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Small-scale problems can get big - Clay Wilson

As the Henry County School System struggles to cope with the county's population explosion, local educators might be heartened to know that a British school is wrestling with the opposite problem.

Reuters "Oddly Enough" news service reported on Friday that Britain's smallest school will not open this year because its only student will not be attending. The primary school stands on Papa Stour, one of the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland.

According to Reuters (which based its report on a London Times story), a 6-year-old girl was supposed to attend the school. However, her parents have decided to keep her at home because they don't like the woman the British government hired to be her teacher.

The tiny school had been closed for the past nine months after its former teachers retired and its only other student went to secondary school.

Now, I've heard of one-room schoolhouses; but I haven't heard much about one-student schoolhouses.

Talk about a great student-to-teacher ratio! I have a feeling that many parents, teachers and administrators in Henry County would give their eyeteeth for that kind of number.

Still, this story does raise several interesting questions.

First, I wonder how British taxpayers feel about supporting a school with only one student. According to the story, besides the teacher, the school also had a secretary, three computers, a TV and an art room.

We're talking some fairly serious overhead for a facility that is only serving one taxpaying family.

Then, of course, there are the obvious problems inherent in a one-set system. As evidenced by the story, a one-pupil school simply has to close when the one pupil doesn't attend.

Similarly, if the one teacher decided to go on strike, that would also seriously interfere with the school's operation. Then again, I'm not sure how effective a one-person strike would be, as far as influencing labor policy.

If the school's one student were stricken with an illness n say, SARS, for example n would that constitute an epidemic? Would media organizations flock to the school to report how its population had been decimated by the SARS outbreak?

And what about test scores? Only one student doesn't give a school much room for error.

Schools with numerous pupils can average the scores, so that those who score higher help to balance out the lower-scoring kids. But if there's only one student, that's not an option.

I can envision a news story with the headline, "Papa Stour School's Test Score Plummets." The story might say something like, "Teacher Matilda Brighton-Smythe said she was devastated that little LeighAnne McGallagher's score on the National Test Over the Queen's English fell by 50 points this year.

"?LeighAnne and I spent hours going over the difference between dinner, supper and tea,' said Brighton-Smythe. ?I just don't understand how this could have happened. I think the scores were skewed by averaging in those low-performing Irish kids. No, wait, we don't have any of those. Criminy!'"

Thus I think it's pretty clear that the problems associated with a single-student school can be just as vexing as those of overcrowded ones can. It's just a matter of scale.

Of course, I bet many Henry County educators would love to have those small-scale problems. But I'm afraid that at this point, the only way that's going to happen is if they decide to move to the Shetland Islands.

Clay Wilson is the education and public safety reporter for the Daily Herald. His column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or by e-mail at cwilson@henryherald.com.