The median high school being built today is designed for 1,200 students. The recommendation of the National Association of Secondary School Principals in“Breaking Ranks,” suggests that existing large high schools be broken into small schools of“no more than 400,” with walls to separate them.

The median high school built during the last seven years has ranged from 1,800 to 1,200 students. That appears to be progress, but when one looks at the largest quarter of high schools during that same period, it turns out that they are growing larger, and this does not count the number of already large high schools to which additions are made.

There may be good reasons for enlarging an existing high school or building one to house 2,000 or more students. Communities in which I have been working have between 2,000 and 2,500 students of high school age; and so the question is, do we plan one large high school or two smaller, possibly competing ones? The single high school wins out.

When I mention the value of smaller learning communities, the response is to think in terms of smaller schools within the larger one. Thus, a district plans a ninth grade house (but with some students who are ready to take tenth grade courses moving back and forth). Another considers thematic schools within one larger high school (but sharing science labs and cafeterias, along with the library, gymnasium and auditorium.)

Each is an attempt to break the large school into smaller units while still retaining a single high school. Unfortunately, the “buts” often sink the effort. History suggests that small schools within large ones soon become nothing more than administrative structures, with students scheduled throughout the complex. It’s hard to maintain the separation even when walls are placed between them.

Four major reasons are given for building large high schools in the face of evidence that students do better in smaller schools:

1. We’ve always had one school and we do not want to create unnecessary rivalries with two. That makes some sense, unless one really breaks the mold and creates four or five truly small schools. See The Met in Providence, with its 200-student schools, for a successful example.

2. We won’t be able to offer advance placement courses. This is the tail wagging the dog. The majority of students do not take AP courses. That majority are the ones who gain most in smaller learning communities where individualized help can be provided. The minority taking AP are students who could navigate their way through any school, small or large. For these motivated students, AP courses can be provided in a variety of ways.

3. It’s too expensive. That does not seem to be the case. The booklet “Dollars and Sense; The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools” shows that small schools can be built and operated for no more than large ones. Part of the key lies in sharing (or otherwise providing) expensive facilities. The other involves re-examining staffing patterns. A small school, for example, needs a far less complex administrative organization than a large one.

4. We need 2,000 students to field a competitive football team or to put on a top-notch musical. Ah, now we are at the crux of a major problem. If the role of the high school is to provide star quality entertainment and winning teams, then perhaps only a very large high school will suffice. On the other hand, more students will get to perform, lead, prepare publications and play if each of several schools fields its own teams and presents its own performances. True, they might not be of the highest quality, but then again, who knows when a new star will be uncovered once given a chance. And isn’t that what school is about?

Perhaps it is possible to sustain small schools within a large school. If you have, or know of, a high school that has successfully maintained schools within a school, I’d be interested in hearing about it and how it has been sustained. Until then, however, note that the major reasons for large schools are costs, entertainment and course offerings for the very bright. The major reason to keep schools small is to provide a better educational opportunity for the majority of students. Interesting.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."