The Small School Experience in Northern Door: Bigger Isn’t Always Better

The rural school experience is an important part of Americana, the belief that the one-room school in many respects was best. But advocates of a large-school education will point to broader academic curricula, expanded extracurricular choices, better educational facilities, and options for exceptional students to achieve at higher levels.

People living in northern Door County, however, have no local big school alternative. Sevastopol and Gibraltar have K-12 enrollments of about 600 students; Washington Island, only 79.

Gibraltar/Sevastopol soccer.

Door County offers rich vacation opportunities for tourists; does it do as well for its students?  

Steve Cromell, completing his second year as administrator of the Sevastopol School District, and Joe Majeski, serving as elementary principal for over 20 years, both take pride in the success of their unique school.

On a recent Wisconsin Knowledge and Concept Exam (WKCE), Sevastopol sophomores ranked 10th in the state among small schools, and first in northeastern Wisconsin. The average ACT score of last year’s seniors was 22 out of 36.

Each year Sevastopol students excel in two academic extracurricular activities. First, the Destination Imagination competition, which requires student teams to present creative dramatic solutions to a challenge. “We are one of the top three or four schools in the state,” Majeski said. “We score in the top 10 and have won 12 world championships.” And second, Sevastopol regularly receives state awards both for the school newspaper and yearbook.

In sports, Sevastopol does well, too. “For a small school in a much larger school conference,” Majeski said, “we are competitive.” And in the small school tournament division the school sends teams to state and has earned championships in softball and cross-country.

While a small size isn’t an advantage in sports, it can be in education. Elementary classes range from 15 to 18 students; in the high school, 13 to 14. “I’ve been in a number of school districts in different states,” said Cromell, “and I have never seen [the level of] parent volunteerism in an elementary school that I’ve seen at Sevastopol.”

“We expect our parents to be involved,” Majeski said. His goal is an extended family environment in the school, an objective more easily realized because K-12 students are housed in one building and ride the same buses.

“Older kids have contact with younger kids,” Majeski said, citing as examples fifth grade bus partners for kindergartners, fourth grade reading buddies with kindergartners, and high school mentoring of elementary at-risk students. “The concepts learned in a family,” he said, “sharing, compromise, understanding from multiple perspectives, caring for each other, can all be learned in a small school.

Gibraltar volleyball.

“If you walk through the elementary school,” he continued, “you’ll see high school students. And if you walk through the high school, you’ll see elementary students in a science lab or a computer room.”

Majeski, also a school psychologist, believes that students need a positive adult influence over an extended period of time to develop values and appropriate behaviors. At Sevastopol, elementary teachers fill those roles, he said, as they know their students well, continue to see them as high school students, and sometimes have them return as classroom aids.

He also believes that the opportunities kids have to participate in athletics and other school activities, regardless of their talent level, nurture positive attitude and self-esteem. While Sevastopol does have student discipline issues, the administrators note that they are minor. “The state is concerned with school expulsions,” Majeski said. “I can’t remember when we last expelled a student.”

Cromell has spent over 30 years working in small schools. “There is a tremendous advantage working in a small district,” he said. “I wanted my children in a small school. Everyone who works in small schools feels that way.”

Further up the peninsula Gibraltar School Administrator Stephen Seyfer, 6-12 Principal Kirk Knutson, and K-5 Principal Judy Munsey also advocate the small school experience.

Academically, Gibraltar excels. Based on state assessments, Advanced Placement (AP) test scores and International Baccalaureate test scores, US News and World Report selected the high school as one of six Silver Medal winners in Wisconsin.

In some respects Gibraltar is a public prep school; last year’s seniors took the ACT with an average score of 24.6. Each year approximately 30 students complete AP coursework that allows them to take 60 to 70 AP exams.

“Strong personal bonds make a small school superior,” said Munsey, “especially for elementary children. Students make strong connections with teachers and peers.”

Gibraltar’s 2009 graduating class.

Smaller class sizes also help nurture relationships. Average class size in the elementary school is 14 to 16 students; in the high school, 16 to 17. Middle school classes are larger to accommodate “flex block” scheduling for team teaching, enrichment, and remediation opportunities.

“One of the greatest advantages of a small school is the feeling of security we can provide for our students,” Knutson said.  “We can understand kids as individuals, and help them understand their place in the world.”

But it isn’t just what happens within the school building. Munsey points to community involvement in small schools, “a network of support for kids.”

“One of our greatest benefits,” Knutson said, “is that we get to be the hub of the community.” The athletic facilities, the auditorium, the YMCA across the highway and the adjacent Peninsula State Park offer opportunities for students to participate with members of the community.

As at Sevastopol, more students are involved in the arts, athletics, and other activities. “There aren’t cuts,” Seyfer noted, “[so there’s] the opportunity to be involved, the chance to be a star or to be in the support cast.”

Knutson, also the high school’s athletic director, noted the success students have enjoyed in extracurricular activities. Soccer and baseball teams have been regional champions; track, forensics, and theater compete at the state level.

