People often ask me, “Does school size matter?” In a nutshell…yes, school size matters.
Historically large schools (especially for middle and high school) have been the norm for many reasons. A school building, in and of itself, is expensive to operate and maintain. So the fewer buildings that a district has to pay for, the less capital outlay it is for the district. Secondly, the more students in one building, the more funding for that school. The more students in the school, the more likely it is that the school can offer a robust number of programs. In other words, the more students, it’s more likely that you’ll have a better football team, basketball team, and even math team.
Despite some of the positives of a large school, sometimes in a large school setting, it’s too easy for a student to get lost. Particularly, students who don’t fit the norm and are not well assimilated into school, for whatever reason. My high school graduating class was roughly 170 students. A high school that wasn’t too far away had 1,000 students per graduating class. Take a minute to think about that from a student to teacher/adult ratio. Of course, large schools have more staff members, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that fewer students fall through the cracks.
So why do I think school size matters?
My definition of a small school is any number of students that allows the principal to know each student by name and make a genuine connection. While there are a number of factors that policy makers and such take into account to define a small school, this is what has worked for me. In my previous experience as a school administrator, my brain capacity to remember students by name puts a small school at somewhere between 700-800 students. In my opinion, any student population beyond that is a large school. Why do I feel it’s important for the school building administrator to know every student by name? Because one of the key cornerstones of a successful school is the school culture. When the school principal and administrators make a personal connection with each student, it often leads to a whole host of positive outcomes. For one thing, hopefully students will recognize that they are individually important to the school leader(s). Secondly, the more positive adult connections a student makes within the school community, the more likely it is that they will succeed. They’re also more likely to seek adult council and less likely to make poor choices. I wrote about the 40 Developmental Assets in a previous post, which lists positive adult relationships as one of the key assets for successful students.
As an instructional leader, the principal is responsible for evaluating and developing teachers and staff. So, the larger the school, the more staff members for which the principal will be responsible. Sure there are assistant principals who help with the evaluations, but ultimately it’s still the principal’s responsibility. If there are 100 teachers on staff, and roughly 182 days of school, the principal would be lucky if s/he was able to observe each teacher for one full lesson during the school year. It’s not really what I would call an effective way to develop teachers. A principal of a large school does a lot more delegating, which comes out of necessity.
Like many other things in life, schools are not one size fits all. Not all students need or thrive in a small school setting. There are those who thrive in large settings where there are more peers and offer more niche activities where students can find a connection to school. For example, large schools may be able to offer a fencing club, which is out of the norm and likely not going to be available at small schools.
For elementary schools, the ideal size school is 500 students. Just enough to provide multiple classes at each grade level and offer a variety of activities for students. Typically middle and high schools are larger, much larger. This isn’t to say that large schools cannot be successful, because there are plenty that are. But if you take a close look at those large schools that are successful, they’ve taken on the model of a small school. That is, they’ve split up the school into houses (or teams) carefully ensuring that each student is closely connected to a team of teachers and school administrators. Some large schools make sure that the houses (or teams) are located in separate wings, further reinforcing the feel of a small school. These methods are effective and are something I would look for in my child’s middle and/or high school.
So, how important is school size to you? Does it matter? Why or why not? I’d love to hear from you and as always, thank you for reading!