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Small school preferable, but often impractical

Education 2000: Reforming schools for a new century

Monday, August 28, 2000

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Eileen Wolfe knew exactly what she wanted in a school for her 16-year-old son when she and her husband decided to move from Farmington, Conn., to Pittsburgh a few months ago.

Not only would his new school have to have an excellent academic reputation, it would also have to provide the right fit for her child, a student she calls an "average Joe" who would be entering 10th grade.

    A chart comparing the biggest and the smallest


Like any conscientious parent, Wolfe requested literature from several different districts in Butler and Allegheny counties, looked for recommendations, and began comparing what each had to offer in academic programming and extracurricular activities.

But the deciding factor was size.

Though one of the recommended districts, Seneca Valley, had a nice campus and enjoys a good academic reputation, it didn't feel right to Wolfe. With more than 1,000 ninth- and 10th-graders sharing the intermediate high school, "it was just too big," she said.

Then she visited Quaker Valley. Its Blue Ribbon status was impressive, as was its above-average standardized test scores. But what clinched the couple's decision to enroll their son was its small size.

With a district-wide enrollment of 1,800 students, Quaker Valley has just 600 students at the high school. Wolfe said she believed her son would have an easier time getting to know his fellow students and teachers and would more easily be able to participate in school.

"I didn't want him to get lost in the shuffle," she said. "I wanted someplace where I knew they would welcome him in."

    Education 2000: Reforming schools for a new century

Part One: The high stakes of assessment testing


Wolfe knew instinctively what a growing number of education researchers across the country are concluding: It's not only class size that matters. The number of students in the building also is important -- and smaller is better, those researchers say.

Because everyone tends to know one another in a small school, they say, it's tougher for kids to slip through the cracks. As a result, students perform better academically. Some studies have shown that students in smaller schools also have better attendance, drop out less often and participate in more extracurricular activities than those in larger schools.

This is particularly true for disadvantaged students. New research from the Rural School and Community Trust ( shows that poor students perform better when they attend smaller schools, and that the achievement gap is narrowed between poor students and students from more affluent homes.

Studies including "Small Schools: Great Strides" conducted recently by the Bank Street College of Education ( report that teachers collaborate more in small schools and are more likely to use innovative teaching methods; they're also better able to personalize instruction to meet individual students' needs. Parents, too, are more likely to be involved in their child's education when a school is small.

Researchers cite another benefit of small schools: It's easier for staff to keep an eye on students, and students feel more comfortable going to teachers with problems. So kids in small schools tend to get into trouble less often. There also is less violence.

According to U.S. Department of Education figures that compared big schools of 1,000 or more students with small schools of fewer than 300 students, the bigger schools had:

n825 percent more violent crime.

n270 percent more vandalism.

n394 percent more fights and assaults.

"If kids feel they're part of a community, that they're known, then they're less likely to act out in anti-social ways," said Michael Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago (

"What you get [with fewer students] is more attention, a safer climate, and a school that can be more unified," said Michael Carr, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "And that all positively affects academic achievement."

The definition of small, of course, depends on who you ask. The Chicago-based Small Schools Coalition (, for example, recommends no more than 350 students at the elementary level and 500 students at the secondary. The NASSP sets the optimum school size at 600 students or less. Still others say the limit should be no more than 300 children in elementary school, no more than 500 in middle school and between 600 and 900 in high school.

But there's general agreement among education researchers that impersonal, "factory style" high schools -- such as John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, N.Y., which enrolls 5,300 students -- are much too large.

How does a school get to be so large?

According to Klonsky, the move toward larger schools began in the late 1950s as a result of the Cold War. After the Russians beat us into space with the launching of Sputnik, "people freaked out," he said.

Convinced that the country's small schools were sapping its ability to compete, Harvard University President James Conant led a campaign to modernize and enlarge America's public educational institutions.

"He believed high schools needed to be bigger and more specialized in order to develop our elite scientists," Klonsky said.

The average school enrollment rose from 127 in the 1930s to 779 during the last decade.

As a result, 70 percent of American high school students attend schools with enrollments of 1,000 or more students, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Fifty percent attend schools with more than 1,500 students.

Allegheny County schools echo that trend. Twenty-one of the county's 42 high schools enroll 1,000 or more students; a few, including Baldwin, Fox Chapel, North Hills and Shaler, have equally large middle schools. Linton Middle School in the Penn Hills School District is one of the largest middle schools in the state, enrolling nearly 2,000 students in grades six to nine.

