A Final Thought

I Don't Like It

A short while ago, a friend sent me a clipping from the Minneapolis Star Tribune titled, “The rise of the mega school.” She asked how I would respond. The article described the growth of high schools in the area and asked whether this was a good trend.

Specifically mentioned was Wayzata (Minn.) High School, currently the largest school in the state, with 3,200 students and plans to expand to 3,900. According to the newspaper, “It’s …a sign of the times. Across the Twin Cities, suburban school districts are showing new interest in expanding high schools into sprawling campuses…. There are five metro-area high schools with 2,500 students or more. By 2018, there could be at least 10.”

I’m appalled at the educational implications of this trend. I have always seen my role — both as a planning consultant and as a writer — as an advocate for children. In planning facilities, children’s needs came first, and I communicated that to school boards and superintendents. Designing bigger and bigger schools is not good for the education of children.

During the Baby Boom era, high schools were planned for about 1,600 students. There were smaller ones, of course, but often the plans showed how additions could be made to bring the student population to 1,600. The argument for 1,600-student comprehensive high schools came from the Conant Report in 1959, and was based on the concept that one needed enough students to be able to offer a variety of courses, including advanced placement for the academically gifted and vocational for those who were not. If it had fewer students, a school would not be able to provide that range.

That philosophy is still put forth by many people, but as early as 1968, there were books and articles showing how small high schools could successfully meet the needs of all students. It did involve teaching and organizing classes differently, but it was the first salvo in the movement to cut down on lockstep classes and teaching, to end the role of the teacher as an oracle lecturing at students, to encourage students to work together and, in general, to create a new atmosphere in our high schools.

Today, technology has made that argument obsolete. Want a course in fifth-year Chinese? It’s available online. Need a course in advanced physics or biology? They’re available, too, and the home school can make it even better by allowing students to make use of existing labs to do hands-on projects.

So what’s wrong with a large high school? Well, if one goes back to the concept of schools providing the best educational experience for students, here are some considerations.

The phrase “lost between the cracks” may not get as much use as it once did, but in large schools it happens too easily. What teacher dealing with 125 or 150 different students has the opportunity to take time to help a single student? How does a teacher even notice the problem?

In a small high school (many proponents of small schools today would decry schools of 1,600 as much too big), there is much more opportunity for interaction between individual students and teachers. Everyone knows Johnny. He can be discussed, not because he’s special, but because a teacher or two has noticed him and taken first steps to find out what he needs. Does that solve all problems? Obviously not, but in a small school the chances of slipping through the cracks are minimized.

Then there’s opportunity. In a school of 4,000 students, there’s one quarterback, one opportunity to excel or just participate. In three smaller schools, there are three varsity teams, three opportunities for interested students to participate.

It’s not just athletics. In a single high school there will be one play, one musical, one newspaper, one yearbook, one prom queen, one band, one orchestra, one chorale group, etc. Put 4,000 students in a single school and there will be an opportunity for one star; divide them into three or four smaller high schools and many students will have a chance to perform, to learn, to have an experience that may shape their future or simply be remembered for the rest of their lives, even if it’s not pursued further. It will be a part of their learning experience. Isn’t that what high school should provide for every student?

The argument for smaller high schools is an educational one: It is better for students. The argument for larger schools is not based on providing better education but better teams, better community spirit and money. I do not like it, but I understand why it’s happening. I’ll write about that and what might be done to control it in September’s column.

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."

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