Perhaps because of the small school environment, as at Sevastopol discipline is not a problem in the school. “Kids can be naughty,” Munsey said, “but there are no significant safety issues.” Knutson agrees. “Sometimes we may have verbal disfunctions,” he said, “grafitti, some verbal harassment, but seldom physical issues.”

And just as discipline is not a problem, neither are dropouts. “It’s difficult to become invisible,” Seyfer added. “Kids are known on a first name basis.”

Gibraltar Principal Kirk Knutson.

But with the advantages of a small school come the disadvantages imposed by geographical isolation and a limited curriculum. “These kids have to face a competitive place when they leave here,” Seyfer said. “We try to give them the ability to straddle both worlds.”

Technology has helped rural Gibraltar students become more cosmopolitan in their outlook. “The internet,” Seyfer continued, “has allowed our kids to have the protection of space and the irrelevancy of place.”

Munsey also pointed out that the Friends of Gibraltar, dedicated to providing enriching arts and environmental programs to students, brings artists in residence to students, broadening the world of their experience.

The curriculum at Gibraltar has been expanded by technology. “We had 78 students taking 97 virtual classes last year,” Seyfer said. Perhaps technology, above all else, is the great equalizer in education.

Off the tip of the peninsula is the smallest of the three Northern Door school districts, Washington Island, with a unique approach to education. Adjacent grade level classes are often combined using alternating year curricula. District Administrator Dr. Susan Churchill-Chastan finds Washington Island “a wonderful place to live and work.”

As at the other two Northern Door schools, island students do well, she said. Many years 100 percent of the students score either proficient or advanced on the WKCE and exceed the state average score on the ACT. All of last year’s six seniors plan to continue their education.

“Our students get so much individual attention,” Chastan said. “We know all of our kids and all of their parents. There is a sense of family here, and of family support.”

As might be expected, discipline is not an issue in the school. “We have some of the problems of bigger schools,” Chastan said, “but no where near the level. We have no gangs or weapons.”

Sevastopol students perform in the fall 2008 production of “The Boy Friend.”

Twelve teachers, assisted by parents and volunteers from the community, make up the staff at Washington Island. Local artists, the Island Players community theater group, and the Washington Island Music Festival Committee bring cultural opportunities to students.

The physical boundaries of the school are extended by the proximity of the Trueblood Performing Arts Center, the Community Center, and the Mosling Recreation Center, creating a hub, as at Gibraltar.

But the geographical remoteness of the island offers challenges for the small school district. For example, some seasons an interscholastic sports team can’t be fielded because of low athlete numbers or no available coach. Competitions involve small private schools on the mainland, requiring considerable travel time, and sometimes the ferry schedule necessitates an overnight stay.

Other travel, both educational and social, is scheduled for students, such as an interdisciplinary weeklong trip for 11th and 12th graders traveling to Madison and Chicago. Also, fifth and sixth grade students travel to the Milwaukee Public Museum to view an exhibit on the Titanic as a part of National Geographic Society’s JASON Project, studying extreme environments.

Not all trips off the island are to far places. The high school English teacher takes her upper class students to neighboring Rock Island State Park to enact the classic epic Beowulf. Sevastopol students are invited to attend the performance.

Northern Door administrators agree regarding the advantages of a small school education. In some respects their schools offer the best of both worlds, a technological link with the realm of big school education and an instructional intimacy reminiscent of the one-room schools of our past. If you are in the market for diamonds or bonuses or pieces of pie, size matters. But if you are picking schools for your kids, bigger is not always better.

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Sevastopol softball.

Small-Town Education Through Students’ Eyes

At Sevastopol High School, four seniors, all good students, looked back on their educational experience in a small school. “You are not anonymous or a number but an identity,” Clare MacMillen said, “and make more connections with the faculty. I can’t imagine going to a school with thousands.

“I know people who go to big schools,” she continued, “and used to think that my abilities wouldn’t hold true in a big school. However, small schools foster greater intellectual activity.”

Molly Schroeder also would not want to attend a big school. She’d miss the feeling of family, “a community where everyone cares for everybody.”

“My class rank might be lower at a big school,” Joe Sawyer said. And he might not be a three-season sports athlete. But at the same time he recognizes that he might be pushed to improve by competition.

Sam Weber feels that he might be distracted from his schoolwork with the temptation of more activities at a big school.

“I think I might have excelled more in certain areas in a bigger school,” Clare said, “but I feel that I would have had to sacrifice the exploration part of growing up.”

Four Gibraltar seniors, also good students with college plans, reflected on the education they had received and shared a number of the views expressed above.

“I love going to a small school,” Andrea Bosman said. “We all know each other. We have cliques, but we get along.”

Toler Wolfe agreed. “It’s real intimate. It’s cool knowing everyone.” But he has reservations. “I get frustrated,” he said. “Sometimes I want to know someone else or do something else.”

Toler Wolfe

“I like it for the most part,” Allison Kjell said, “but when I visit bigger schools I wish that I could go there to experience more people, to find out if there are better things.”

