I must admit I wasn’t enthused by the subject of the opening session of the 82nd Annual Conference of the Council of Educational Facility Planners:“From Homeless to Harvard.” What could that have to do with school facilities? Nor was I delighted when Liz Murray came on stage, a very young woman who, it appeared, was going to tell her mainly middle-aged audience how anybody can gain entrance to Harvard.

Boy, was I wrong. Ms. Murray turned out to be a fascinating speaker who had the audience enthralled, absorbed, concerned and, finally, on its feet in a thunderous ovation.

What was her story? I can’t tell it nearly as well as she, but essentially, Murray was a child in a dysfunctional family. Her parents had been hippies in the 1960s and never recovered. The child was on her own at a very early age. Though school was relatively easy, attendance was not and before long she became lost in New York City’s system of huge schools, teachers who had no time and hardly knew her, and lack of support at home.

By the time she was of high school age, she was on the streets literally cadging food from dumpsters and sleeping in parks. While officially a high school student, she seldom attended and no one cared. Instead, she began the slide into a life of rebellion, quick fixes, fast friends and little hope. Her saving grace apparently was that, despite all this, she was one of those students who could be absent for weeks at a time and then show up for a test and pass it. Nobody knew who she was — other than a number — but she did not fail even though the system was failing her.

Saved by Small High Schools

Murray’s story took a turn for the better when somebody told her that there were small high schools in New York with teachers who knew individuals. She determined to seek one out as a means for completing her high school education.

The way she tells it, armed with course credits that were okay, but with clothes, hair and attitude that were not, she wandered from small school to small school getting rejected by each. They, like the larger high schools she was fleeing, wanted students they were sure could succeed. Eventually, as a last resort, she approached an alternative school and found a person who could break through her veneer of independence, push her in the right direction, force her to face reality and, eventually, to succeed.

The title of her presentation was“From Homeless to Harvard” because, thanks to a series of circumstances, she won acceptance to Harvard. But that’s just the icing on her cake. The cake was a single sentence she said and repeated: If it had not been for the small school setting, I would not have succeeded.

Murray’s entire presentation became a plea for small schools but not just schools that are physically small. They have to be schools that operate so that individual students are known as persons, not numbers. Where they can get the help and guidance all young people need. In the large schools, she was a lost soul. In a small one operating as a small school, she got attention — not because she was different or acting out, but because she was a person.

Advocates of large high schools always talk about the variety of courses they can offer — advanced placement, professional drama, music and sports presentations and the efficiencies of size.

Liz Murray talked about the human side of schools, about the trials and tribulations of someone who did not have outstanding recognizable talent, did not have a supportive home life, who needed personal attention. She very clearly made the case for the value of schools where every individual gets attention, where counselors and teachers deal with a reasonable number of students by name. And she identified the most significant factor in those schools as their size.

A Sad Sidebar

Murray received a standing ovation when she finished, but did her message get out the ballroom door? On leaving, I found four architects who were currently designing high schools, each for 1,600 or more students! When they get back to their clients, will they carry Murray’s lesson with them and suggest, at least, that if education is what schools are about, small ones will do much better than large?

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."