort into their home work assignments. These factors will ultimately have a
negative effect on grades” (p. 26).
When students are bussed there is a disconnect between family and community
and the new school. Families tend not to identify with the new school in the same
way they did with their community school.
Participation in extra-curricular activities declines steadily with increased distance
from a school.
Fox’s study clearly demonstrated that bussing has “direct and indirect effects” students
and their families. The “social costs” of bussing must be considered by policy makers
when considering implementing transportation policies in the future they should be
guided by human (original double emphasis) perceptions and behaviours”(1996: 27)
Howley and Howley (2001) make a strong case that certain inferences concerning
the effects of bussing on student achievement especially the achievement of low
socioeconomic students can be made from the emerging body of research on
school size and achievement reviewed in an earlier section of this report.
Findings from this research are relevant because shorter bus rides have
been found to be positively associated with smaller school size (Howley et
al., 2001). Moreover, attention to the achievement of low-SES students
makes particular sense in rural locales, where so many families' incomes
fall below the national median (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1998).
As this literature shows, smaller size tends to improve the overall
achievement of schools and districts serving large proportions of
impoverished students (e.g., Bickel & Howley, 2000; Howley & Bickel,
1999). Although these studies use school- and district-level data, they do
provide a reasonable basis for making inferences about how well low-
income students who [are bussed so that they can] attend large, remote
schools are likely to perform. And this reasoning leads to the conclusion
that such students' academic achievement is likely to suffer (Emphasis
The voice of parents: The case of Newfoundland
Since 1996, rural community in Newfoundland and Labrador have faced constant
pressures from the government and school districts to consolidate and close their small
schools. Rural parents have had to deal with the continuing prospect of increased bussing
and having their children spend increasing amounts of time riding the bus. Every year
several more communities have to take up the battle their school.
During a series of public consultation sessions held in late 1996 and 1997, rural parents
were given the opportunity to express their views and concerns about having their
community schools closed and their children bussed to distant schools.
“Fighting to save their small schools was nothing new to the people of rural
Newfoundland and Labrador. The history of rural education tells many stories of
emotionally charged meetings where people expressed their feelings about losing their
school. However, one very noticeable difference this time around was that feeling and
emotion were supplemented with research data, critical questions, and well-argued and
articulated positions. The rural schools the government was attempting to close produced
a generation of parents very different from the previous one. There may have been less
shouting and tears but there was a lot more facts, figures and informed opinion. They felt
strongly about the issues as they have always done, but this time around their feelings
were informed by facts, information and critical questions.
“In a government Consultation Paper (1996) there were two general proposals regarding
student transportation: 1. More students will have to be bussed longer distances in the
name of improved educational opportunities; 2. Existing bussing services for some
students will be reduced in order to cut costs.
The "grass roots" perspective on student transportation was very different from that of
government. The primary concerns of rural parents and educators focused on issues to do
with safety and the negative impact of the current degree of bussing on children and their
families. Their basic position was that too many students were now being bussed too far,
and often on dangerous roads. They rejected the notion that increased bussing was
necessarily the appropriate or the only way to improve educational opportunities for their
children. They were critical of the proposed cuts to bussing services describing these as
government's way of trying to save money by imposing hardships on rural children and
their parents. Concerns raised by parents related to government's plans to increase
bussing included issues to do with health and safety, broken promises about late and
lunch time busses, impact on the students recreational opportunities, and students
opportunities to take part in the social life of the school:
A number of safety concerns were raised, including the lack of adult supervision
on school buses and the need for seat belts and two-way radios. Many parents
were concerned by the reduction in road maintenance and snow clearing they
were noticing. The Department of Education should work closely with the
Department of Works, Services and Transportation to ensure that bus routes are
cleared of snow in the winter and that these routes are assigned priority for
maintenance. Several presenters related examples of bus routes not being cleared
in time for buses to reach schools before morning classes begin.
In several areas of the province, over the last several years, school boards had
promised to provide lunchtime bussing in order to get people to agree to close
their community schools. This offer was made in the face of parental opposition
based in part on the fact that the receiving school did not have proper lunch room
facilities. Recent cuts in bussing provision had forced boards to renege on
lunchtime bussing. Several parents expressed their concerns about the safety and
health of children eating at their desks. Many people felt that lunchrooms should
be provided or lunch hour bussing be continued or re-established.
There was concern expressed about younger children being so far from home. If
they became ill, it might be difficult for parents to go and get them. Parents of
children with special needs were especially concerned about the possibility of
their children being bussed to distant communities. Several parents expressed the
concern that mixed busloads of older and younger students had a negative impact
on younger children. Older students often exposed younger children to ideas and
language that their parents did not feel they were ready for.
Bussed children do not have the option to linger after school to chat with a teacher
or play with a friend. They do not have the opportunity to seek help from their
teacher with something they are having difficulty with in one of their classes.
Bussing negatively affects the quality of a child's life and the nature of his/her
participation in the school. Because they are bussed, they may not be able to take
part in the extra-curricular life of their new school. Sports teams, clubs and
organizations, drama groups, and school choirs provide valuable educational
experiences for our children. It is little wonder they lack a sense of belonging and
ownership for the school.
It was felt that longer bus rides would have a negative affect on student learning
and, therefore, guidelines should be developed with the goal of keeping bus rides
as short as possible. Many presenters noted that bussed students had reduced
access to teachers and the fatigue factor from longer rides often inhibits their
Rural citizens were generally critical of all government's proposed changes to the student
transportation system. They saw them all for the most part as being primarily concerned
with saving money for government at the cost of imposing hardship on students and their
parents. Finally, several participants linked their concerns about bussing directly to their
argument for maintaining small community schools. The more community schools we
have and maintain the less need there is to bus children. Community schools enable
children, especially younger children, to be educated close to home and not to have to
endure long, tiresome and sometimes dangerous bus rides. Participants in this study
encouraged authorities to spend money on resources for community schools not busses to
take children away from the community (Mulcahy, 1999).
Concerns about Safety
U.S. researcher Belle Zars (1998) notes that, “Statistics on school buses tend to focus on
the health of the bus rather than the health of the students who ride them. Those statistics
that are gathered focus on tragic accidents and only offer peripheral discussion of broader
issues of safety. On average 41 children die each year in school bus related accidents.
About three fourths of these children are hit by the bus while they are either entering or
leaving” (Za