All four realize that they are relatively big fish in a small pond, but they are not certain that they would have been more successful at a larger school. “I think bigger schools are better breeding grounds for competition,” Toler said. “But I don’t have a competitive nature.”

“I don’t know if it would have made me work harder in soccer,” Taylor Schultz said. “I’m going to work hard anyway.”

Andrea feels that she does better in a small school because “you know your competition in sports and academics and work accordingly.”

But Toler has concerns. “Even if people tell you you’re good,” he said, “there are only so many to compete against.”

Allison agrees. “For the most part I don’t feel worried about my education.” She has taken many honors and AP classes. “But I worry that my class rank might not be significant because of our small class size.”

Grace Goodwin, a successful college-bound senior at Washington Island, is pleased with her education. “I like the time with teachers one on one,” she said. “We have better relationships. They know you outside of school. They know your family.” But like students at the other two schools, she has mixed feelings about peers. “It’s sometimes annoying,” she said. “You’ve been with kids for a long time, so you know them well or you’re sick of them. You get along with each other, but they know your business.”

She envies kids in bigger schools who have honors and AP classes along with more extracurricular activities, but does not like the potential of bomb threats and weapons in schools. “I will be a little homesick when I leave for school,” she said, “but I’ve always wanted to live in a bigger community. I think it will be intimidating at first, but it will be fine.”

Grace believes that she has been prepared for college. And she may return to the island one day, when she retires.

Eva and Iain McNeil study with Jered Slagle at the McNeil home.

The Home Schooling Option

For the ultimate small school experience, some parents in Northern Door choose home schooling.

“Initially I was pressured to home school by my husband, his family, and my mother who had been a teacher,” said Karen McNeil. “I was terrified and didn’t want to do it!” But with her oldest son David, now an adult, she enjoyed “watching the light bulb click on.” And his younger sister Gracie observed and participated in everything he did.

Home schooling was practical at the time as McNeil and her then husband were running a bed and breakfast. During the fall and spring “we would not have seen our kids,” she said, as they would have been in school during the week and weekends were consumed by the business. “The over-riding factor,” she said, “was that I wanted to be mom.”

As do a number of home-schooling parents, she likes the religious education component to the curriculum, along with the opportunity to build family relationships and have her kids socialize and integrate with all age groups.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) makes provisions for parents to school their own children. McNeil purchases a curriculum and instructional materials from a Christian college in Pensacola, Florida. On occasion she has engaged tutors in math and English. As a teaching parent, she is responsible for creating transcripts indicating scope and sequence, class dates, publishers of materials, and grades she has assigned.

2009 graduating class from Washington Island. Photo courtesy of the Washington Island Observer.

“Universities seem to welcome home-schooled kids,” she said. When David and Gracie attended college both felt that they had been adequately prepared.

Eleventh grade Iain and ninth grade Eva, attended Gibraltar for some classes and were home schooled for others. As a senior, Iain is attending Gibraltar full time. “I don’t like the eight-period day idea,” he said, “but it’s going to be good for me.”

A school schedule was an adjustment for Iain. “At first I hurried and was first in the room. I worried about being late for the bell,” he said. “I’ve mellowed out now!

“Accountability in home schooling is a big thing,” he continued. “It’s hard to do the work. In the fall and spring my mom works, so there’s no accountability sometimes, and you can put off schoolwork for a couple weeks. When I went to Gibraltar I freaked out about turning things in. I worried about late assignments and not getting credit. It was a new thing to have a deadline.”

Eva likes the social aspect of Gibraltar. “I like meeting new people, friends, interacting in a class,” she said. “It’s easier to focus with a teacher than it is sometimes at home with a video.”

On the other hand they enjoy the freedom to pursue their own interests when home schooled. “We have some say in the books we read,” Iain said.

Although home-schooled children experience more freedom in their education, “when all is said and done,” McNeil said, “the kids have better self-discipline if their family takes home schooling seriously.”

The Wisconsin DPI reported a total of about 40 students enrolled in home schooling in the three northern Door County districts. The department website ( provides information for parents who are considering enrolling their children in a home-based private education program.

Sevastopol cross-country runners Jimmy Heroux and Cole VanderLeest lead the pack. Photo by Sevastopol student Chelsea Orthober.

Research Reports

Are smaller schools better? Professor Timothy Kaufman, chair of the Professional Program in Education department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, believes the answer depends upon the individual. “Some students may need the larger peer interaction of a big school,” Kaufman said, “while others may need the nurturing environment of a small school.”

But academically students do as well or better in small schools than in larger schools, reports a Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory article (found at Young people in smaller settings have more positive attitudes toward their schoolwork, better attendance, fewer disciplinary problems, more participation in extracurricular activities, better self-concepts, fewer dropouts, and better relationships with teachers and other students.

Smaller schools often have a higher rate of parental involvement, offer smaller classes with more individualized and experiential learning, and provide instruction that involves team teaching, multiage grouping, cooperative learning, and performance assessments.

Perhaps most important to parents, college-bound students from small schools do not differ from their big school peers on entrance exam scores, acceptance rates, grade point average, nor completion of degrees.

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