So if small schools are better for our children, why aren't there more of them?

In a word: Money.

As Carr of the NASSP pointed out, it's much cheaper for a school district to decide to build one large school, find the land, put up the bricks and mortar and be done with it than to construct several different schools.

Then there's the operating cost.

"Sure, a small school is nice, but who can afford them?" said John Thompson, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, where 10 of the district's 11 high schools, 12 of its 19 middle schools and 23 of its 59 elementary schools would be considered "large" under the coalition's definition. "Unfortunately, very few big school districts can afford to build that number of buildings."

How well a student performs academically depends largely on how the administration designs the school internally, said Thompson. Make it user-friendly and efficient and a "caring community" and students will learn, he said. "You have to put it all into perspective."

Large school proponents maintain their schools offer students more choices and variety in courses and extracurricular activities, as well as comprehensive programming that meets the needs of every student.

Take Mt. Lebanon High School, for example, the area's second-largest school. In addition to 26 different sports, five club sports and more than a dozen intramural sports, students can choose between 45 clubs and activities. Academically, the high school offers 173 courses, including 25 in world languages alone. There are also 14 advanced placement courses.

"I doubt smaller schools could offer the same scope and breadth of courses," said Superintendent Glenn Smartschan.

In his opinion, school size has a greater impact on students in lower grades, and that's one reason the district has seven smaller elementary schools. He said that class size is probably a greater barrier to achievement than the number of students in a building.

"These kids will be going off to college some day," he said. "At least part of me wants to prepare them not only academically but socially. You won't find many colleges out there with only 600 students."

To foster the sense of community that prevails in successful smaller schools, students at Mt. Lebanon High School remain in the same home room through all four grades; they also have the same guidance counselor their entire high school career. The district also works hard to involve parents with open houses, curriculum nights, meetings with guidance counselors and regular communications.

As a result, "their experience can be just as personalized," said Smartschan.

Others argue that small schools, because they have fewer staff, are more fragile than their larger counterparts.

Quaker Valley Superintendent R. Gerard Longo agreed that teachers are much more "exposed" in a smaller system. A bad instructor, he said, affects a larger portion of students. And when you lose an especially talented teacher or administrator, "it leaves a hole."

Longo pointed to another downside of small schools: If a student doesn't fit in, you can't always find a place for them to go. "Larger schools have more wiggle room," he said.

Stacey Wargo, 15, a sophomore at Hempfield High School, with 2,400 students in grades nine to 12, likes something else about big schools: They're fun.

A small school, where you see the same people every day, would be boring. "There's so many people to meet here," she said. "I love it."

Paul Wright of Ross, whose three children attended North Hills High School, is another who appreciates all that large schools have to offer.

"There's so many options and variety that kids can find their place," he said. "I don't think the full range of opportunities would be there if the district was small."

Supporters of small schools counter that choices are greater at big schools only because there are more students and the demand is higher. And because only the most talented or athletically gifted students are chosen for the school play or sports team, the vast majority have to be content with being spectators.

A 1992 study by researcher Kathleen Cotton, in fact, found that students in small schools are actually more likely to be involved in extracurricular activities.

By way of example, nearly 25 percent of Quaker Valley High School students took part in the spring musical this year, said Longo, while 60 percent were involved in at least one sport.

"If you go to a large school, that type of participation isn't possible," he said. "There would be too much competition."

Thom Matera, 17, who left the North Allegheny School District in his freshman year to attend much-smaller Vincentian High School, can relate. Though he had no prior playing experience, the Franklin Park native won a spot on Vincentian's varsity soccer team his senior year.

"I could never have done that at NA," he said.

Though his older brother Matt enjoyed North Allegheny, Thom knew he'd be miserable at the 1,400-student intermediate high school.

"It looked like an airport," he said. "I thought, I could be lost there."

For others who feel their students may be getting lost, help might be available.

The federal Education Department last year set aside $45 million in grant money to help schools with enrollments of more than 1,000 students develop more personal, smaller learning communities.

Called the Smaller Learning Communities Program (, districts can use the money to reorganize large schools into smaller "schools within schools," create career academies, restructure the school day or otherwise create a more personalized high school experience for students.

Tomorrow: "Distance learning" isn't your father's correspondence course anymore.

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