When Linh Lawler made the conscious decision to enroll her three children at St. Norbert School, a private Catholic PK-8 school in Northbrook, she knew that the environment would have fewer students, fewer families and fewer teachers than her kids’ previous public school. As she watched her kids thrive in a smaller school setting, she came to recognize the many benefits of belonging to a small school community.
“This was the best decision we have made for our family,” says Lawler, who is also a board member at St. Norbert. From a tighter social circle to more inclusive athletic opportunities to academic programs responsive to students’ individual needs, Lawler says a small school that is faith-based is a perfect fit.
Here, we share four reasons why small schools are worth a look.
Small schools create strong connections
Children are more likely to succeed academically when they feel safe and secure in their classroom setting, and that includes the social parts, too. At a larger school, Lawler says her oldest child spent weeks navigating a new social dynamic each new school year, and that all changed when they moved to St. Norbert.
“We have found that at our small school, my kids know who their friends are and look forward to seeing the same friends from year to year. They cultivate and build upon these friendships throughout their school years,” she says.
As they grow to middle school age, it’s comforting for parents to know their kids’ friends and families. “Middle school can be stressful for kids and their parents, and I have not been stressed as a middle school parent,” Lawler says. “I know my daughter’s friends and I know all of the other students and their parents. We communicate with each other and look out for all of our kids. It’s a nice sense of protection to give your kids in their early stages of growing up.”
Those strong friendships extend to parents, too, Lawler says. “School parents become close friends and we text each other about homework and support our kids,” she says, adding that she appreciates having her three children in one school environment, a benefit when it comes to functions that are scheduled on the same evenings. “When parents have a busy working schedule, it helps to be able to do parent-teacher conferences on the same nights for all three kids.”
Small schools promote meaningful relationships between students and teachers
Teachers at St. Norbert get to know their students as people, not as test scores. “In this smaller environment, we get to know what is going on in our students’ lives, who they are friends with, who works well together,” says MaryBeth Schwall, a middle school language arts teacher at St. Norbert.
Because she teaches all middle school grades, Schwall never has to start fresh at the beginning of the school year, but “takes the climb” with her students as they progress. She appreciates the lengths the kids go to support one another. “They have been together since early elementary school so they know how to work together. If one student needs more attention, the other students know that and they never question why,” Schwall says.
Homeroom and religion classes at St. Norbert give teachers extra time with students to focus on areas beyond academics. “We use this time to talk about our values, what it means to be kind and accepting and willing to learn and willing to be wrong,” Schwall says. “Here’s where we work on people skills and volunteer skills and share personal interests, which really builds confidence.”
Small schools foster strong academics
By the time students reach eighth grade at St. Norbert, they are well into work that is typically expected from high school students. The small classroom environment beginning in kindergarten prepares them for honors classes at both public and private high schools across the Northern suburbs. “At least once a year, I receive a letter from a high school remarking how well our students know how to write and annotate,” Schwall says. “These are skills they have developed for years, so their transition to high school is much easier — and they’ll carry this benefit with them into college and into the working world.”
Even when a student has to work hard, that struggle is recognized by the teacher and they can take the time to break down the concepts for better understanding, Schwall says.
Lawler, whose husband is a high school teacher, agrees. “I have that luxury of knowing that the students are working at a high academic level here, and I love how phenomenal the teachers are,” she says. “They make themselves available to their students so if a seventh-grade student needs help with algebra, they can absolutely spend time with their teacher after school or during lunch to get extra help.”
Small schools help children recognize their own sense of “self” and how they can contribute to the world
Students at St. Norbert have many opportunities to discover their passions and try new things. They get to know each other in different settings and they learn how to accept differences and rely on each other, just as they will in the wider world, says Schwall. Because all the sports teams at St. Norbert are inclusive, students know they can explore new skills and be part of the team, no matter their ability, says Lawler. “In a world filled with highly competitive sports for kids, no-cuts teams are really helpful.”
Ultimately, children who learn in a small school community, surrounded by caring students, parents and teachers, get what they need to be successful, kind, caring adults. “For my family, we found that our small school is the best fit for our children socially and helps them grow to be good human beings and good people,” Lawler says.