Local Views: Stillwater’s B.O.L.D Proposal Will Impact All of Our Elementary Schools, Not Just Marine, Withrow and Oak Park

Dear Residents of the Stillwater Area School System,

In mid-December the superintendent and administration of Stillwater Area Schools proposed a plan to close Withrow, Marine, and Oak Park Elementary schools, under the guise of fiscal efficiency and higher educational quality and equity.

The plan to “right-size” or consolidate our schools has been outlined in the district’s BOLD initiative.  The district’s intention of “right-sizing” our schools looks great on paper; however, national evidence-based studies have consistently shown that the negative effects of consolidation far outweigh the good.

Proposed benefits of the BOLD initiative include:

  • Equitable learning experiences
  • Improved access to support services
  • Balanced class sizes across the district, and
  • Long-term stability for staffing (“BOLD FAQs,” 2015).

Superficially, the benefits of BOLD seem worthy of “right sizing” our schools, however research shows that small school consolidation increases class sizes and student/teacher ratios, decreases academic performance, reduces rates of student participation in extracurricular activities, lowers graduation rates, decreases teacher performance, and is associated with more dangerous school environments (Howley, Johnson, & Petrie, 2011).

Closing Withrow, Marine, and Oak Park means that 821 students will be redistributed between Stonebridge, Rutherford and Lily Lake, which is an average of 273 students per school.  Is there room within these three schools to each accept an additional 273 students?

No, there isn’t.

In order to accommodate the influx of students the district not only plans on spending the $97 million levy to build a new, southerly-located school, but to also redraw the district boundaries.

This means that some students currently enrolled at Stonebridge, Rutherford, and Lily Lake will be rezoned for Lake Elmo, Anderson and Afton-Lakeland to provide room for the Withrow, Marine and Oak Park students.

Redrawing the district boundaries shifts centrally located students to the southern schools because it is nonsensical to bus students from Marine, our most northern school, to Afton-Lakeland, our most southern school.

Therefore, even if your children are not enrolled in a school proposed to close, they will be affected when the boundaries are redrawn to accommodate the students from consolidation.

Consolidating or “right-sizing” our small schools greatly affects all the remaining schools in the district.  The BOLD initiative will increase class sizes and student/teacher ratios, thereby limiting the amount of individual time teachers have per student.

Studies indicate that appropriate and effective size is 300-400 students for an elementary school (Cotton, 1996). Except for Andersen Elementary with 356 students, all the schools that are to remain open currently have enrollments of greater than 400 students (Rutherford 595, Stonebridge 476, Lake Elmo 715, Afton-Lakeland 501, and Lily Lake 491) (“School enrollment ,” 2015).

School consolidation is primarily based on the beliefs that larger schools cost less to operate and provide higher-quality curricula compared to small schools. However, as schools and class sizes grow larger, so do incidences of truancy, discipline problems, violence, substance abuse and dropout rates (Cotton, 1996).

The BOLD initiative proposes more balanced class sizes through consolidation and the building of a new elementary school in the southwestern part of the district.  However, with Valley Crossing Community School closing, the district projects another 300 students will be joining our system in 2017 (“BOLD FAQs,” 2015).

Combing the 300 students from Valley Crossing Community School with the 821 students from the consolidation means that there will be 1,121 students to redistribute between the remaining schools.

The redistribution of 1,121 students to a district with 2 fewer schools will not provide equitable learning experiences, improved access to support services, or more balanced class sizes.  In fact, thirty plus years of research finds that small schools are safer, offer better teaching, and result in in higher academic performance (Grauer, 2011).

One of the great myths of “right sizing” schools is that large schools are great equalizers, when in fact learning is more equitably distributed in smaller schools. Small schools achieve equity through smaller “communal” learning environments that reduce student and teacher alienation commonly identified in larger schools, and enhance student engagement in learning.

Smaller schools create a sense of connectivity and safety that result in higher student participation per capita. Students that participate in activities and feel connected to at school have higher academic achievements and are less likely to drop out. They attend school more regularly, have fewer behavioral problems, and higher self-esteem (Grauer, 2011).

Small size also makes it easier for teachers to create hands-on learning opportunities, which engage students in rigorous academic work that has meaningful consequences in the local community.

Another common myth is that large schools provide an economy of scale.  “The ‘cost savings’ of larger schools are only apparent if the results are ignored” (Grauer, 2011, para. 26). The research and rationale for large schools is scattered and unreliable.

There is great uncertainty that they really cost less and typically they don’t produce expected economies of scale that result in lower per-pupil costs when compared to small schools.

There are tremendous non-cash costs associated closely with large schools and most of these costs are impossible to affix a price tag to.

Non-cash costs of large schools include:

  • Increased dropout rates
  • Increased violence
  • Decreased sense of connectedness and safety
  • Lower teacher satisfaction and higher teacher turnover
  • Lower achievement in college, and less happiness (Grauer, 2011).

The aspiration of the BOLD initiative to integrate the schools and fill them with diverse and equitable education opportunities is obviously commendable.  But historically, aspirations have not lined up with results.

What is tangible and based in evidence is that closing Withrow, Marine and Oak Park schools results in larger schools with increased class sizes and increased student/teacher ratios. The research is clear students from larger schools have lower academic performance and achievement, lower graduation rates and more behavioral problems (Grauer, 2011).

As a community we voted in a $97 million levy that we were told would not include school closure/restructuring if passed (School Board Learning Session, 2014); however, now that money is in, the superintendent and administration have proposed a plan to close three of our schools.

I encourage all community members to research BOLD through the district website at stillwater.k12.mn.us/district/building-834/stillwater-bold, and to learn about the coalition to stop BOLD at stopboldcold.org.

The negative ramifications of closing Withrow, Marine, and Oak Parks a far reaching and will affect all students in the entire district.

Sincerely,

Lindsay Nelson