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School size ‘impacts student achievement,’ Indiana Chamber-Ball State study says

By Emma Rausch

A school corporation’s student body size has a direct impact on the learner’s achievement and more than half of Indiana schools --including Wabash County’s -- are “too small to produce effective outcomes,” according to research commissioned by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Conducted by Ball State University Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER), the study, “School Corporation Size and Student Performance: Evidence from Indiana,” reported “poorer academic performance, on average,” for students attending corporations containing less than 2,000 students.

Numerous studies, conducted both nationally and by the CBER, found that organizations with fewer students “are not able to operate at optimal efficiency to maximize resources going into the classroom,” according to the report.

Wabash City Schools Superintendent Jason Callahan told The Paper of Wabash County the study provided valuable information.

“I don’t think it’s all together surprising,” Callahan said. “It only makes sense that the greater resources you have the greater capacity you’ll have to serve students. I’m sure there comes a tipping point where there can also be too big, but on the other end, there can also be too small. So I don’t think the findings of the study were all that surprising and I think it’s kind of in line of what has been shown in the past.

“I did find in the study,” he later added, “that there was value and that they recommended to continue to try and incentivize schools to make the right decisions. So I liked the study because--and it’s not just Wabash County’s issue. It’s a rural America issue -- money follows kids and if we’re losing kids, then money is leaving our community. So what we at Wabash City Schools have said for a long time is let’s connect this community, let’s unify this community and let’s create regionally and statewide. Let’s create the best educational system in the state of Indiana.”

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce released the information on Aug. 15 in a press release titled “Indiana Chamber-Ball State Study: Student Performance Suffers in Smaller Districts.”

MSD of Wabash County Superintendent Mike Keaffaber disagreed with the statement.

“I would consider us a small district and most school districts around here are pretty small, and when it says ‘hurt academic achievement’ I would say that’s not true,” Keaffaber told The Paper. “Now in small school districts, obviously, academic opportunity might be a little bit different. If we have small districts, smaller high schools, as far as opportunities, we may not have as many opportunities as a large or mega school.

“I do disagree with the title of the article but do realize that opportunities may be different because of sizes of schools,” he continued. “I definitely believe the article is an exaggeration as far as hurting. … We have many students who end their high school career here, they go to college and they’re well prepared. They also have credits that allow them to possibly have a whole semester done, possibly even a year if they really work at it and that can be because Heartland Career Center but also because of our high schools offer AP and dual credit.”

Callahan agreed with Keaffaber’s stance on the word choice.

“I think instead of student achievement it should be student opportunities,” he explained. “I think students are still achieving and that’s one reason why communities have been reluctant to explore consolidation. Their top achievers are going on to that next level regardless of school size. But the opportunities are limited. Often times, small schools will only be able to offer one foreign language or not enough advanced science classes or math classes where they have to try to accommodate that digitally and that falls short, and I think those programs ultimately create less student engagement.

“If we can offer more, we’re going to be able to engage kids more. I think (the study’s) stats are in line where they talk about AP performance. It shows statistical significance, but I don’t know if it hurts kids per se. I think it just limits the opportunities that they have.

“I think one important thing to understand in this study is (schools) start to lose enrollment, it’s tough to grow programming especially when you’re a smaller district,” he later added. “The reason for the (WCS) referendum was we did not want to continue cut programming. We want to continue to grow programming. … However, as we continue to talk in this county about school consolidation and we continue to talk about operating fund or capital project fund referendums, it is an important conversation. What do we want for our students?”

The study reported that comprehensive analysis and modeling revealed the following outcomes if school corporations contained between 2,000 and 2,999 students:

• SAT test scores were up by 20.5 points.

• Advanced Placement pass rates increased by 14.9 percent.

• Eighth grade ISTEP scores increased by 5 percent.

• Algebra and biology end of course assessment  passing rates increased by 4 percent.

Even though these are the stated outcomes, results are situational, Keaffaber agreed.

“Everything has to be put in perspective and relative,” Keaffaber said. “You can look at data and we do have to be data-driven decision makers, and that’s what you have to look at too, but also you have to look at individuals and you have to look at what you can offer and what you can do. It is all different.”

In May, the U.S. News & World Report 2017 Best High Schools ranked Manchester High School, Southwood Junior-Senior High School and Wabash High School in the top 70 Indiana Schools, with MHS placing 31st, SHS placing 36th and WHS placing 69th.

In June, SHS was one of 53 schools to receive the 2016 Advanced Placement Award, which recognized schools that had at least 25 percent of its 2016 graduating class receive a 3, 4 or 5 on an AP exam.

Out of Indiana’s 92 counties, only 21 have a single school corporation, 22 counties have three corporations, 19 have two and 13 have four corporations, according to the report. The most corporations in a single county are 16 in Lake County and 16 in Marion County, the document continued.

In 2014, 154 of the state’s 289 school corporations had total enrollments of less than 2,000 students with 85 percent of those corporations experiencing enrollment decline between 2006 and 2014.

“This is not about closing buildings or eliminating schools,” Kevin Brinegar, Indiana Chamber President and CEO, said. “It’s about reducing per-pupil administrative costs to put more money into classrooms, increasing pay for deserving teachers, making more STEM classes available and, most importantly, helping to ensure the best possible student outcomes.

“That will drive per capita income and is especially critical for small communities. Greater student achievement is the biggest thing we can do for rural economic development and those local residents.”

However, small school districts can offer something many large corporations can’t and that is relationships, according to Keaffaber.

“One thing that we talk about a lot is just relationships and being able to develop those relationships (between student and teacher),” he said. “There’s a lot of neuroscience research. Dr. Jeannette Vos wrote a book (called “The Learning Revolution”) that talked about the foundation to emotion and the door to learning is relationships, and I really believe that.

“So having a small school allows those relationships and, when you develop those relationships, then I believe that you can also motivate. I think often students will look up to those teachers and, because they have a personal interest, they actually improve because of that. There are many advantages to having a small school and that’s certainly one of them.”

Posted on 2017 Sep 12