Small schools

Guest Post by James Protzman

In 1930, the US had 262,000 public schools for 28 million students. Guess what those numbers were 72 years later?

In 2002, the US had 91,000 schools for 54 million students. That's a drop of 170,000 schools while the student population nearly doubled. The average public school has gone from serving 100 students at a time to almost 600 students. This doesn't seem like a positive trend to me.

Here in the southern part of heaven, this trend is evidenced by our chronic difficulties in siting schools and in the growing popularity of both charter and private schools. For example, the Emerson Waldorf High School in Chapel Hill will graduate its first senior class this year. The Carolina Friends School has a growing waiting list in all grades as well. Both offer small school environments – but at a hefty price. Long gone are the days when Chapel Hill High School and Lincoln High School were both in the downtown area and young people were part of daily life in our communities. Maybe we should add “public school” to list of important assets when we think about planning the future of downtown.

I'm just a parent -- not an educator – so I can't speak to all the research and science around the question of school sizes. But in my own family – with two middle-of-the-road kids – the large public high schools in Chapel Hill were unworkable. Both of my kids got lost and left behind.

But there are some issues I can speak to, which involve the transportation and environmental impacts of current approaches to school construction. Here's the EPA presentation where I found the facts reported above. Turns out big schools have some environmental costs to go along with their scale. Especially mega schools out on the edges of communities. With minimum acreage driving site selection, small schools are becoming things of the past. North Carolina high schools require something like 30 acres at a minimum nowadays. These ‘edge schools' generate more and longer vehicle trips than in-fill schools – burning more fuel, creating more emissions, and destroying productivity all the while.

What's the appeal of a mega school? Is it about economies of scale? Does it justify growing bureaucracy? Does it enable better facilities and better equipment? Does it deliver superior teaching? Does it reflect an obsession with certain kinds of organized sports that require big playing fields? Your guess is as good as mine, but whatever rationale, it seems hard to argue against the case for having smaller schools, too.

For conservatives, vouchers appear to be a kind of holy grail for all things educational, including smaller schools. And while vouchers may eventually have a role in a comprehensive strategy for improving public education, the discussion cannot start there. It has to start from the progressive position of representing the common good. My fear, though, is that average Americans see progressives as advocating some version of status quo, while wingers have stood for something different, something called privatization (surprise, surprise). We on the left have not articulated a coherent path for improvement, and maybe we haven't even acknowledged the scope of the need.

These are gross generalities I know, and many of my friends in public education are as frustrated by the Current View of the Situation as I am. But a Better View of the Situation has not been fully framed, and a path for getting there has not been mapped.

Maybe we should start by making a commitment to smaller schools.



This is a timely post, considering the First School proposal that would result in enrollment of almost 1000 students at the two co-located schools, twice the current Seawell population.

One positive way of looking at the trend (which in no way contradicts your statements of how this can be bad for kids and community) is that more kids today have access to education. The problem of course is that the growth in number of schools has not kept pace with number of students.

The environmental impact is interesting and a new thing for me to consider. I have long thought that much of the arguments against larger schools could be mitigated so long as we keep the class sizes small, but clearly there is more to this than teacher-student ratio.

A few years ago the big worry was over lower test scores, but that could be at least partially explained by the greater access kids had to education, particularly special needs and high risk kids getting the help they needed for the first time. The important difference between this concern and the lower test scores concern is that the latter deals with simply a lowering of an average, not the potential lowering of education quality for any group of students.

Thanks for your post.

This issue is one of my greatest concerns about the CHCCS district. There are over 500 kids in my son's Freshman class at East Chapel Hill High--it's so big that he has spent much of this year just figuring the place out. We clearly need, both in this district and nationally, smaller high schools.

The following excperpt is from a Washington Post article that ran this past November. This article cites the academic benefits of smaller schools--I have also read studies that cite the psychological and social benefits of schools that have between 600 and 900 students.

