Small schools. Again.

I wrote about this first in 2006, with a post inviting progressives to embrace the wisdom of small schools. In that post, I noted that the average school went from serving 100 students in 1930 ... to more than 600 students in 2002.

Well, the verdict is in (again) on small schools, and they are definitely a positive force in education.

Fifty years ago, they were the latest thing in educational reform: big, modern, suburban high schools with students counted in the thousands. As baby boomers came of high-school age, big schools promised economic efficiency, a greater choice of courses, and, of course, better football teams. Only years later did we understand the trade-offs this involved: the creation of lumbering bureaucracies, the difficulty of forging personal connections between teachers and students.

Of course, the charter schooll advocates will jump all over this as an affirmation of their schemes, but don't get distracted. This issue is about size, pure and simple, and the Department of Public Instruction is fully capable of choosing and operating small schools. All they need is the political will.

Maybe our next governor will jump on the small schools bandwagon too?


This is one of the most research backed ideas for

improving academic outcomes for our students, particulary for those who are economically disadvantaged.

Info here.
and here.

You want more? I got more.

James, thank you for highlighting this issue, and I echo your call to our next governor to embrace small schools.

Person County Democrats

I actively oppose gerrymandering. Do you?

Thanks, Mike.

Great resources. Much appreciated.

I love the idea of small class size.

My concern with a lot of small schools is a lot of small administrative costs. There has to be an economy of scale that preserves the best of the small school environment without increasing administrative costs unnecessarily.

I say unnecessarily because I would rather educational dollars be spent on classrooms and classroom teachers than administrators - but I know that administration is an important part of the scheme of the modern school. It is essential that classroom teachers not bear the burden of the administrivia of running a school so that they are able to provide high quality educations to their students. A lot can be said for a central administration with one or two administrators responsible for more than one or two schools - if the student population and teacher population is not too high.

However - in my son's high school, which is "home" to about 1800-2000 students, the program he is in has acheived the small school feel. The class sizes are small, the students all know each other, etc. He's in the International Baccelaureate Program, although he's not going for the IB diploma. In my estimation, it's really about class size, and not school size.

In fact, dare I say it - I think a school of 100 or so students now might become a bit too insular and clubby. Kind of like a blog site, you know?

But I have no experience of the 100 student school. the high school I graduated from was not small, and I don't think I've suffered for it.

I'm not saying it's a bad idea - I'm saying that perhaps the effect you're trying to get to can be replicated without building more school facilities and hiring more out of the classroom administrators.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi
Pointing at Naked Emperors

They get their admin anyway

Yes, if the schools get super tiny there will be higher admin costs, but it seems like there are quite a few vice or deputy principals as the schools get larger. The same goes for other admin. There must be a ratio for principals.

Desegregation had a lot to do with the rise of huge schools here. In Moore County, we had something like 13 high schools in the 1960's. Now we have three. I am not blaming desegregation in and of itself, but integration directly led to the dissolution of municipal school systems and overall consolidation into larger combined attendance districts. In Moore County, we may have been better served by some different choices in working through desegregation and the dissolution of municipal systems.

It's the e-generation.

There is no reason that a person who performs a role for a school of 1000 cannot perform that role for two schools of 500.

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

It should be possible, in theory.

But the more I think about this, the more I think that there must be on-site administrative staff, no matter how small the school is. Consider what happens if there is a problem, a crisis, like a fire, or great goddess forbid, a school shooting. I think I'd rather split the position of football coach, etc.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi
Pointing at Naked Emperors

As a student

I have never known or noticed a difference. I've been in relatively large public schools my entire life and have never really been in a close environment, but I'm not sure I can see the purpose of creating even more schools, just to accomplish smaller class size. In Wake County, we're having a difficult enough time creating enough schools to stay up with the amount of people moving in, let alone to lower class sizes.

I attend a high school in Wake County right now, which is actually the public high school with the highest number of students in Wake County.

They almost did that back in Wayne, LoftT

I was lobbying for not getting up at 6 am.

I like the idea of academies within the larger buildings.

I actually like the idea of a small school, but also know that there are some things besides strict academics that are important in high school (James is going to hate my guts and I haven't read any of Mike's articles yet).

One of the things that can be important in high school is athletics -- not to the exclusion of academics, but along side of as part of the socialization of being a teenager. It's important for all teens to feel like they're part of something - for some teens it's a sports team, or cheerleading squad, or band, or drama group, or something.

