School Size Research Paper Starter

School Size

(Research Starters)

School trends in the past century have culminated in the current existence of overly-populated schools and corresponding academic and behavioral consequences. Initiatives to revert large schools into smaller, more intimate environments are sanctioned by well-known advocates including Bill and Melinda Gates, who have provided substantial monetary sustenance to such proposals. Reasons why communities resist transitioning into an educational system consisting of several smaller schools are provided. Both parents and teachers support the idea of small schools, although both groups lack the initiative to proactively endorse such an endeavor. Recently there have been several projects that overturn the pattern of stockpiling students into large educational arenas by generating smaller schools, or by breaking down existing schools into smaller compartments. This phenomenon is known as the "school-within-school" model and will be addressed herein regarding the benefits, drawbacks, guidelines, developmental issues, and personal examples surrounding such an approach.

Keywords House Concept; Magnet Schools; New Century High Schools Initiative; School-within-school model; School Size; The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation


Concurrent with each generation is the creation of a unique set of values, norms, and societal influences that dictate ideal educational practices and standards. Before the industrial revolution, most children stayed at home to provide help on the family farm, and were simultaneously home-schooled by their parents (Knox & Schacht, 2008). At the turn of the 20th century families segued into lifestyles that reflected upward mobility; dual-income parents left behind their rural habitats and farming industries in favor of city life, which granted easier access to employment at nearby factories. Children were schooled outside of their homes, although it was not uncommon that they relinquished their studies before graduation in order to assist the family. During this time America became gentrified through urbanization and rampant immigration, and educational experts saw the practical need of retaining students in order to instill citizenship skills and train them for their eventual transition into the workforce. In order to educationally engage the masses, the formation of the "factory" approach began, which sought to target large audiences of learners in lieu of the old schoolhouse structure (Toppo, 2003).

This model prevailed for several decades, and by the 1970's the "bigger is better" mantra was in full effect. Schools were devised to serve large burgeoning suburban communities, and sought to employ experts who would address a plethora of student issues while offering a broad and diverse curricula (DeJong & Locker, 2006). Moreover, the teaching philosophy during this era operated from the "bell curve" perspective, which contended that in any given classroom teachers should anticipate one-fourth of the class to excel, one-fourth of the class to struggle, and expect mediocrity from the remaining half (Wasley, 2002).

One of the current debates that education specialists deliberate is optimum school size. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2004), the average-sized classroom in public, American elementary schools holds 21.2 students, with Arizona containing the most students (24.5) and Nebraska containing the least amount of students (17.5). Agron (2003) illustrates that that while student enrollment in elementary and middle schools declined between the years 1997-2002, average enrollment in high schools increased from 750 to 979.

Ideal School Size: Large or Small?

In attempt to ascertain ideal school size, there are two prevailing theories that are considered: scaling schools up by increasing enrollment through the process of consolidating several undersized schools into one large consortium, and scaling schools down in favor of smaller, more intimate environments. Black (2006) depicts data suggesting that students from poor communities benefit from small schools and students that are financially affluent fare well in larger school environments. Critics of small schools point out that there are fewer course selections; whereas small schools provide essential classes such as English, larger schools with an expansive personnel might offer more sophisticated or unique options such as 19th Century British Literature. Also, smaller schools in rural areas are often poor, and contend with related issues such as low reading and math scores, and are less able to employ appropriate specialists to deal with students who have disabilities or are not native English speakers.

Furthermore, DeJong and Locker (2006) point out that proponents of large schools focus on the broad social circles that accompany institutions with substantial student bodies, as well as the numerous amounts of athletic opportunities. Hart (2006) expands on the sports theme as a value that governs high schools within many Texan communities, oftentimes overriding academic success. Although the large high schools in Texas are typically equipped with modern facilities such as science labs and technology, the drop-out rates are staggering. Bill Ercoline, a former school board member, commented on attending a graduation ceremony in the 1990s, during which only half of the senior class received diplomas. At the end of the decade Mr. Ercoline dedicated himself toward nullifying such a devastating trend by proposing that a new neighboring high school be built, promoting more intimate student-teacher relations. The reaction from the community was overwhelmingly negative; they protested such a movement because it would uproot the football team's reputation by diffusing the powerhouse that it had become (cited in Hart, 2006).

Further Insights

By and large, however, current day educators who are interested in the scholastic growth of students tend to lean towards smaller school sizes in order to promote educational advancement. Recent research (Ash, 2007) demonstrates the widespread academic benefits of smaller schools, including higher test scores and lower drop-out rates, college attrition, as well as mandating higher levels of both teacher and student accountability (Johnson, 2002). Moreover, the development of a strong teacher-student rapport espouses corresponding mentorship and role-modeling, which are highly influential predictors that guarantee student success (Hunter-Cox, 2003). Large schools, on the other hand, can be a platform for many negative goings-on including increased drug usage, isolation, and violence (Agron, 2003). This is partially because it is easier for students to "slip through the cracks," and adopt an "another face in the crowd" attitude. Indeed, many of the highly publicized acts of violence that took place on school soil were within the confines of a profusely enrolled academy (e.g., Columbine High School's population during the 1999 tragedy: almost 2,000 students).

Support for Small Schools

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a philanthropic organization that endorses the belief that small schools impart productive and intelligent members of society. Their association has invested over a billion dollars in education reform by emphasizing the merit of smaller schools, which is demonstrated through their mission to break down existing schools into smaller units, as well as creating small-scale academies (Robelen, 2006).

The appeal for small schools is apparent. Black (2006) indicates that the ultimate enrollment for small schools should be 350 students at the elementary level and 900 for high school. However, Hoff (2004) reflects on the fact that small schools that are currently in operation run the risk of being closed down due to financial constraints despite the significant strides that are achieved. The test scores at Solace Elementary School in New York, which consists of 128 primarily African-American students is a prime illustration. In 2006, each student passed the standardized math test and 91% passed the reading test, when just three years prior the passing rates were significantly less (i.e., math: 41%; reading: 38%). Nevertheless, the cost of keeping the school functioning is $1.2 million, which makes its existence controversial, and many people wonder if the cost outweighs the high performance rate. Julie Woestehoff, from "Parents United for Responsible Education," suggests that instead of expending significant cost toward the creation of new and small schools, monies should be spent on generating improvements at existing schools. She remarked, "It's infuriating to see money spent on supposed solutions that dance around the problem" (as cited in Gewertz, 2006, p. 3).

Parents and teachers were polled on their thoughts regarding the re-stratification of today's large school structures into the construction of several smaller ones. Both parents and teachers feel that large schools are ripe for disciplinary issues to exist among students who feel lonely and isolated, while smaller schools foster a sense of community and provide teachers with the ability to target potentially troubled students and to appropriately intervene, thus annulling problems such as high dropout rates. Incidentally, despite such convictions, neither parents nor teachers consider it a priority to enact smaller schools, citing such a movement as both impractical and costly. Additionally, most teachers fear that parents collectively would dispute such a transition and create widespread upheaval; in reality a small fraction of parents (38%) parallel the same level of trepidation. Johnson (2002) infers that communities formulate strong...

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