"The only rigorous study was conducted by Valerie E. Lee of the University of Michigan and Julia B. Smith of Western Michigan University. Lee and Smith analyzed federal data for nearly 10,000 students in 789 public and private high schools of varying size. They sampled the performance of these students in mathematics and reading as they progressed from eighth to 12th grade. Lee and Smith concluded that the ideal size for a high school is 600 to 900 students. Size matters, they said, because it affects social relations within the school and the ability to mount a reasonable curriculum. Schools that are too large lack any sense of community and cannot shape student behavior; schools that are too small cannot offer a solid curriculum.

In their study, low-income students made the greatest academic gains in schools of 600 to 900 students. Indeed, the performance of low-income students was worst in schools with more than 2,100 students. Size did not make as much difference for students from advantaged backgrounds, but even their performance peaked in the schools that enrolled between 600 and 900. Academic gains for both low-income and high-income students declined as enrollment fell below 600, and declined again in schools that enrolled fewer than 300."

Thanks for this, Dabney. I've been looking for some research to test my instincts and this pretty much nails it.

It is such a complex issue--land, funding and government policy have all pushed the big high school binge. I'd like to see us look at making small schools within our big schools, something Dr. Pederson is interested in too. I also believe we should press the State Legislature to loosen its lock on the number of charter schools. While those schools are typically small, they don't have to be tiny. (A great example is Raleigh Charter High.)

Parental expectations play a large role in our ever-growing school sizes. It's not economically feasible for multiple small schools to provide the level of services that centralized schools can provide. Are CHCCS parents really willing to settle for fewer specialty courses, such as AP courses, sports, and the arts? I'd love to believe that is the case, but given the extended debates about how many parking spaces would be available at the new high school, I am skeptical. The school within a school might address the cultural issues of large schools but it doesn't do anything to reduce the environmental impact of large campuses.

I'm still baffled as to why the new high school couldn't share athletic space with Culbreth.

I think a school of 800 kids probably could offer AP courses, sports and arts. I think the issue there is do parents want to settle for the taxes that more, but smaller, high schools would necessitate?

My daughter goes to the Waldorf school -- with about 60 kids total in the high school. She's come around to loving learning and thinking and has blossomed in the gentle environment. It's not right for everyone, but for kids who want to learn to think and need a little hand-holding, it can't be beat.

This is the first year Emerson Waldorf has had a senior class, so the school is relatively new. But the Friends high school has been around for a long time . . . and it has a waiting list all the time. Which is to say, I think there's plenty of demand.

And there's lots of evidence on the charter school front that schools can be managed effectively without some of the traditional trappings. So I try to keep in mind, it's not an either/or. It's a both/and.


PS I know a parent who's chosen private schools runs the risk of losing credibility in the public education discussion, but I hope you won't throw me out with the bathwater. I was on the Public School Foundation Board for three years, and have volunteered regularly to support the district school system in lots of ways. I'd have done almost anything to keep my kids in public schools . . . except sacrifice their well-being.

No credibility lost. The CHCCS system is just plain wrong for some kids.

Off topic-- I had an interesting experience last night. I was at a curriculum advisory committee meeting at Lincoln Center. Someone mentioned that some third graders are taking prep classes so that they can do well on the Iowa test and get into LEAP. No sooner did the person say this and a flourescent light panel came crashing down from the ceiling nearly landing on a school board member's head...

Two very informative items provided by a former New York Teacher of the Year.

Gatto's book "The Underground History of American Education" is guaranteed to forever alter your view of the educational system. For a quick overview of his general themes, see the article bel;ow publioshed by Harper's.

I've read Gatto. I think it is too frightening for those in charge to release every child's potential. There is this belief that there isn't enough for everyone on this planet (or--I might add-- this fine County of ours).

I attended a public high school of roughly 1200 students total in grades 9-12 that offered 17 AP courses. I struggle to see why a school of 900-1000 in grades 9-12 could not offer at least 10 or more APs.

Prep tests for LEAP? Good grief. Those poor children. I wish I were surprised--but I'm not.

