07 June 2011

Does size matter?

One of the most common questions I get when I tell people that I teach in a high school is, “How big is your school?”. This is a common place for conversations to begin, because everybody judges a school by how large it is compared to the high school they went to.
I bring this up not to have a conversation about the conversations teachers have, or even to talk about how people tend to judge schools based on something very concrete instead of the intangibles like relationships and growth. No, I bring this up because I’d like to offer my meandering thoughts on the best size for a school.
I’ve always been a proponent of smaller schools. I went to a high school that graduated 121 (so, that’s about 600 kids total in the school at a given time) and my first job was at a school that graduated about 70 kids a year (300 kids total).  I feel like there’s tremendous value in schools that are small enough that all teachers know all of the students, since I believe that relationships are the building blocks for real learning. Small schools offer this. In a small school, many teachers have students multiple times and this means that relationships can get even more meaningful.
(There is also the point that many smaller schools tend to exist in places that have relatively stable populations, which means that they often serve multiple generations of one family at the school. This has the benefit of building community around the school and the school community, as well as a continuity of expectations and tradition. However, I’m going to talk about tradition some other day, so I’ll leave this tangent hanging un-addressed.)
However, my wife (who went to a larger school) would be quick to point out that smaller schools have major drawbacks. She would make the argument that smaller schools offer fewer classes because they have fewer students. She is correct. Smaller schools don’t have the resources to offer odd science classes (say your Zoology or Atmospheric Science), or multiple AP courses.
Following our marriage, I went to work at a school that had (at the time) almost 2200 students. The school was overcrowded but was able to offer many classes that my smaller schools had never even considered. They had a full-time drama teacher. They had a broadcasting program. Weird science classes and a sports psychology class were on the schedule every year. They used their size to operate like a small university.
This is where I, as the small school proponent, point out that I barely knew any kids in the building. If I didn’t have a kid in my class, then I didn’t know their name. Kids in the hallway without passes, breaking the dress code, cursing; I had no recourse except to play the heavy and get out the old referral pad. In a small school I would rely (in most cases) on my relationship with a kid to correct the offending behavior without having to get the office involved.
I don’t know which of the two sizes is superior. I can certainly understand the point of view that says the more classes offered, more opportunity is a positive. And it certainly is. But I’m not sure that those positives outweigh the negatives. You see, since I think that high school is, for the most part, a precursor to further education, I’m not sure how important it is to offer a multitude of specialized classes at the high school level. Most of those classes will be completed by students who would want to take them at the collegiate level.
I suspect that between 800 and 1000 kids in a school is pretty close to idea. I think that 200-250 per class is enough kids to offer multiple levels of courses, and some electives, but not so much that kids are unknown to the staff. At this size, the school offers diversity of opinion and belief, and clubs and activities for many people, with many interests but isn't so big that kids can very easily slip through the cracks. 
In the end, I’m glad that we have a system that offers all of those options. However, (in a surprise to no one who reads this blog) I’m going to stick with my original position, and say that I like a smaller school. I think that the relationships that are built in a smaller school tend to be more durable than those in even a school of 800, because when there are fewer people, they have no recourse but to know each other. When people get to know each other they tend to bond like family units, and (when fostered properly) support each other like the best of families. In this situation, students can do more than they could without that support, since they have the power of a group behind them.

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