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The Benefits of Small Schools

By Nina Markham

Recently, we had a prospective student visit the school. By the end of the day she had determined that she was “definitely coming.” In fact when students visit the school, they always choose our small, family-like environment over the larger international schools in the area (there are three within a one-hour drive of us). I wondered: Why do they consistently forgo the impressive facades, extensive course offerings, and large social scenes for our little school?
Having thought about it, there are clearly some benefits to being in a class of ten students. And when I say class, I mean the entire grade... Anyway, I think I can summarize as follows:
Participation in school sports: basically, everyone in middle and high school participates in all the sports. Even if you are not into athletics you are recruited to the teams because it is part of the school culture to be a team member. No one is excluded.
Of course, this also means that we are not the strongest teams on the courts and fields. However, true team spirit is developed as the students struggle for every win and fight hard in every loss. The students bond and because everyone is playing, it creates a real sense of unity at the school.
Family atmosphere: I have overheard our students explain to prospective students, “Well, we are a family here. We all know each other and we all care about each other.” There is amazing acceptance of differences, frequent instances of students helping each other out, and genuine celebration of successes and sympathy for losses.
A couple of years ago we had a student—who has since returned to his home country—who really struggled in science and then was absent (due to illness) for a long period of time. One student came up to me and said she would be willing to stay after school and do all the labs with him (that he had missed).
Daily I see students reaching out to each other, from small acts of kindness to long-term committed service. When I mention the words “family environment” to prospective parents they all nod vigorously, adding, “Oh, I can feel that!”
Global mindedness: many of the other, larger international schools still carry a very American cultural high school experience. At our little school, no one nationality dominates. The students truly come from all over the world and are fairly represented. It is commonplace to have friends with entirely different family traditions, thus broadening acceptance of and appreciation for other cultures. In the classroom this brings a vast diversity in perspective and approaches to learning. As a teacher, I delight in the differing mindsets.
Personalized education: for me as a teacher, this is one of my favorite aspects of the school. First of all, there are almost no disciplinary issues; and with such small class sizes, I can truly attend to the individual needs of each of my students.
For example, in one class recently, a student was out for illness, a learning support teacher worked with another, and the rest of the students were working independently on their science fair project. There was one student who had just not grasped the “big idea” of her project, was struggling to comprehend some of the research articles, and generally needed some help. I was basically able to sit down with her for the entire block, and work one-on-one. Afterwards she beamed and exclaimed, “Thank you so much. Now I get it. Now I really get it.” That feels good.
Equally, I am able to provide accelerated material for those students eager for more. If a student wants a course that is not offered, we have very structured access to online courses—some incredible amount of course offerings, like 50 or more. I know of students taking IB economics and IB Mandarin for instance, through the online program.
An amazing accomplishment is that we have a 100 percent pass rate for the IB diploma. There are students who receive the diploma who probably would not have been even admitted to other IB programs. However because of the individualized attention, they succeeded at our school.
All of our students are accepted into colleges, universities, and other educational pathways of their choice. They move on to have productive and successful lives.
Happiness: our school is a joyful place. The students are upbeat, and the teachers are cheerful. The other day a new transfer student said, “I like it here because the teachers are so happy and they always smile at me.”
Choosing a school: a small school environment is not necessarily the best decision for everyone. However, if you are moving to a new place and considering several schools, it might be worth your while to have your children visit the schools; allow them to be part of the decision-making process.
It may take you on an unexpected and wonderful journey!
Ms. Markham teaches IB biology and general science at the American International School of Rotterdam (AISR), Netherlands. Visit

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09/04/2014 - Dr. Dan
Having worked at several small schools in a row in Korea and Taiwan, I agree that working in a small school has a lot of benefits even if it offers some challenges. For example, we had no AP Bio for a year, and our AP offerings ebb and flow with the change in our staff (28 in all). A small cannot always offer as many programs and activities (our school has 2 teams and about 6 activities) but students and teachers really know each other well, and students get personal attention. How many places can you have a soccer team that includes every high school student (as ours did 2 years ago) or a debate program with half of 7-12 students (37 this year) as ours does. Small can be beautiful.

Dr. Fruit, IBST, Taiwan



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