My HS was smaller than East--and had MUCH better Arts. We ahd a fully equiped photography lab, a graphic arts lab, an art room equiped for clay, metals (we even had oxy-acetylene torches!), painting-- East doesn't come CLOSE.

So it's not all about size. A lot if it is about TIME--and commitment. The state requirements to graduate college prep are so intense kids don't really have TIME to take many arts courses. Also--at least at East--the arts seem to take a back-seat to academics. Not sure why--perhaps because most parents and kids buy into the idea that one needs multiple AP's to get into a decent college. One doesn't. Of course, if a kid doesn't TAKE multiple AP's it trashes their class rank...which is a drag. My son would have been eligible for several merit scholarships if his class rank had been higher...but since he elected NOT to take AP's he's only in the top 20% of his class (with a 4.0--weighted.)

Jim--no credibility lost--you gotta do what you gotta do for your kids. I know several kids at Waldorf...they are happy and learning--and they weren't in the CHCCS. Wouldn't have worked for MY guys--but each kid is different.


Melanie--sorry I wasn't clear. We can't do everything in every school and still support small footprints. Schools grow by feeling they have to offer a full complement of onsite AP courses, arts, and athletics, along with all the special needs services. Centralizing those services into one facility is the chosen method of ensuring that every child has every opportunity within every school. As you know, the idea of having different specialties at individual schools is the magnet model which has not been embraced by this system. AP courses could be offered online with multiple schools sharing the cost of the instructor, but distance education is a recent development within the system.

I wish I could understand how schools got to be so big as a matter of policy, but I have the feeling it wasn't part of some grand plan based on the premise the bigger is better. Rather, it seems much more likely that it's the result of

1. Pressures of the so-called "free market" to reuse land in ways that make money for developers
2. America's obsession with sports
3. Misguided acceptance of commercial ideas about economies of scale
4. America's obsession with sports
5. The notion that more is better . . . more labs, more equipment, more food choices, more soda machines

No educator I've ever spoken to actually argues that large schools are preferable to smaller ones. They just seem resigned to the fact that our public policy pushes things in that direction. When you have a minumum acrerage requirement for 30 acres for a high school . . . plus an acre for every 100 students . . . you get this gigantic drift toward scale. And when you have 1500 students, what difference does another hundred or two make?


PS Thanks for the link, Mark. Gatto cuts right through it. For those who haven't read it, the synopsis in Mark's second link takes only a couple of minutes to read . . . and it's worth the click for sure.

Here it is again.

The link to the EPA presentation was eye-opening. Thanks.

Here is more info to consider, excerpted from the following link:

"In What Respects Are Small Schools More Beneficial?

A higher percentage of students, across all socioeconomic levels, are successful when they are part of smaller, more intimate learning communities. Females, nonwhites, and special-needs students, whether at risk, gifted, exceptional, or disadvantaged, are all better served by small schools. Security improves and violence decreases, as does student alcohol and drug abuse.

Small school size encourages teachers to innovate and students to participate, resulting in greater commitment for both groups. More positive attitudes and greater satisfaction are reflected in higher grades and test scores, improved attendance rates, and lowered dropout rates.

Deborah Meier (1996) cites seven reasons why schools of 300 to 400 students work best.
1. Governance. Communication is easier when the whole staff can meet around one common table.
2. Respect. Students and teachers get to know each other well.
3. Simplicity. Less bureacracy makes it easier to individualize.
4. Safety. Strangers are easily spotted and teachers can respond quickly to rudeness or frustration.
5. Parent involvement. Parents are more likely to form alliances with teachers who know their child and care about his or her progress.
6. Accountability. No one needs bureaucratic data to find out how a student, a teacher, or the school is doing. Everyone knows.
7. Belonging. Every student, not just the academic and athletic stars, is part of a community that contains adults."

Given this, then what?


Interesting notions to consider in this discussion:

Neil Pedersen opposed charter schools.

Lottery money earmarked for public education (supposedly) will not be shared with the charter schools - which are part of the public school system.

