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Big School or Small School?

The Benefits of Independent Schools of All Sizes

Size is one important factor parents generally consider as a concrete way to differentiate schools when they choose one for their child. Most independent schools in the Delaware Valley have a fairly small enrollment, says Bobbi Hannmann, EdS, an educational consultant in Moorestown, NJ. Typically, they have fewer than 1,000 students, and for some schools that enrollment figure includes grades K-12. So how much should size play a part when seeking the right school?

Get a feel for the school

There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to independent schools. Choosing a small or large school depends on the child, and each child’s individual needs should be considered as a school is selected,” says Linda L. Phelps, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools in Plymouth Meeting, PA. Parents must consider their child’s age, temperament and academic needs. Also, whether it’s large or small, families should visit the school to see how the school feels, says Beverly Stewart, MEd, director of Back to Basics Learning Dynamics in Wilmington, DE.

“It’s important to see and feel the culture of the school,” continues Stewart. Independent schools function on different models: Some have K-12 in one location, while others serve only elementary or only secondary school students. Some schools operate like a small school within a big school. For example, a school may be split into a lower, middle and upper school at one location. The three schools may operate almost autonomously, notes Barbara Kraus-Blackney, president of the Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Larger schools might try to create a small-school atmosphere by dividing students into teams or via small class sizes, says Hannmann.

Both smaller and larger independent schools have lots of benefits, depending on what suits your child and family.

Benefits of small schools

Smaller schools generally offer:

  • more individualized attention
  • smaller class sizes
  • lower student-to-teacher ratios
  • fewer layers of bureaucracy
  • flexibility in the curriculum to meet the needs of the students
  • a community feel

“In a small school setting, you have teachers who know the kids,” says Kraus-Blackney. As a result, “children are less likely to slip through the cracks.”

However, Stewart notes, “There can sometimes be higher expectations at a smaller school because teachers know the students better.” Small schools can mean smaller social circles, which may be a drawback for some students. They also may not have all the services — such as special education classes or speech therapists — that your child may require or offer all the clubs, activities and sports that your child wants to try. 

Benefits of large schools

Larger schools generally have:

  • more diversity
  • more activities
  • more academic offerings
  • larger social groups
  • lots of opportunities to try different things

Parents should note that more academic offerings does not necessarily mean academic superiority. Ivy League students come from all backgrounds, notes Hannmann, and experts say there is no Ivy League advantage for students from larger schools versus smaller ones.

At a larger school, teachers and administrators may not know students as well, and some children may feel anonymous in large crowds of students. There also can be increased competition for spots on sports teams or in activities and courses.

The right fit

Don’t rely on numbers alone. “Check out each school personally to see what feels like the best fit,” advises Kraus-Blackney.

“The most important thing is that the child is comfortable,” says Hannmann. “Once the child is confident in himself, he can really go anywhere.”

Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing author to MetroKids.

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