Rooting for small schools

February 22, 2009 

During the 20 years I occupied the editor's chair, I handed out Herald Academic Achievement awards to top-performing seniors at most of the dozen or so high schools in our circulation area.

Because some of those award ceremonies would take place simultaneously, I enlisted other editors and department heads to assist. That was easy enough when the campus was in or near Rock Hill, but it took some cajoling if the school was in the far reaches of York or Chester counties. For that reason, many times I assigned myself to visit more distant schools.

Two schools that I enjoyed visiting were Lewisville and Great Falls. They have been the subject of recent news articles as the Chester County school district first considered merging the communities' schools, then backed off after heated public hearings.

Until more is known about how the state will allocate federal "stimulus" money, nobody can say with certainty that the merger idea won't be revived.

I hope not.

Money saved

I don't discount the district's estimate that closing a high school and a middle school in Great Falls and assigning those kids to Lewisville would save nearly $2 million a year -- savings that mostly would come by firing 40 district teachers.

Knowing the positive effect that a dedicated teacher can have on a youngster's life, I can't help but think the intangible costs of such cutbacks would be greater than anyone has calculated.

Fleeting encounters with Great Falls and Lewisville high schools don't qualify me as an authority on school mergers, but I visited each of those institutions often enough to appreciate unique qualities I didn't see at larger schools.

Awards night at Great Falls High was an intimate affair. Were it not for obvious differences in skin color and wardrobe in the audience, the event could have been mistaken for a big family reunion. One year a senior, charged with recapping the class history, described an especially memorable day when a fellow classmate moved to town. They were in the third grade!

Each year during the awards ceremony at Lewisville, dozens of scholarships were awarded by local families. Most were for a few hundred dollars and were earmarked for study at York Technical College or USC-Lancaster. It wasn't the amount so much as it was that families who had lived in the nearby countryside for generations honored loved ones by endowing a scholarship. I never saw that level of commitment elsewhere.

Talented students

I saw plenty of talented, high-achieving students at each high school I visited over two decades, but the smaller schools seemed to excel at giving every student opportunities to participate. The same students would make repeated trips to the stage to accept awards for endeavors ranging from sports to library duty, annual staff and chorus, etc.

I admit to a bias toward small high schools. My own alma mater had fewer than 400 students in grades 9-12. Because of its size, every person on campus -- student, teacher, janitor -- knew you. If you were sent to detention, it wasn't a secret for long. If you placed second in an oratorical contest, that, too, was a topic of conversation.

At the same time, the small school provided students the chance to try different skills. Looking back, I can visualize the moment when the seeds for a lifelong career in journalism were planted by a compliment from my freshman English teacher. Also, I was a mediocre lineman on a varsity football team that won a total of four games my junior and senior years. No college scouts came knocking on my door, but I know what it feels like to play under the bright lights of Friday night. Until moths got it a few years back, I retained my high school letter sweater.

I understand the arguments for gargantuan high schools: Economy of scale, a wider selection of courses, etc. Nevertheless, many high schools are so large that it's too easy for adolescents to get lost in the mix -- at a time when young people are struggling to find an identity.

So when the folks of Great Falls and Lewisville stood up to fight for their schools, I was rooting for them.

Plumb, retired Herald editor, can be reached at terry.plumb@gmail.com

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