How small can a high school be and still be viable? Small schools, where every student is known, enhance student learning, but is there a point at which a high school is just too small?

One advantage of a large high school is that it can offer a wide range of courses, including advanced placement, many languages and pre-vocational as well as pre-college courses.

One principal showed me her English curriculum for juniors and seniors, including courses in Shakespeare, contemporary writing, creative writing, poetry, the writings of African-American writers, English novels of the 19th Century and lots more. Students could take their English credits in any or several of these fascinating semester-long courses. In a small high school, she stated, all a student could take would be“English IV.”

But the principal of a small school said his students can study any or all of those subjects within English IV or English I, II or III. The secret, he said, is that students do not take a course, as such. Instead, English I or IV is just a starting point. Each student selects something he or she wants to read from a list suggested by the teacher.

Then, instead of coming to English class the same period each day, the class meets once a week for group discussion. Beyond that, each student sets up appointments with the teacher to discuss what they are reading, to raise and answer questions and, ultimately, to write about it and make a presentation to other students.

In his small school, the principal said, the teacher is not the expert telling students what she knows about Shakespeare, but is an enabler, helping students learn how to approach literature and how to get more out of it.

It’s not just in English that his small school operates differently. Students taking social studies and science operate in much the same way, accepting assignments, working on those assignments on their own or with other students, and coming to the teacher when they don’t understand something or need help. Each student then writes a report or essay and presents that information to classmates.

So the question that was first asked — How small can a high school be viable? — was answered by this principal and several others in the following manner: It does not matter how small the school is, what matters is how it operates.

If a high school is small and tries to operate the same way as a large high school, it will not be able to offer the same range of subjects and courses and teachers. Small high schools can be successful only if they change the relationship between teachers and students and take advantage of their size to do things differently. The small school, about which the question was originally raised, has slightly more than 100 students in grades 9-12. It is planning to make itself viable by doing the following.

Offer a full range of subjects and courses on a tutorial basis.

Create a large, open library/media center with a few small conference rooms around the edge where small groups can meet.

Provide each student with a desk and computer station at which to work in that library area.

Emphasize independent research making use of technology.

Use the resources of a local college to provide opportunities for students to take the equivalent of advanced placement courses (they’ll actually earn college credits.)

Use the resources of local businesses, ranging from beauty salons to automobile dealerships, to provide students with career training opportunities. Provide a range of interscholastic sports including basketball, track and field, baseball and softball, but foregoing a football team.

The lesson that came out of the conference was this: A small high school can work very well, but only if it abandons the lock-step schedule and program that large high schools must have in order to control their operations.

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."