Final Thought: School Districts Have Learning Problem

Last month I wrote about how elementary schools could take a giant half-step forward by designing classrooms in clusters around an open space, rather than along double-loaded corridors. This still allows traditional teaching in self-contained classrooms, but the design also provides a gathering space for group activities, encourages teachers to exchange information and ideas, allows re-organization of the school, and makes it possible to break large schools into small units.

How about high schools? It’s 10 years since the book,“Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution,” was published by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Its purpose was to prepare high schools for the 21st Century.

A basic tenet of that report was that high schools“create small units in which anonymity is banished.” The specific recommendation was that, “each high school should try to limit its enrollment to self-operating units of no more than 600 students.” The report noted overwhelming research confirming the beneficial effects of small high school size and detrimental effects of large high school size.

So, how are school districts reacting to this evidence? Not very well, judging from a recent display of new and remodeled high schools in the United States.

Adding to Large Schools

Of 32 high school projects, 13 involved adding facilities to existing high schools. All but two were bringing enrollment up over 1,500 students. Most were 2,000 or more, and two brought student population above 3,500. So much for concern about the evidence of “detrimental effects of large high school size.”

On the plus side, in two of these additions the architects created smaller units within the larger school. The others simply added on with no apparent effort to mitigate the problems of large schools.

As an example, when a high school addition is planned, the district often notes that it will “build a new science wing and convert existing science rooms into classrooms.” That sounds good. Certainly obsolete science facilities ought to be upgraded. But “building a new science wing,” means that all the science facilities will be clustered together, reinforcing the idea that every student in the large high school must travel to a single science department.

A better plan would be to add a new wing, including science facilities, and, at the same time, upgrade the existing science facilities. In that manner, the expanded school has two separated science centers, making it possible to think in terms of dividing the large school into two or more independent small learning units, closer to the concepts suggested in “Breaking Ranks.”

Building Big New Schools

How about the 19 reported new high schools? The news there is better. The average size of the new schools was over 1,500 students. Four were for 900 or fewer students, apparently the size necessary to meet their community needs.

On the other hand, 14 were designed for 1,400 or more students and four were built to house 2,200 to 2,700 students. Happily, in seven of the 19 new buildings (including one of the very large ones), the districts and their architects made a conscious effort to create smaller learning communities within the larger school.

Thus a 2,500-student school was designed, with the help of funds from the Gates Foundation, to create independent units of 400 students each. A career academy for 1,400 was divided into three units. A building for 1,400 students was created as four independent schools. A 1,700-student school was divided into small units. Some others among the large schools noted that flexibility for change and separation had been considered in the design.

Nevertheless, despite these efforts to break high schools into smaller units, school districts continued to plan large high schools. One wonders why.

There may be good reasons to enlarge existing high schools or to construct new ones for thousands of students, despite evidence that this has a “detrimental effect” on education. A community may not want more than one high school, may not have a place to build a second or may simply want to maintain size so that it can field winning teams. We can’t always regulate the number of children seeking to come to our schools.

But if your community is considering building a new large high school or adding to an existing one, think in terms of how that building can be designed in such a way that it will permit the creation of small, independent learning communities within the larger structure, now or in the future. In that way you’ll at least be taking a giant half step forward.

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."