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What Is Lost in School Consolidation

Many local high school bands participate in the parade, but no band is more anticipated by the crowd than the Sentinels.

Band Because of the band’s renown, organizers of the parade always put them towards the end so that the crowd stays around to see them.  The final quarter mile of the parade route starts at the top of a gentle hill and passes in front of the reviewing stand filled with the usual dignitaries.  The band director pauses the band at the top of the slope and marks cadence until a distance of at least a hundred yards opens up between the Sentinels and whoever marches ahead of them.  The result is a dramatic entrance with horns blaring, drums booming, and flags swirling as the band marches with crisp precision down the hill.

It’s a great band from a small high school where more than a third of the students are members.  Among them are student athletes, academic stars, and kids with less than stellar records who tend to be excellent percussionists.  It’s the school melting pot.  Along with the basketball teams, the band is the pride of the community.

But during tough economic times the idea of consolidation with a neighboring larger district began to look appealing.  At the open meeting with the Board of Education, many citizens spoke in favor of the move.  Some cited cost savings (most of those folks didn’t have kids in school); others spoke of a greater array of academic offerings for students (some of those folks did).

Finally it occurred to one of the citizens to ask, “What about the Sentinels?”

“What do you mean?” asked the Board President.

“I mean, would we still have the Sentinels?” he asked.

“Well, kids could still join the band at the other high school.  But it wouldn’t be the Sentinels.”

The audience began to murmur.  “What about the basketball team?” someone asked.

“Same thing, “ the President said.  “The kids could try out at the other school.”

Suddenly consolidation didn’t seem like such a great idea.  No one mentioned that the district’s graduation rate was 30 points higher than the state average and 10 points higher than the larger district.  No one mentioned the smaller district’s test scores were among the highest in the county.  What mattered to folks in general were the band and sports.

But it turns out that they had reason to be concerned.  A study released this month by Ohio University notes that typically consolidation does not yield the efficiencies that some would expect, particularly in terms of transportation.  In addition, consolidation may not result in a higher quality education for students and may reduce the numbers of students involved in extracurricular activities like band and sports, the very activities that often connect kids to school.

According to researchers Craig Howley, Jerry Johnson, and Jennifer Petrie, “impoverished regions in particular often benefit from smaller schools and districts and they can suffer irreversible damage if consolidation occurs.” 

In small schools, teachers and kids know one another.  Kids are less likely to slip through the cracks.  It’s not just about the opportunities to march in the band or join a team; it’s about somebody encouraging a student to do it and the whole town coming out to watch. 

The study advises that districts considering school consolidation proceed with extreme care and that the decision should be made on a case by case basis, not by the state.  Bigger isn’t always better.


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