Rethinking Elementary School Size
Miramonte Elementary School, where two teachers were recently accused of lewd behavior with their students, is one of the largest elementary schools in the nation with 1500 students and 150 teachers. In the wake of the charges, the LA school superintendent replaced all teachers in the school, assigning them with pay to report to Augustus Hawkins High School where they will be interviewed by authorities. The high school is still under construction. Miramonte will be staffed by teachers called back from lay-offs.
The Los Angeles teachers’ union threatened last week to file a grievance on behalf of all the displaced teachers to protect their rights and reputations; parents and critics worried that by losing their teachers, all the children at the school were being punished for events that had nothing to do with them. The superintendent later allayed the union’s concerns, temporarily at least, by indicating that the transferred teachers would have the opportunity to return to Miramonte. In the meantime, instruction continues at Miramonte while parents, teachers, union leaders, administration, and others try to figure out how this situation could have happened and how to prevent it in the future.
The largest elementary school that I ever managed as principal had an enrollment of about 750 students, half the size of Miramonte. I was there for three years, and for one of those years I was without an assistant. Even with an assistant, getting into every classroom every day required making classroom visitations a priority. Still, we (or I) managed a random drop-in visit just about every single day. Visibility is important for a principal, and being readily available to the staff allowed me to gather a great deal of essential information quickly and efficiently. Teachers were never sure when my assistant or I might drop in, but they were sure that we would make an appearance at some time each day.
My point is that in a school half the size of Miramonte, it wasn’t easy to see all staff members every day. We had to work at it, and we had to make it a priority. Still, once we made the commitment, the benefits of knowing what was going on, heading off problems, and gathering information made it all worthwhile and saved us time and trouble in the end.
I’m not saying that Miramonte’s principal didn’t monitor the classrooms. I’m not saying that even good MBWA would have prevented what allegedly happened. What I am saying, though, is that with 1500 students K-5, it’s easier for people to hide. Also it’s less likely that kids in general will know their administrators and feel comfortable talking to them. And I have to add that if the alleged actions on the part of the accused teachers actually happened, one has to wonder how it was that a teacher felt confident that no administrator would drop in while these actions were taking place and that he could do what he wanted in his classroom with impunity.
Perhaps there were many teachers at Miramonte who were caring, nurturing, and strong instructors. Perhaps they closed their doors and did their jobs well. But I support the district’s decision to sweep clean and start fresh. Still, in a school with 1500 kids, unless it’s divided into two or three “schools within a school,” it won’t be easy to establish a different culture. Working effectively with smaller numbers isn't a high concept idea for reform; it's a simple idea, cost effective, proven, and workable.