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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Neither Fish Nor Fowl

The Heatly School is a hybrid of sorts. It's an anomaly, small size in size but urban in environment. Normally small school districts are found in rural areas whereas cities boast large school systems. Although our soci-economic and racial demographics are more reflective of the statistics associated with many of the larger schools surrounding our district, the size of our district leaves us with much in common instructionally with our distant counterparts in the countryside beyond the capital region. We're a little of each and different from both.

I attended an interesting conference in Albany today sponsored by the New York State School Boards Association. It was entitled the Rural Schools Summit. The lure for me was the opportunity to connect with leaders of other small school districts who experience issues similar to those evident in Green Island. There were several intriguing presentations that proved informative. Sessions focused on the challenges of enrollment decline, decreased state aid to education, and maintaining the precarious staffing patterns necessary to meet the Regents guidelines with a small and dwindling number of high school teachers. In addition, there were discussions on shared services, school reorganizations and mergers; a representative from Cornell's Center for Rural Schools explained how to access and exploit supportive data to find a difference that makes a difference; attracting international learners in a systematic program designed to increase learner population and promote cultural diversity as a learning opportunity; the potential impact of the Regents Reform proposal as it relates to rural schools; and an open question forum seeking pressing issues facing rural schools across the state.

All of the learners in Green Island live within a short walk to the school so the problems of lengthy bus rides, particularly as they apply to possible mergers of small districts within expansive swaths of land, didn't apply to Heatly. The demographic homogeneity that may prove limiting to rural schools preparing learners for a world unlike their isolated and distant (think Adirondack region) small communities was also a source of difference that separated Heatly from the discussion. However, there were more than enough parallels to make the conference a rewarding experience. I left with new ideas, valuable resources and productive contacts with colleagues. I also left the conference with the revelation of how unique The Heatly School is when compared to other school districts.

However, the political and social topography appears familiar between Heatly and typical rural school systems. That is, the small schools, whether rural, suburban or urban, all appreciate and promote the depth of relationships and personal bonds that are characteristic of districts where enrollment is measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands. The sense of community and the connection between the school and village, town, or hamlet is one that is prized. On the other hand, there is a fear that the atmosphere of a small district may not expose young men and women to the experiences and challenges that may await them when they leave the community far behind for a more diverse and densely populated area. The curriculum offerings of smaller high schools suffer from the inability to operate on a scale that could financially justify the range of upper level courses (electives, Advance Placement classes, sophisticated math and science courses,...) for which very low percentages of learners qualify. This is especially during an economic crisis when support is lacking for classes that may contain only a handful of eligible learners.

It was definitely a worthwhile expenditure of time.

And, it's okay to be different.

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