The next big thing: smaller schools

In Baltimore County, add-ons losing support

June 22, 2008|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun reporter

Across the nation, urban school districts are breaking up large schools and replacing them with smaller ones. In Baltimore, new high schools with as few as 400 to 500 students have been carved out of old ones with enrollments of 2,000 or more.

Now support for small schools appears to be taking root - at the neighborhood level and the school board - in neighboring Baltimore County, which like many suburban districts has long favored large schools.

Vocal parents upset about crowding in the Towson area and elsewhere have demanded new, smaller schools rather than additions to existing ones. Sparked by those complaints, the school board recently reversed course and withdrew a proposal to expand Loch Raven High School; the county has also agreed to build a new 400-seat elementary school in the Towson area rather than expand a school.

The school board, meanwhile, is taking a closer look at research on school size.

"The current board, I think, believes that an overly large school presents problems," said JoAnn C. Murphy, president of the county school board.

County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who supported building additions at two schools this spring rather than new schools, said in an interview that he has never had a conversation about school size with the county's school superintendent. He also said he has no opinion on optimum size for schools, though he believes schools with 2,000 students are too large.

Over the past decade, the county has added additions of 400 to 600 seats to seven high schools, turning several into schools of 2,000 students or more. This fall, Vincent Farm Elementary will open in the northeast part of the county with a capacity of 700 students, much larger than an average elementary school.


The switch to smaller schools by urban school districts is supported by research indicating that they might boost student achievement.

Craig Howley, an Ohio University researcher and a proponent of small schools, said "a suburban community that is building high schools over 1,000 is making a mistake." Achievement "degrades" for all students at schools with enrollments exceeding 900, he maintains.

Just how big a school should be has been debated for the past half-century when the first proponents of large high schools extolled their cost effectiveness, large course offerings and opportunities for sports and extracurricular activities. Schools for as many as 3,000 and 4,000 students were built in the 1970s across the nation.

But many urban districts began rethinking that strategy, particularly when graduation rates dropped, violence and fighting rose, and achievement declined. These problems prompted some educators to conclude that large urban schools were unmanageable.

Even suburban districts began to question whether bigger was really better after the killings at Columbine High School, a large suburban school in Colorado. The size of the school was a contributing factor because students did not feel as close a connection to their teachers and other students, according to one report.

Current educational research suggests small schools might be more beneficial to students. The optimum size for a high school is 600 to 900 students, according to a study published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis in 1997.

"We did find that the ideal size of a school did not vary by the social or racial composition of the school. However, small size was more strongly linked to achievement gains in more disadvantaged schools," said Valerie Lee, a University of Michigan professor and one of the authors of the report.

Other studies have shown that students in small schools are more likely to be better known by their teachers and go to college.


New York, Chicago and Baltimore are just a few of the cities that have created small schools. Michigan is offering $3 million in state money to any school that wants to downsize or create new small schools of 400. To be eligible a school must have a graduation rate below 70 percent and the school must return 50 percent of the money if the school doesn't graduate at least 80 percent of its students.

"I think there is a certain weight of evidence that has developed around the country," said Chuck Wilbur, the education adviser to Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, over the course of the past decade, has donated more than $1 billion to cut up large urban high schools under the belief that students would perform better in smaller schools.

The foundation donated $12 million in Baltimore to break up existing high schools, and local foundations added $8 million more.

While results have been mixed at schools that were broken up, a recent study by the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, showed that the newly created innovation high schools in Baltimore with 400 to 500 students have better graduation rates than other high schools in the city, with the exception of the elite schools.

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