Big or small? Which works?

Experts: 800-student high school can offer plenty of courses, but really isn't personal

Posted: Sunday, March 14, 2004

When Jim Akins' daughter was a sophomore at Juneau-Douglas High School a few years ago, she couldn't find a teacher who knew her well enough to give a recommendation for a foreign exchange program.

He can tick off on his hand the friends of his daughter who ended up dropping out of JDHS. Akins, who has a son in eighth grade, would like to see Juneau build a second high school.

"The present school is too crowded," he said. "It's pure pandemonium in the hallways. ... I think a crowded school automatically sends a message to the kids that our priorities are elsewhere."

Other parents are afraid that splitting the faculty between two smaller schools would mean fewer courses at each one - especially in the arts, world languages, vocations and advanced studies, where the teaching staff isn't large to begin with.

To some extent, the argument about whether to build a second high school in Juneau has been framed in the same terms as the national big-school vs. small-school debate: curriculum breadth vs. personalization.

"I just don't think there's any way on God's green Earth we can finance two schools and do a good job," said Dave Hanna, a parent who helped organize the initiative to block a high school at Dimond Park in the Mendenhall Valley.

"Building another school isn't going to lower that pupil-teacher ratio. If anything, it's going to raise that," said Hanna, who believes that the costs of running two schools will take funds away from something else in the school district.

Voters will decide the issue in a special election on May 25. If voters turn down the initiative, Juneau probably will have a new high school by August 2007, and roughly 1,600 high school students will be split between two 800-student schools.

Will they be better schools?

Education researchers seem to contradict a major point in each side in the debate about the Juneau initiative. They say 800-student schools are big enough to be comprehensive but are too big to be personal.

Advocates of small high schools point out that few students at large high schools take those specialized courses while many drop out. About a third of a JDHS freshman class won't cross the stage four years later at graduation.

"I think smaller schools are much more effective schools, are much more caring schools," said Patrick McQuillan, an associate professor of education at Boston College. "Relationships are key, and smaller schools do those relationships right."

Rona Wilensky is principal of nontraditional 330-student New Vista High School in Boulder, Colo. She, the assistant principal and the sole counselor can run a unified administration in which all of them are responsible for all of the students.

"I, as a principal, know every student and I sort of know what's up with every student," she said. "Here, we all 'have' all the kids and we can all share the information."

Proponents also say small schools make it easier to have a focused curriculum and high expectations for all students, to be innovative, to include everyone in decisions and garner more parental involvement, and to get more students involved in after-school activities. Small schools have a much lower rate of violence, they add.

At successful small schools the adults work with students to figure out how to help them meet high expectations, McQuillan said. It's easier to do that with a smaller faculty, he said.

Small schools particularly benefit students of low and moderate income, according to studies that compare income levels, achievement test scores and school sizes across entire states, such as Arkansas and Nebraska. The poorer the students are, the more they benefit.

Wealthy communities tend to have small schools by choice, added Marty Strange of Randolph, Vt., policy director for the Rural School and Community Trust. The trust is a nonprofit advocacy and research organization based in Washington, D.C.

"In big schools a lot of kids, especially lower income, tend to hide or get lost," Strange said. "A richer curriculum doesn't benefit them if they don't take the courses."

There's considerable research to show that students in small high schools are more likely to do well on standardized tests and to graduate, but by "small," researchers mean 200 to 400 students.

Experts say a rich curriculum can be offered with 400-student schools, and 600 to 700 students is about the upper limit of what they recommend, Strange said.

New Vista High School offers three levels of Spanish and two of American Sign Language. It has seven science lab courses. It offers theater, dance, music, pottery, photography, drawing, painting, sculpture and video - partly by using visiting artists. Its students are allowed to play sports at larger high schools.

Small-school advocates concede that such schools may offer fewer specialized courses. But they say schools can make up for that partly by looking elsewhere for those resources, such as college courses or using computers or videoconferencing to offer advanced courses.

A small school might not have enough students to justify offering an advanced photography course, for example, said Tom Gregory, an education professor emeritus at Indiana University in Bloomington. Instead, it might let a student apprentice to a professional photographer.

Juneau School District administrators have talked about ideas like those, as well as letting students take some courses in the high school they aren't enrolled in.

Small-school advocates also say that offering fewer courses may be beneficial if it lets the school focus on rigorous core courses. In the long run, more students are prepared for college that way, they say.

If schools are individualizing instruction to the degree they should be, the number of courses offered becomes a nonissue, said Van Schoales, vice president of education initiatives at the nonprofit Colorado Children's Campaign in Denver.

But Hanna, a Juneau parent, doesn't think the community will buy into "less is more."

"I don't think it will happen in Juneau," he said. "We have two diverse populations here. ... We have such a broad range of expectations, it's such a political town, I don't think it will ever work.

"It will always be demanded of the system to teach four (world) languages. The (advanced-placement) classes will have to be offered. I don't think we'll lower our expectations of what we're able to offer."

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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