Where Everyone Knows Your Name

Dear Annapolis families and friends (and other bezoomy chelovecks and devotchkas!),

In the perennial size matters debate, bigger is usually better, right?  Not when it comes to schooling.  I’ve spent my whole life in small, private schools.  I graduated high school from Annapolis Christian Prep School (the predecessor to Annapolis Christian Academy) the proud salutatorian of the class of ’94 – a class of four graduates!  I went on to earn my bachelor’s degree from Hillsdale college (1,200 students) and my master’s degree from St. John’s College (800 students), both small, private liberal arts colleges. For the past decade, I have served as head of school for Annapolis Christian Academy and seen the school grow from a mere 180 students to almost 300 students over the course of my administration.  My experience in small, private schools has left an indelible mark on my character for which I am profoundly grateful and I am convinced more than ever that small, private schools like Annapolis are simply the safest and most effective model of schooling.  Period.

For over a century now, we have been told by elite Washington “educrats” that small schools are not feasible, equitable, or cost-effective, with almost zero data to show this. Not surprisingly, over the same period of time American school sizes have been growing, steadily consolidating in search of presumed benefits like cost savings and social equity.  Here are the facts:

  • From 1900 through 2000 the number of school districts dropped from 150,000 to only 16,000 as school districts consolidated leading to exponential enrollment growth in our nation’s public schools.
  • From 2000 to 2010, the number of high schools with more than 1,500 students doubled (Mitchell, 2000).
  • By 2010, 40 percent of the nation’s secondary schools were enrolling more than 1,000 students.

Not surprisingly, these trends have led to epidemic overcrowding in public school classrooms and sharp declines in teacher satisfaction.  But public school size isn’t the only thing on the rise.  So is the public’s almost universal dissatisfaction with their performance.  In 1983, the landmark U.S. Department of Education report, A Nation at Risk, found that about 13 percent of 17-year-olds were functionally illiterate, SAT scores were dropping, and students needed an increased array of remedial courses in college.  The report then issued a scathing wakeup call to our nation’s public:

”The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people….If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”

Twenty-five years later, in 2008, the U.S. Department of Education produced a follow up report entitled A Nation Accountable seeking to measure the nation’s educational progress.  It concludes:

If we were “at risk” in 1983, we are at even greater risk now. The rising demands of our global economy, together with demographic shifts, require that we educate more students to higher levels than ever before. Yet, our education system is not keeping pace with these growing demands.”

By the year 2010, American taxpayers were spending hundreds of billions annually for public education with an unfounded, large school-focused design that was broken and in crisis.  This realization is the root behind a growing movement of parents, teachers, and reform-minded school leaders who advocate the abandonment of the industrial mass public school factories and the return to small, local, personal, learning environments.

How big is a small school?

There is no consensus among professional researchers on the ideal size for a small school with estimates ranging between 50 – 900 students.  Research has shown, however, that schools with over 500 students generally cease acting like small schools; that is, they do not have the features of intimacy, safety, economy of scale, and community that are the essential characteristics of small schools.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that student enrollment counts alone do not a small school make. Enrollment counts provide a necessary but not a sufficient condition.

Though the research defining the absolute size of a small school is weak, thankfully, the research on the advantages of small schools is strong.

The sine qua non of a true small school is that it delivers better results in academics, safety, connectedness, and belonging.”

In a small, private school like Annapolis, the most important thing is protecting and nurturing the relationship between the teacher and the student: an older generation mentoring a younger.  At Annapolis, we focus on this vital relationship relentlessly, emphasizing strong, sustained relationships between our students and faculty.  We try to base administrative and classroom decision making on whether or not a decision will improve or imperil our relationships with students.  We work hard to be flexible and adaptable, creating learning environments and physical spaces that our students need in order to develop caring relationships with adults who personally challenge, mentor, discipline, and inspire students to be the best they can be.

Annapolis is and will always remain a small school by design because this is the safest and single-most effective model of schooling possible.  We are a Christian community committed to fostering authentic relationships and connections between teachers, students, administrators, parents, and grandparents. We are tired of the over-institutionalization of our nation’s schools and the imposition of large and dehumanizing bureaucracies and systems.  We are proud to be part of the quiet revolution of small learning communities based upon a well-balanced life and authentic, personal relationships that make a difference.

We are and always will be a place where everybody knows your name.