By Brad Waugh, Head of School at the American International School of Bamako
In the last issue of ConneXions, Dan Jubert, the Chair of the AISA Board, wrote of the wonderful diversity to be found among AISA schools. One place we see this diversity is in school size: AISA schools range from a few dozen to well over one thousand pupils, and of the 78 schools that make up the AISA family of schools, about 40% have enrolment below 300. Nearly a quarter of these have student bodies of fewer than 200.
Every AISA school works hard to take advantage of the strengths of its unique community and context; educational leaders who specialise in working with the strengths of smaller schools learn how to leverage the flexibility and deep interconnectedness found in the small-school context to create innovative, student-focused learning communities that are by nature streamlined and efficient, and able to respond quickly and effectively to the ever-changing needs of students and the demands of their wider contexts.
The strengths of small schools: Agility, responsiveness, community
The impact of school size on student learning and well-being, school climate and teacher satisfaction has been recognised for over two decades. Small schools, with their greater sense of connectedness and immediacy are able to ensure that every student feels known and understood, and an integral part of a learning community.
Some of the advantages of small schools are an almost inevitable consequence of their size: smaller student bodies result in students forming friendships and valuable social/support networks and social learning opportunities outside their immediate peer groups. This in turn creates greater social cohesion within the community, with fewer discipline issues and better and more positive understandings amongst stakeholder groups.
Small schools also have the potential to result in better education. With a high degree of understanding amongst those stakeholder groups, small schools are able to match or exceed larger schools in innovation. Thanks to a low Bureaucracy Mass Index, in the language of a recent Harvard Business School study, small schools are able to move quickly and efficiently to respond to new ideas in teaching and learning, and responding to the changing needs of students and the context. And practically speaking, it’s often easier in small schools for every teacher to take responsibility for the learning and the well-being of every student. Teachers in small schools benefit from closer working relationships, which impact teaching and learning; and teacher collaborations naturally cross subject areas and divisions, which leads to better aligned curricula and more innovative learning experiences for students.
Heads of smaller schools are typically “solo heads” who lead their schools without the support of principals or other administrators; this sounds at first glance like a disadvantage, but in practice often leads to better and more impactful distribution of responsibility within faculty, and real professional growth of teachers. Teachers in smaller schools have a greater sense of efficacy that results from having real and immediate input into decision-making about students and curriculum, and from seeing their positive impacts. Patricia Wasley, in a discussion of her research work on the impact of the small schools movement in Chicago, notes that:
Teacher satisfaction went way up! Teachers thought teaching was more fun, satisfying, and that they were more effective teachers, that they could get the kids moving in a positive direction. Many teachers told the researchers that teaching at a small school reminded them why they became teachers in the first place.
What strengths are inherent in small schools?
The size of the school does not inhibit personal interaction; it encourages it. Teachers are more apt to know their students as individuals and to be familiar with the family backgrounds from which they come.
Morale among students and teachers tends to be higher in small schools. Teachers feel more committed and efficacious, and students feel that their teachers know them better and hence set higher but appropriate expectations for their learning and participation.
Small schools are manageable. There is usually less red tape and fewer regulations.
CURRICULUM AND INSTRUCTION
Small schools are more likely to be learner-centered with strong emphasis placed on individualised and small group instruction.
Small Schools: Great Strides, Bank Street College of Education (2000)
“The Advantages of Small Schools” Barker (1986)
Some of the challenges
Small schools also face some profound challenges. AISA’s small schools are typically situated in countries plagued by political and economic instabilities. Extended school closures due to coup, civil war or epidemic have taken place at a significant number of AISA’s smaller schools over the past decade. These are places that are hard to recruit for, difficult to get supplies into, with high turnaround among staff, students and parents – and this latter typically results in frequent turnover among board trustees as well as in enrolment numbers that vary greatly from year to year and are hard to predict.
Even here, though, we see some of the strengths of the small school experience – one that is applicable to schools of all sizes. In responding to the challenges they face, small schools often uncover or make use of powerful, innovative solutions. Many of AISA’s smaller schools organise their classes into thoughtful multi-age groupings to address small and unpredictable enrolment numbers within individual grade levels. When done mindfully this not only brings greater stability to class sizes but it can also allow the school to better differentiate for individual student needs by grouping students in ways other than by age. Other small schools find it necessary to team educators together to address social-emotional or content learning needs that tend to be addressed by a single specialist in a larger school – a resource person they simply do not have. Again, when done mindfully, this team approach can lead to better results for the students, as well as greater insight and solidarity among faculty.
