by Dr.Jeremy Majeski
I’ve dedicated over two decades of my life to the field of education, having worn the hats of both teacher and school administrator. My journey has taken me from the bustling halls of US public schools to the global stage of international education. Throughout my career, I’ve predominantly navigated the landscape of larger educational institutions, where student populations consistently numbered 500 or more. In fact, even my own high school experience was marked by a graduating class of nearly 1000. This grand scale had become my educational norm, a standard that defined my perspective on schooling-until recently.
In the year 2021, I embarked on a transformative journey by assuming the role of Principal at the Wiesbaden Campus of Frankfurt International School, home to approximately 200 students. This marked my transition into a multi-campus educational system, and it didn’t take long for me to realize how often I found myself apologizing. I was constantly offering explanations to current and prospective families and teachers about our limitations due to our size, frequently drawing comparisons to our larger sister campus, boasting a student body of over 1600. It wasn’t until a conversation with a seasoned school leader, one with a wealth of experience in smaller educational settings, that I had an epiphany. It was time to stop apologizing for our size and to start appreciating that good things often come in small packages.
Using my network, I began connecting with leaders and educators all over the world who found themselves working in Intentionally Small Schools – schools that placed value on their small size and all that it brings, without the hopes and dreams of ever getting bigger. Themes quickly emerged around the topics of belonging, innovation and personalized learning.
Sense of Belonging
Small schools, given their nature, foster a sense of belonging where everyone knows one another. At a small school, students don’t get lost in the shuffle. They’re known by name, recognized for their individual strengths and talents, and supported by teachers who truly invest in their success. The close-knit community fosters a sense of camaraderie and connectedness that can’t be replicated in larger schools.
The sense of belonging doesn’t stop with students. Families and teachers are also part of the tight-knit community. Parents are actively involved in their child’s education and can forge close relationships with teachers and administrators. They are “known” in a way that also encourages them to collaborate with teachers and leadership in a way only possible in a smaller environment.
A colleague of mine once compared our campus to that of a boutique hotel. Boutique hotels strive to create distinctive, personalized experiences for their guests. Think warm, inviting decor, thoughtful amenities, and attentive staff who make you feel like a VIP. The smaller size allows for more personalized attention, fostering a sense of connection and belonging.
Simply put, small schools are incubators for innovation. The compact educational environments serve as incubators for creativity and groundbreaking ideas. Their inherent agility allows them to swiftly embrace novel concepts, technologies, and teaching methodologies, thereby ushering in educational innovation. Within the walls of small schools, educators enjoy greater autonomy to experiment and take calculated risks, paving the way for fresh and exciting approaches to learning. The close-knit community nurtures collaboration and the free exchange of ideas, igniting new perspectives and inventive solutions.
Several years back, our school embarked on a transformative journey, dedicated to enhancing the quality of student feedback through the implementation of Standards-Based Grading. When applied to a middle school division with just a handful of teachers, this transition proved significantly more manageable than tackling a division with over 40 instructors. The beauty of this endeavour lay in the nimbleness of our school’s size and the rate at which change could be realized. Not only were we able to offer invaluable insights and lessons learned to our colleagues across town at the larger campus, but we also showcased the remarkable potential of small schools to embrace change with remarkable speed and precision.
Small schools quietly emerge as the champions of personalized learning. Their intimate size, tight-knit community, and adaptable culture combine to create a distinctive environment that nurtures student-centred education. Within these settings, teachers enjoy the freedom to tailor the curriculum, providing each student with personalized attention and constructive feedback. Moreover, students benefit from increased opportunities to actively participate and take on leadership roles, fostering a sense of confidence and responsibility.
One shining example of our commitment to personalized learning is our immensely popular “Day H.” Every 8th day in our students’ schedules, they step into an unconventional learning experience. Encouraged to follow their own passions and interests, students engage in an array of activities. Some choose to embark on personal projects, such as constructing robots or crafting artwork, while others delve deeper into inquiry-based learning through hands-on experiments, and in-depth research on topics of personal interest. Once again, the nimbleness of a small campus like ours proves invaluable, making it considerably more manageable to plan, execute, and oversee such projects compared to larger-scale institutions.
Small from the Start
While larger schools try to manufacture the secret sauce of small schools (“house system, advisories, etc), they can never quite capture the authentic flavor. Small schools have the advantage of a more connected and nurturing environment that promotes student growth and engagement. There’s a sense of community and connectedness that’s simply not possible in larger settings.
Dr.Jeremy Majeski is the Principal of Frankfurt International School, Wiesbaden Campus, Germany
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