Small vs. Large Schools

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Small schools - good or bad?

Feb 2012

We are considering private school for our child and one thing that I have wondered about in this process is the typically small size of private schools. Many just have one or possibly two classrooms in each grade which seems quite small to someone like me who went to public schools with 4-8 parallel classes. I would like to hear from parents who have children in small schools; have your children found friends that are a good fit? what is the social scene like, especially in the upper grades? what can be done if a group of students just doesn't ''click'' and there is no way to reshuffle the classes from year to year? any other insights? Anon

I have 2 kids at a small private school. We were concerned at first to send our children to a small school for fear it would be too small. The 'smallness' of the class size has been a blessing. My oldest is very girly and if she were given the choice she would only play with like-minded girls. However, because her playmate options are somewhat limited, she plays with a lot of girls that don't necessarily share her taste for pink dolls. And girls that are older and younger too. The kids in the school tend to treat one another like family and are accepting (and forgiving) of one another's idiocyncrasies. I think it is because they know they will see one another every year and being open to kids that are different is necessary if you want to have friends.

Every kid and family will view small vs. large schools differently though so I hope you find something that will work for your child and your family. We have been happy with our choice. - small school, not small mind

It depends on your child. For our child (as well as our family) attending a small school was a wonderful experience. He attended Berkwood Hedge School , a small private school in Berkeley, from K-5. He came away with solid academic skills, a deep awareness of social justice and lifelong friends. The staff members of small schools are well aware of the areas that can become problematic for certain kids. They are well versed and highly skilled. It's good to remember that enrolling in ANY school - big or small - requires a certain leap of faith. Best of luck to you! Small School Fan

That's a very good question. It depends on the child, is the best answer, and the school too, of course. But the problem is, it's really hard to tell with a 4 or 5 year old what type of school will fit best. I have 3 kids who have gone to various private and public schools, big and small.

My oldest really likes to be part of a group, the bigger the better. He thrived at large public schools, where he always found a big gang of kids that he could identify with and be a part of. I think he would have been fine in a small school too - he could have honed his leadership skills without competition, perhaps. But he likes being in a big pond. He went to Berkeley Public Schools all the way through, and loved every minute of it.

My middle child is not the team player type of kid -- he really just needs one good compadre, and he always found that one kid he clicked with, whether in a tiny school or in a great big school. He was fine socially in both environments. On the other hand, he was not academically inclined, and was also somewhat of a non-conformist. His big public school stopped working for him by 4th grade, so in the 5th grade, he changed to a small private school that seemed perfect but turned out to be a really bad fit - it was too conservative, and too strict. Despite a very small class, every kid was held to a high academic standard that he just couldn't meet. Public middle school was a big relief, but Berkeley High turned out to be too big for him, so again he went to a small private school for high school that worked better.

My youngest goes along with whatever comes his way. He started out in a large K-8 private school and it was fine. He socialized with all the kids but really only connected with one friend. In 4th grade we moved him to a very small K-6 school where he didn't know anyone, and most kids had been together since kindergarten (Walden in Berkeley). He was immediately absorbed into the small group of boys in his grade, and was in high demand for playdates. He loved all the attention from the younger kids too - all ages play together. He's been extremely happy. We parents have liked that the teachers are able to give our son personalized attention in a way that we didn't see in larger schools. In retrospect I realize that this small school would have been a better fit for him than the big school he went to in kindergarten. But it's just so hard to tell when your kid is only 4!

What I like about a small school: The kids learn to accommodate all sorts of different kinds of kids, because unlike in a bigger school, they don't really have the choice of playing with only the kids they like. The kids in a small school will be interacting with every kid in the school, regardless of age, gender, or personality. A smaller school has a lot more flexibility in terms of adjusting the curriculum for individual children. On the other hand, small schools can still be very rigid in their expectations of students, as we found at another school with our middle child, so you have to pay attention to the culture of the school and whether it will work for your own child. And remember, if you pick a school that doesn't work out, you can always change! mom of 3

I share your concerns about the effects of a small school on your child's social development, which is why I've chosen to have both my children attend Walden Center and School in Berkeley.

Besides being a well-rounded education setting, Walden is a nurturing community for my children's healthy social development as well. The school's small size enables teachers, parents, and children to truly know and support one another, and to have fun together. Nobody gets lost in the crowd. Walden, a diverse community, embraces a progressive, constructivist, and developmental model of teaching and learning. Students find creative and useful solutions to interesting and complex academic and social problems.

Although it is natural that my children (or all people for that matter) "click" more with some than with others, at Walden, students learn organically how to be members of a community. In other words, while not everyone becomes best friends with everyone else, all students get along and respect one another. In my opinion, it is Walden's proactive approach to healthy social development that makes the need to "reshuffle" non-existent.

One of the most important social development aspects of Walden is its "Respect for All" curriculum: classes, workshops, discussions, early intervention, mediation, role-play, and modeling provide tools and language for positive and peaceful decision-making and conflict resolution for children and the entire community. Respect for All starts at the early grades, so that when students reach upper grades, they are abundantly equipped to manage the social mores of their age group.

Take a look at Walden Center and School in Berkeley. It could very well be the place for your child and family. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to talk more.

K.G. -- A Delighted Parent of Walden Center and School

We chose Walden Center and School because we felt that our child would benefit from its small size. From an academic standpoint, Walden breaks up the class up into small groups when instructing the core curriculum. For example, my child has 6 kids in her Math lesson group where they sit round table style with the teacher. Another 6-8 kids will be in Language Arts and the remaining classmates will be in an Art(s)- either Movement, Music, Visual or Spanish. The small class size leaves very little room for my lovely child to zone out, thus keeping her engaged. The social aspects of being in a small school has been wonderful for my child. My child has known her classmates since Kinder garden, so their bond is almost like siblings with its good days, bad days, quirks and all. The genius of Walden is its mix age groups, the kids are already use to the combined-age classes thus at playtime, lunch, and breaks the kids gravitate to where they feel socially comfortable. Most of the time, I see my child and her classmates play together with the younger kids and at times, testing their social prowess and hanging out with the older kids. I'm amazed find that the older kids enjoy being leaders and feel a sense of responsibility to help the younger kids. Kudos to Walden for understanding that learning doesn't stop once a child steps out of the classroom! small is smashing

Totally depends on the child. Small didn't work well for us. By second grade at a small school (14-16 kids per class), we were ready to move on to a larger setting. It was the one of the best things we have ever done for our child. There are more social and academic opportunities, and strange as it may sound, more attention from the classroom teacher. Granted, we also made the switch from private to public. In the small setting, the children were almost ''branded'' with an identity early on- the funny one, the smart one, the weird one. Since it's the same 15 +- kids year in and year out, it almost became like a dysfunctional family and no way to get rid of the ''brand'' for better or for worse. At a larger setting, there is more flexibility for kids to be better matched as a group and with a teacher's particular style (2-3 classes as opposed to just one). Most interesting to note, our child was, according to his report the ''top of his class'' in the very ''academically rigorous'' private school. When we arrived at OUSD, we had to do a lot of catching up academically. It's all good now, but wish we had just started with the bigger school from the start. Again, it depends on the child, some kids left public to attend this private school and are thriving according to their parents. bigger is better for us