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How Important Is School Size?

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By GreatSchools Staff

Is Small the Answer?

"Small is not enough," reports Diana Oxley of the University of Oregon in a report entitled "Small Learning Communities." "Small size creates the conditions to carry out student work that is active and collaborative. However, small size is not an end in itself." Common planning time, development for teachers and high-quality curriculum are all necessary to make small learning communities work.

It may not be possible to create small schools or small learning communities in every school district. "There's not a sufficient number of school leaders and educators to scale up and sustain the small school movement once foundation funding dries up," says David C. Bloomfield, professor and head of the educational leadership program at the Brooklyn campus of the City University of New York. He is concerned that these issues need to be addressed before the small school movement is expanded and says there are other issues that also demand attention.

"The small school movement is just nibbling around the edges," he says. "Small schools, like charter schools, are beacons. But we need to address class size, union contracts and school infrastructure problems-such as inadequate aging science labs- in order to really make a difference." The movement to create small high schools may succeed in lowering dropout rates but it's not clear that the students who stay in school will be able to pass high-stakes high school exit exams. "The data is inconclusive as to whether kids will achieve more rather than just staying in school longer and not dropping out," says Bloomfield.

Small and Large Schools: Pros and Cons


Strengths of small schools: Students are more likely to master curriculum in a smaller learning environment.
Strengths of large schools: Large schools typically provide a wide variety of classes and services to students.
Other considerations: No real correlation has been demonstrated between school size and curriculum quality.

Academic achievement

Strengths of small schools: Many believe smaller schools demonstrate greater levels of academic achievement across the board, and particularly for students of lower socioeconomic status.
Strengths of large schools: Some studies have shown that larger schools have a moderate benefit on achievement levels for affluent students.
Other considerations: Some studies have shown students from small and large high schools perform comparably on college-related criteria, such as grades, admission and graduation rates.

Attention to students

Strengths of small schools: Students are less likely to "fall through the cracks" or feel cut off from the school culture. They are more likely to form strong relationships with peers and school staff.
Strengths of large schools: Large schools have the capacity to offer more specialized programs for disadvantaged students and students with special needs. A wide variety of classes and activities make it possible for students to find their niche.


Strengths of small schools: There is generally more parent involvement and a feeling of belonging.
Strengths of large schools: Large schools may provide more diversity and may make it easier for different types of students and families to find their niche.


Strengths of small schools: Fewer layers of bureaucracy are necessary.
Strengths of large schools: Large schools provide opportunities for cost savings through economies of scale.
Other considerations: If small schools graduate more students and have fewer dropouts, then the "ultimate cost" may not be higher than large schools.


Strengths of small schools: It's easier to spot strangers at small schools; security and discipline are easier to maintain.

Comments from readers

"My school has around 4,000 students. There are few fights and few problems. Everyone has their own group of friends and doesnt mess with anyone else. I love my school and how bi i is. Academically we are the best school in the state. Lexington high school. Lexington SC look it up "
"My son attends a small school. His school and teachers only worried about how well the kids do on the state test. Since the state test scores determine how much money the school receives from the State. Larger schools are not as concerned with the test since there are more children taking the test. "
"i am currently being home schooled until next year and kids want a school they can have fun learning in"
"What language is mostly spoken in your school? I hope English is the first language for all the staff and students; and that the conferences, PTA, and all activities are conducted in English. After reading some of the comments I am scared. We are all still live in America, and diversity is beautiful, but we all speak our native tongue ENGLISH first."
"Our high school has roughly 1,700 students. Any discipline problems are met promptly and appropriately. There IS a sense of community, even though the school is large. There are programs within the school to provide for students with a variety of issues. There is also plenty of parental involvement. The school is PACKED during parent-teacher conferences. There is diversity!! There is also tolerance & understanding for students who are gay, transgender, and who have other issues, such as, bi-polar disorder, autism, etc. It is an open-minded and intelligent community in our school. The curricullum is varied and we have a lot of AP classes. Also, study-abroad programs. A student can basially get whatever he or she needs or wants. In a safe & close-knit environment!"
"This school is too big for the population of students. My son is not being schooled the way he should. We went to a PTA meeting and we walked away. It was all in a foreign language and they gave us ear phones for us to listen to it in english. This is unacceptable in an english speaking country. This really sucks, and is definitely unaccepable. What the fxxk is this country coming too. I thought we lived in AMERICA. I can't even teach my son english much less take part in his education or PTA without putting up with something that isn't english in kindergarten.DISD really sucks. Please respond, and tell me why I must go to an AMERICAN english speaking school and put up with this BS.You can take PTA and stick it."
"' School size for High Schools is different than middle or elementary. Optimum size for HS is around 600 students. Middle school is 4-500 and elementary buildings should never go over 400 if that. Students need contact with caring adults. When the school is smaller, the adults know the brothers and sisters as well as have a better chance of knowing the parents. Special services need to be available and can be provided district wide rather than on a building level.'"
" School size for High Schools is different than middle or elementary. Optimum size for HS is around 600 students. Middle school is 4-500 and elementary buildings should never go over 400 if that. Students need contact with caring adults. When the school is smaller, the adults know the brothers and sisters as well as have a better chance of knowing the parents. Special services need to be available and can be provided district wide rather than on a building level."
"I don't think that it's the size of a school or class room. It's the quaility of the teachers.How far are they willing to go for a childs education?It starts with the teachers."
"Our district has less than 600 students and spends $3,000 per student more than our neighboring district which has 2,000 students. Should we be talking merger? Although interesting, it appears the research cannot help us answer this question at this point. Could you please keep this 'size' issue active as research continues. Thanks."
"All children learn differently and that will always be a problem. Each teacher should include a variety of teaching methods and if a student does not appear to be learning in that particular class there should be a option of switching that student to another teachers classroom, upon review and discussion. All would benefit. some are just better suited to others and we need to leave some flexability in our structuring of classrooms. Some students will learn no matter what and other just will not progress - will need further help maybe one on one. The schools budgets do not allow room for special needs of students and why should one child get more than others when all pay the same taxes, this will always be a problem and there is no fair or 'right' answer. "
"Our high school has over 3000 students. the problems with overcrowding are too numerous to list. The school prides itself on having numerous AP classes and IB classes. The less talented kids are relegated to dummy downed classes.The ratio of students to counselors is 500 to 1.There are no technical courses in the trades or commerce.The basic premise is that all kids should go to college. How non realistic can you get?"
"No school should have more that 500 students! 100 in each grade, so that teachers know the children and children their teachers"