School districts struggle to decide how small is too small

This is the third installment of a three-part series

Thomas McInroy is transportation coordinator, human resources director, facilities manager and curriculum coordinator for the Shanskville-Stoneycreek School District in Somerset County.

He’s also the superintendent.

Unlike employees in large school districts, staff at K-12 Shanksville-Stoneycreek — enrollment 375 — wear many hats.

“People say, ‘You’re a smaller school, so how hard can it be?’ We’re all essentially doing the same work as large school districts. We just have fewer people to do the work,” Mr. McInroy said.

Enrollment declines and tight budgets over the past decade have made it tough for districts of all sizes.

For small districts, it can be even tougher.

PG graphic: Small districts, small schools
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Across Pennsylvania, school districts can be as tiny as 214 students in the Austin Area School District in Potter County to as large as 135,291 in Philadelphia.

Allegheny County had five districts with fewer than 1,000 students in 2013: Cornell, Allegheny Valley, Wilkinsburg, Clairton and Duquesne, which has only grades K-6.

In districts where overall enrollment drops to several hundred students, inevitably the question becomes: How small is too small?

The same question is asked at individual schools when enrollment falls so low that officials question whether it’s financially feasible to operate a separate building with separate administrative staff.

Educators agree that it’s easier to operate a small elementary program than a small secondary program with a schedule of upper level courses and variety of extracurricular activities.

Effective secondary programs require facilities such as updated science and computer labs for math and science and spaces such as art rooms, band rooms and auditoriums.

Large districts with bigger budgets can offer a richer curriculum at the secondary level, including multiple Advanced Placement courses.

Fox Chapel Area offers 24, for example, while struggling Wilkinsburg offers none.

Larger districts also often offer a wider array of classes. Pine-Richland offers courses such as international business and ethics, entrepreneurship, sports and entertainment management, astronomy, organic chemistry, comparative anatomy, beginner piano, music technology and Web page design.

Determining an appropriate size isn’t simple math.

The socioeconomic status of the district’s communities and families as well as the percentage of special education and charter school students factor into the decision.

Craig Howley, a retired educational studies professor at Ohio University with a specialization in rural education, said the push away from smaller, more intimate school districts is both “educationally and economically ineffective.”

For him, the question isn’t how small is too small for a district to function, but how large is too large to give students the necessary personal educational experience they need.

“The question with education shouldn’t be efficiency. Under that logic, the people who benefit the least are the poorest kids,” Mr. Howley said.

The individualized care and attention students can receive in smaller districts is incomparable, he said, especially in districts with a high poverty rate where many students need additional resources to help them succeed.

Additionally, a 2011 report by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association on school building size said researchers have concluded that “there is no definitive work that conclusively determines the size of a school building has either a positive or negative impact on the academic success of all students.”

The report also cites a correlation “between smaller school size and improved performance among poor students in urban school districts.”

Some small schools struggle

That has not appeared to be the case in Allegheny County, where two of the smallest and poorest districts — Wilkinsburg and Duquesne — have shown some of the lowest achievement scores in the state year after year.

In 2007, the state board of control in the Duquesne City School District closed Duquesne High School because it lacked Advanced Placement and honors courses, had few athletic and zero non-athletic extracurricular activities for its 200-some students.

The Duquesne High School students were reassigned to their larger neighbors — West Mifflin Area and East Allegheny school districts.

In the Wilkinsburg School District this school year, the board merged the middle and high school programs to make better use of staff. It’s also trying to provide more academic offerings for the approximately 172 high school students it estimates this fall.

But what Wilkinsburg officials are finding is that it’s difficult to interest students in Advanced Placement or honors courses in a district where standardized test scores are among the lowest in the state.

During the school board’s final legislative meeting before the school year starts, acting Wilkinsburg superintendent Daniel Matsook announced the district had reached its minimum enrollment requirement of five students for two honors classes — American and world cultures.

In Beaver County, the former Center Area School District had 1,500 students and the former Monaca School District had 500 before the merger to form Central Valley in 2010.

The merger was done not just to save money, but also to enhance the academic programs. It allowed the districts, for the first time, to have a middle school, and to offer more AP classes at the high school.

In 2013, state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, called for Wilkinsburg schools to be merged with Pittsburgh Public Schools. But so far, there has been no movement in that direction.

In Cornell, the school board has authorized superintendent Aaron Thomas to participate in preliminary talks with Moon Area superintendent Curt Baker about a possible merger.

Though tiny, Cornell had not been seeking a merger, but the idea was broached by Moon, which has about 3,700 students, earlier this summer.

Some tiny districts flourish

Merger talks aside, Cornell, like other tiny districts, has come up with innovative ways to provide enhanced curriculum choices.

In addition to AP English, it offers dual enrollment courses at the high school level in Spanish and French, statistics, ecology, accounting and government. The courses are offered through La Roche College, Robert Morris University and the University of Pittsburgh, and the district pays the fees.

Cornell has a joint swim team with nearby Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Coraopolis. Cornell football players play on neighboring Quaker Valley’s team where the starting quarterback, Dane Jackson, is a Cornell student.

One of the challenges for school districts is determining a cutoff in deciding which courses to offer.

“As a high school principal, I had to decide: Would I offer a math or science class for six kids, for five kids? How small is too small? Where I drew the line was five kids,” said Mr. Thomas, who previously served as high school principal.

As in Shanksville-Stoneycreek, Cornell teachers generally teach a number of classes within their certifications.

“I tell my teachers: If you are certified in an area, you are going to teach it at some point in your career here,” Mr. Thomas said.

Avella School District in Washington County, with only 588 students, manages to offer four levels of Spanish and seven AP classes to its high school students.

It also has a vibrant student life, with sports such as football, basketball, baseball, cross county and wrestling available for students. Extracurricular activities range from art club to an annual school play.

While the district sometimes struggles to have enough participants, Avella superintendent Janell Logue-Belden said offering students options for academic courses and extracurricular activities keeps them engaged and increases school pride.

“It’s a public school setting here, but it’s like being in a private school,” she said. “I’ve never been in a district where there’s this much parent involvement. You really get to know your students, and everyone knows everyone.”

Fewer choices but more chances

Officials and students in small districts acknowledge they may have a shorter list of activities and sports, but the chances of being included are much better than in bigger districts.

The PSBA study also said “researchers suggest students in small schools are better able to develop a fit into the social network that exists in schools by having, as a result of less competition, more opportunities from athletics to social organizations.”

“If your kids want to play baseball, they play baseball,” said Paula Ponticel, parent of three in Cornell.

Nathan Lawyer, 18, who was in the 2014 Cornell graduating class of 40 students, “was involved in almost everything I could possibly be involved in. Anytime they started a club, I joined.”

The list included junior class president, senior class president, drum major in the marching band, executive director of the morning television news, drama club and student government.

School officials and the PSBA study said the faculty at smaller schools gets a chance to know all the students and their families, and students develop a familiarity that reduces bullying and acting out.

“Every teacher knows me and knows my husband and my children,” Mrs. Ponticel said.

So how small is too small?

“We know that there is a magic number. I couldn’t tell you what that number is,” said Ed Donovan, school board president in Wilkinsburg, which expects to open today with about 866 students.

“There is a certain threshold below which we would be no longer viable. I don’t think we’re going to hit that number this year.”

Part 1: Resizing

Part 2: Closings and consolidations

Mary Niederberger: or 412-263-1590. Clarece Polke: or 412-263-1889.

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