James, Good list, but I think you should add parental expectations and agonies to it. We baby boomers grew up believing in public schools as the foundationi of equity and social justice, but we also want the very best for our children. That conflict has pushed public schools to function more like private schools with all the high cost amenities (athletic fields, theaters, labs, AP/honor programs, gifted ed). All of those amenities are wonderful and I don't advocate taking them away, but shouldn't we be able to share programs and spaces among schools?

If more parents would take advantage of the private school option as you have admirably done, we might not be forced into having such large campuses. It's a very tough situation. Sending all those who can afford private schools away would have its own detrimental effect on the public schools. We need to think more systemically about this problem. Right now we seem to be in a positive feedback loop with schools growing without limits, in size and costs.

My sister and I attended a private Catholic elementary school and cried when our parents transferred us to Our Lady of Sorrows. St. Rose was so small, the lower grades shared a room. The nuns slept in the attic. Big old mansion with an enormous front porch and creaky floors. It combined elements of Emerson Waldorf and the schoolhouse that Jim envisions. Key word = private.

This link:

will take you to a great article that complements the Gatto piece. I gave it to my son to read when he was struggling to learn how to fit in at East when he first arrived there last fall. The article is full of great insights like this:

"Teenagers now are useless, except as cheap labor in industries like fast food, which evolved to exploit precisely this fact. In almost any other kind of work, they'd be a net loss. But they're also too young to be left unsupervised. Someone has to watch over them, and the most efficient way to do this is to collect them together in one place. Then a few adults can watch all of them."

Melanie, when I was in pubic high school in the late 80s/early 90s, my high school actually stopped computing class rank for exactly the reason you mention. At this very good school in a wealthy district, they saw too many kids who were very qualified but not eligible for certain scholarships because of class rank. So while we still had GPAs, we didn't know our rank past sophomore year (or whenever they rules it out). We voted on who we wanted to hear speak at graduation, and there was no valedictorian. The school also refused to weigh grades so that students would still take art and music classes without their grades being penalized. This was also a school district that worked to keep kids from being too competitive. Anyway, I'm not sure these solutions would work elsewhere, but that's how one school handled similar problems.

Patrick, my high school had about 800 or 850 kids, and we had at least 15 AP options. What we didn't have was a varsity football team! There wasn't enough interest to sustain one. Our golf, tennis, and soccer teams did very well though.

In general response to the Gatto link and small schools and learning and boredom: my understanding is the "unschooling" movement grew from this foundation. The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn is fantastic and really interesting reading.

"My sister and I attended a private Catholic elementary school and cried when our parents transferred us to Our Lady of Sorrows."

Hence the name.

I need to make a distinction between "private" and "independent" schools. I do not speak for parochial schools. I can, however, speak for both the Emerson Waldorf School (having worked in the administration there for 12 years) and Carolina Friends School (now in my second year in the development office). Both schools have policies of inclusiveness that deliberately promote a diverse student body. They favor the term "independent," meaning not dependent on government for funding.

Independent schools receive no funding from the government, and rely on tuition, charitable contributions, and endowment revenue. Both the Waldorf and Friends schools offer a generous percentage of annual income for tuition assistance to qualifying families.

CFS was one of the first schools in the South to pursue a policy of racial integration. CFS grants need-based tuition aid to almost 20% of its students. Approximately 23% of CFS students come from families who are of African-American or African, Asian-American or Asian, Hispanic or Latino, Native American, multiracial, or international.

Tuition income meets about 80% of annual operating costs, hence, there is continual effort to raise money from those in support of the school's mission to keep tuition costs as low as possible.

Also- Keeping in mind that parents who send their children to independent schools are paying taxes for local school operations, these parents may choose the public school alternative should public schools offer a "smaller school" setting.

Also- This discussion needs to note that there is a significant number of families in CH/Carrboro who homeschool their children.

oops - % correction to above
Tuition income meets about 88% of annual operating costs...



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