To the editor:
Following months of deliberation, the Gloucester School Committee recently declared the Fuller building surplus.
With this decision, the committee signaled its intention to continue building its educational programs on Gloucester’s system of five small elementary schools, and rejected a consolidation model in which two or three of these schools would be closed, and their students moved to the Fuller facility.
The committee considered the alternatives of large vs. small schools on three dimensions.
1. Educational appropriateness. Superintendent Safier reviewed the research literature, reporting his findings to the committee and in these pages (the Times, My View, Tuesday, Jan. 8). His principal source of data was a large-scale research review of all empirical studies on school size conducted after 1990, and the results were clear and compelling: “... elementary schools serving student populations exclusively or largely from diverse and/or disadvantaged backgrounds should be limited in size to not more than about 300 students.”
Some people still ask why we can’t setup schools-within-schools, so that we get the benefits of smaller elementary schools in a larger building like the Fuller.
Well, according to the research, there is no evidence to demonstrate that this policy would achieve the diverse benefits linked to small schools. Specific “active ingredients” underlying the small elementary school advantage are simply not well understood, so that no one knows how or whether a large facility can simulate the advantages of a small one.
2. Costs associated with small vs. consolidated schools.
We’ve heard some members of the community state that “it just stands to reason that a consolidated school would be operated more efficiently.” But as Chairman Jonathan Pope wrote in these pages (the Times, My View, Friday, Jan. 11), the facts are otherwise.
Our analysis suggested that consolidation would likely lead to greater operating costs than we have now. And when the capital implications of consolidation are taken into account (the unreimbursable costs of Fuller restoration, and the repayments that would be owed to the state school building authority if elementary schools that used state money were closed), the Fuller option has no clear financial advantage over the current five-school system, including a new West Parish.
3. School community perception of small vs. large schools. We surveyed 507 respondents, including primarily parents, as well as staff, and residents with no direct connections to the schools.
Results from all three groups agreed that small elementary schools provided Gloucester students and parents with better access to teachers, a safer learning environment, more parental involvement, greater individual attention, and more pride in school.
An overwhelming majority said they preferred smaller schools. These patterns of responses were essentially the same among all three groups. (The full survey report is available on the GPS website.)
Evidence from each of these areas told us the same story: our small school elementary system — not a consolidated school —was the best foundation for continuing the district’s initiatives for building greater equity, financial efficiency, teaching excellence, community involvement, and student achievement and engagement across Gloucester public schools.