The AISA Small School Initiative: Plenty of principles, with fewer principals
AISA recognises the opportunities represented and threats faced by smaller schools in Africa and supports them in a number of ways, chief among them by bringing these schools together in an association for mutual aid, known as the AISA Small Schools Initiative (SSI). The first meeting to bring the heads of AISA small schools together to discuss their common strengths and challenges took place in the fall of 2016 thanks to the determination of Irene Epp, head of AIS Freetown at the time and veteran leader of a number of smaller AISA schools, with the support of Peter Bateman and Tom Shearer, then Africa Regional Education Officer for the Office of Overseas Schools at the US Department of State. The initial meeting demonstrated that there was a very real need for this kind of discussion and was followed up at subsequent ALCs and SHRs, eventually resulting in the first formal meeting of “Solo Heads” in Dakar in the fall of 2017, facilitated by Dennis Larkin and Irene Epp. Solo heads are those school leaders who have the challenging and enviable remit of heading schools without benefit of other administrators – folks with plenty of principles but no principals, as was noted at the time. The small number of heads who came together represented most of the smallest schools in the broad AISA family, with many from West Africa.
The first item on the agenda was for the group to discuss their shared experiences and put down on paper exactly what the joys and challenges of being the head of a small school are. The results of these personal observations can be found in the boxed text below:
Experience of the Solo Head of School
The joys of being a solo head of school come from being:
● Stimulated intellectually and professionally; never, ever, bored
● A holistic experience, with opportunities for high impact throughout the school community
● Able to play a vital role in the national development of the host country
● Close to students every single day; fully immersed in their lives
● Able to greet each of our students, staff members, parents and teachers by name, often daily
● Able to make decisions and changes with agility and expediency
● Inclusive, sharing leadership with faculty and staff
Common challenges solo heads face are:
● Needing to be highly competent and dynamic in setting priorities and managing time and resources
● The tendency for urgent issues to overwhelm the important
● The need to solve problems and innovate across areas outside of your experience and expertise, often with limited resources
● The highly transient nature of the community, leading to large shifts in faculty, students and parents, the latter frequently undermining continuity on the board. Small school boards are often in a continuous state of flux, with trustees struggling to learn their roles anew each year
● The need to be ever present on campus. It can be difficult to get away and one is always on call
The position of a solo head in Africa requires:
● A steady focus on problem solving
● Extreme persistence and patience
● The ability to build the capacity of faculty and staff through coaching and mentorship
Nonetheless, being a solo head is fulfilling both professionally and personally because:
● One can make a significant difference often with an immediate impact
● Our community members appreciate the school and the efforts made to meet the needs of students and families
● Student learning is individualised; relationships between and among students and teachers are close and immediate; often resulting in high achievement toward personalised student goals
● Of the potential – and need – for experimentation, creativity and innovation
● With no intermediary layer of other administration one can develop close, powerful relationships with faculty and staff.
The rest of that meeting established the areas of focus that still outline the work of the AISA Small Schools Initiative today. Keeping in mind that the primary objective of the group is to foster mutual aid among its members schools, the SSI has established:
● The most active email discussion group among the AISA Online Communities. Some of the topics discussed recently have focused on sharing costs to bring a trainer in for MAP training for teachers, options and Apps available in West Africa for parent communication and payment, available itinerant educational psychologists and board trainers, and response protocols to pandemics.
● A clearinghouse for sharing documents, with everything from policy and business manuals to student handbooks and field trip forms.
● Regular gatherings of SSI heads to share their ideas and make plans for the future. These run as full-day meetings, usually immediately after the annual AISA School Heads Retreat.
● An adapted version of AISA’s School Effectiveness Framework for more specific application to smaller schools.
● An initiative to foster more and better governance training for our school boards. Collaborating among ourselves but also with AISA to develop strategies and resources to better address one of the most common sources of fragility for small schools – discontinuities in school governance and boards.
When the heads of AISA’s smallest schools gather again, they will continue the work begun four years ago. One of the areas of focus will be on bringing new members of the SSI up to speed on the work we do. Since that first meeting the vast majority of the heads who met at that time have moved on. For solo head schools this represents a complete turnover in the leadership of their schools. Fewer than 20% of the heads from that time remain at their posts and almost 40% of SSI heads are new to their schools this year. The turnover in boards has been even more profound and another important area of focus will be on working with AISA to find ways of ensuring continuous growth in the quality of governance at schools with high turnover. We will continue to celebrate and leverage the strengths we enjoy as smaller schools, while working together to protect ourselves from some of the inherent dangers.
About the Author:
Brad Waugh is in his fifth year as the solo head of school at the American International School of Bamako. He has worked in international schools on three continents ranging in size from 170 to 320. He is the Coordinator of AISA’s Small Schools Initiative.
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