A Final Thought

No Other Option

As one who believes in the value – academic, social, security and financial – of small schools, I found it disquieting to read an inquiry from a fellow member of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) whose school district currently has high schools with 2,400 students and is wondering if it can go to 3,000 as its student population increases.

My immediate reaction was that 2,400 is too many already, and who would want to go any bigger? Well, one might not want to add students to an already large high school but, unfortunately, there are times when there is no choice. As Architect Joe Fuller Jr. said to me, “In the present economy it’s not easy to get support for a $100-million bond issue for a new high school. Like it or not, the existing school is going to have to take on more students even if it is already very big.”

We’re involved in such a situation right now. A high school with a current population over 2,900 is going to have to accommodate another 500 students within the next five years. Neither the state nor the local constituency is prepared to support a second high school. The best that can be done is to add facilities, especially science labs and physical education space to accommodate more students in what is already an overcrowded building. The one saving grace in this school is that the administration has already taken some steps to create small schools within the larger one.

There are many ways to create small schools — arbitrarily (everyone with names beginning with A through E, etc.); by subject and interest (technology, science, languages, pre-law); by teaching philosophy (students and parents who want discipline stressed or those who want a more open and individual approach), etc.

The problem is that these seldom really work. Students from all schools still go to classes throughout the building, the schools are dependent upon being able to find a group of students and teachers each year interested in the chosen subject, and the separation does not really respond to the significant question of students, usually the poorer performing ones, getting lost in a huge high school.

Starting a Freshman Academy seems to be a more successful way to create a small school within a school. The members of the academy are easily identified (all ninth-grade students), they tend to have a restricted range of courses and, as any high school administrator will confirm, ninth graders have more discipline problems so keeping them together in a relatively small area rather than traveling throughout the larger school is a legitimate goal.

As the district considers additions to the school, I have suggested that they use those additions to create a Freshman Academy that makes it possible for ninth graders to get virtually all the services they need in a small portion of the building.

That means adding more than classrooms, offices and bathroom facilities. Planning for 1,000 freshmen in the future, we have suggested adding 12 classrooms and six science labs appropriate for the biology-centered classes these students take. This will relieve crowding in the existing science wing as well as making it unnecessary for students to travel to it. By the same token, three physical education stations (with locker rooms) should be added adjacent to the freshman area, relieving crowding in the existing spaces.

To accommodate freshmen electives we are suggesting the addition of two computer labs and an iLab along with two art rooms. Two music rooms should also be provided in the freshman area but issues of acoustics and availability of existing instruments, practice rooms and storage may make that impractical.(It may be possible in this specific case for the freshman academy to be adjacent to existing music facilities.)

Finally, we have suggested that it would also be wise to provide a gathering space where all freshmen can be brought together and where lunches could be served, again limiting the amount of travel around the building. Given the likely tight budget, it may be that the physical education space will have to be configured to provide that kind of space.

The point to all this is to demonstrate both that it is possible to create a completely self-contained freshman academy or wing within a large high school, but that doing so involves more than setting aside a block of classrooms. It will work only if all of the facilities these students need can be provided in a limited space. Doing so will also reduce the overall high school size significantly since, effectively, the freshmen will be in a separate building or, at least, space.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

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."