Smaller schools help student performance

Kai Hagen

December 18, 2003

The unending discussion and debate about education in Frederick County clearly reflects the fact that it's an important matter and a civic priority. In addition to countless other policy issues, three primary education concerns are overall funding, overcrowded schools and classrooms, and new school construction.

It's unfortunate that our ability to resolve such problems is not commensurate with the amount of attention focused on them by residents and government alike. That's especially true considering there is general agreement that funding public education is an important role of government; that we need to prevent school overcrowding and would benefit from smaller class sizes; and that we have to plan and build enough new schools to keep up with our expanding population.

As if that wasn't enough to worry about, however, I'd like to add another subject to the discussion: We ought to stop building big schools and consider the many real benefits of smaller schools. Right now, in spite of overwhelming evidence from of an expansive amount of research and real-world models of success, and the fact that small schools need not be more expensive, we continue to build big schools.

We need to think outside that box. In this instance, that means we ought to be thinking about smaller boxes.

Smaller schools are such a good idea, in fact, that more and more school districts that do not need to build more capacity are even dividing existing structures into a number of separate and distinct schools, with very positive results. Because Frederick County is growing, and will continue to grow for the foreseeable future, we have an opportunity to do it right from scratch in many areas.

When this idea first came to my attention, I was intrigued. What came as a genuine surprise, however, given that it is not something I'd heard a lot about, was how extensively this "new" possibility has been examined and documented, and how many places it has been implemented, and how well it has worked. So much so that it would be negligent on the part of the Frederick County Public Schools system and the Board of County Commissioners were they not to take a good look at how smaller schools might benefit the tens of thousands of students in the county.

So far, though, we've been moving in the opposite direction. Our newest high schools, Urbana and Tuscarora, were built for roughly 1,500 and 1,300 students respectively. Those kinds of numbers might make sense for a small college, but not for public high schools.

The research and real world experience is compelling. A federal review of hundreds of studies, comparing the results when similar groups of students attended small vs. large schools, found that students at small schools generally had higher academic achievement, fewer discipline problems, better attendance, are more likely to view teachers positively, and have higher graduation rates. And students, parents and teachers all report more satisfaction in small schools.

It's worth noting that some of the research also found that the students who benefit the most from attending small schools are often those most in need, including low-income students. It shouldn't be a surprise that many students who are often overlooked, or who require special assistance, would benefit from greater attention and closer relationships between teachers and students.

Also, students in small schools are far more likely to participate in all sorts of extracurricular activities. By itself, this is a significant effect. It's doesn't take new math to add up the numbers. Generally speaking, if schools were one third as large, it would mean three times as many kids would be able to participate in basketball, baseball, track, gymnastics and other high school sports programs. Three times as many kids would be able to be in a school band or choir, or a school play, or on the year book committee or in student government, and so on. There's no doubt of the value of participating in such activities and groups.

Neither is there any doubt that colleges and universities consider participation in extracurricular activities at school and in the broader community when selecting students for admission. And, while participation in extracurricular activities looks good on college and job applications, it is by itself a valuable part of a well-balanced and well-rounded education.

As kids learn in science classes, momentum can be hard to stop. And there is a lot of momentum behind the trend toward bigger and bigger schools.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, too many communities continue to build large schools. Designing small schools or redesigning large school buildings into smaller distinct schools is a big change for most communities. Stopping the momentum and honestly evaluating the possibilities won't happen without involvement from parents and teachers, and genuine leadership from policymakers.

As role models for our children, we could start by re-examining some worn out assumptions about education. We can learn from our experience and make a change that will make a difference.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at