CharterFolk Contributor Christine Ferris – Small Schools

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Christine Ferris, Executive Director, Highline Academy Charter Schools. Christine provides this vignette from a larger writing project she is completing and would appreciate any feedback CharterFolk would like to provide.

Chris Ferris, Executive Director of Highline Academy Charter Schools in Denver.

I provide Christine’s bio below.

Christine Ferris has been the Executive Director of Highline Academy Charter Schools since 2016. She founded and led Our Community School, a K-8 charter school in Los Angeles CA from 2005 to 2013. She is a writer of personal essays and a memoir about her experience leading Our Community School. She currently lives in Denver CO.

Seven-year-old Bethany would come find me in the middle of the day for hugs because her dad and mine had the same kind of cancer. Ruby’s mom would take my kids home with her afterschool and take care of them until I finished up my work as the school principal. The teachers would come over to my house for dinner. We didn’t only know all our students’ names, we knew who needed extra lunch, who had a new puppy, who had a talent for drawing, and whose mom was out of town. We knew each other like a family. This is the gift of a very small school, to be known wholly in a community of learners.

Major school districts around the country are facing large declines in enrollment in public schools. People have been having fewer children since 2009. People with children are being priced out of cities by gentrification and have moved into surrounding suburbs. The pandemic pushed many people into other options such as home schooling and private school, and they haven’t all returned. All of these things are true. Districts across the country are struggling to decide how small a school can be before it gets closed down. It can be expensive to run under enrolled school buildings. Budget constraints make it impossible to have art, music, a school nurse, and a counselor.

The year we opened our charter school we had 150 students enrolled. They were unevenly spread across grades K-6. We had full classes of Kindergarteners and of first graders and then only half classes of second through fifth grade but a full class of sixth graders. It was a small school, but one we hoped and expected would grow. Some teachers taught split grades to make it work. There was no extra anything. Classroom teachers had to be PE and Art teachers. The office secretary had to be the school nurse and the counselor. As the school leader I was also the substitute teacher, the plumber, and the HR department. We counted every dime spent on phone bills, photocopies, and markers. It seemed like the children ate the markers they disappeared so fast. We asked families to donate Kleenex, pencils, playground balls, and cleaning wipes. We asked families to come in on the weekends and do light repairs and major cleaning projects like repainting a hallway. We rented a shared space from a local church that included a large grass field for the kids to play on and the occasional use of the chapel for school assemblies. We had to lower the movie screen to hide the baptismal tub from view.  

If districts want to keep their small schools open despite low enrollments they will have to borrow some of the flexibilities of charter schools and adjust their expectations for what a good school needs to include. The school may have to make due with part time staff shared with other schools. Students will be unlikely to have art, music, and PE. Teachers may have to teach awkward split grades like 17 third graders and 6 second graders, have fewer breaks in the day, and be responsible for extra duties. The district could find other uses for portions of the school building to bring in funds and then plan for the safety issues that will bring up. Unlike a startup school that is growing, the staff will have to withstand the demoralizing loss of teachers as staff is cut each year to right size the staff to the student enrollment. With the extreme shortage of teachers, that we are also facing across the country, will enough teachers want to work under these conditions? Will parents accept the compromises necessary or will they move their students into other larger schools to find the full array of services?

Running a small school was hard and also beautiful. The students played together across grade levels during recess, and all of them sang the songs our music teacher taught them: If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out, This Land is Your Land. We all shared in each child’s journey like the day shy Kayla spoke in front of the whole school assembly that brought us all to tears and the growth Dylan made in learning to control his temper that gave us hope that each of us is capable of change. Any start up charter can tell a similar story of the exciting, intimate first years when you made it happen all on a shoestring. Sometimes hard things are worth doing and sometimes they are impossible.  Whether small schools should be kept open despite how hard it will be or if they should be closed and absorbed into neighboring schools is a more complicated question than just economies of scale. I can’t say I know the answer, but I hope each district will weigh the worth of deep personal relationships in children’s lives at this moment as part of the equation.