Now I'm going to go read articles and stop just spouting edu-speak.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi
Pointing at Naked Emperors

Foundation funding

The Gates Foundation is funding a pilot program to divide our very large "consolidated" high school into six "schools". As you can imagine, not everyone is happy. However, as the years go by (this is the third or fourth) acceptance builds. A good Superintendent and a good leader for the program are making it work. It would be grand for our high school to serve as a roll model! I can pass along documentation when available.

And yes, football has been good. :)

Little Big School

Here's an example, from School Construction News of a poor school system in MA that had 2500 students in a 1500 capacity high school successfully building a new 2500 student building that is essentially 6 small schools sharing one facility:

Although Lawrence , located along the banks of the Merrimack River , had once been a thriving mill town, the mills had long ago been shuttered. The city became the second poorest community in Massachusetts .

“Eighty-seven percent of our students live in poverty,” says Wilfredo Laboy, Lawrence Public Schools Superintendent.

In the midst of so many challenges, Lawrence lost its academic accreditation over issues that included high rates of failure, dropouts and absenteeism.

“Initially, the district planned to create a separate 9th grade academy,” says Mary Lou Bergeron, district assistant superintendent.

Instead, the school system opted to create six separate, thematic schools, divided not by grade, but by learning themes such as health and human services and math, science and technology.

While the total school population will remain more than 2,500, each student now attends a school with a population of no more than 500 students.

“Our attendance rate used to struggle somewhere between 80 percent and 85 percent,” he says. “This year, we're already over 95 percent. That's just by creating a place where kids want to come, where they feel valued.

NC Little Big School

Your story of Lawrence High School is similar to the conversion of Scotland High School. Scotland does have a Ninth Grade Academy, and has experienced it as helpful in the transition to the Small Learning Communities.

Currently Scotland High School is participating in the New Schools Project, undergoing a total school conversion. The second phase of the conversion began in the fall of 2006. Small Learning Communities including Schools of Engineering, Health Sciences, Math, Science & Technology, Leadership & Public Service, Business, Finance & Marketing, Visual & Performing Arts and four Ninth Grade Academies are now operational. During the 2005 - 2006 academic year, all faculty members in each school participated in staff development workshops on Problem Based Learning, Professional Learning Teams and Differentiated Instruction. From the information and strategies acquired in these workshops, Scotland High School faculty and staff are now implementing instructional techniques to help develop collaborative relationships among its participants, and are developing rigorous learning activities to promote real world relevance to subjects being taught in the classroom.

For further information:

Raleigh's Going to make its big schools even bigger

A rezoning application before the City's Planning Commission will put another 599 students into Wakefield High, Fox Road Elementary, and Wake Forest-Rolesville Middle Schools.

It will also lead to the eviction of about 160 families from the existing homes.

Adam Rust
I have some more to say

Adam Rust
Read some more, at my blog: Bank Talk.

I think the Small Learning Communities or the Little Big Schools

maybe the best compromise for many communities. As Robert correctly points out, planning is key - but we have existing school facilities and it would be foolish to think they're going to go away. Transitioning to smaller learning communities within the larger facilities makes sense to me.
This list came from one one of the links persondem posted, and I thought I'd look at what could be accomplished at Learning Academies within larger buildings.

Ten Research-based Reasons Why Small Works
1. There is greater participation in extra-curricular activities,
and that is linked to academic success.

I'm not sure that this would necessarily be affected by switching to a Learning Community model.

2. Small schools are safer.

I could see that this would be a by-product of the Learning Community model simply because teachers and students would know who is supposed to be in a certain area at certain times, and who is not.

3. Kids feel they belong.

This would definitely be a factor in a Learning Community model, particularly if there was some student choice or self-selection involved.

4. Small class size allows more individualized instruction.
5. Good teaching methods are easier to implement.
6. Teachers feel better about their work.

I put all of these together. Small class size, in my estimation, is the key benefit of a small school or learning community model, and a key indicator in whether or not a child will be able to succeed in a particular school. In my opinion, the other two - good teaching methods and teachers feeling better about their work - flow from the first. Always always go with small class size if you can. Always.

7. Mixed-ability classes avoid condemning some students
to low expectations.

I've seen this work both ways. I've seen children excel beyond expectations in situations like this. I've also seen children become bored beyond tears in situations like this. However, if you have small class size, the teacher will be able to see and intervene in situations like the latter before it becomes a problem for the student or the class.

8. Multiage classes promote personalized learning and
encourage positive social interactions.

This is a very interesting concept that I would like to see promoted in public schools more than it currently is. I'm not talking about the romantic idea of a one-room school house, I'm talking about the 8th grader who is ready for 12th grade English, but still needs 7th grade math (that would have been me.)

9. Smaller districts mean less bureaucracy.

Less bureaucracy, but some duplication of effort and cost. My personal jury is out on this one.

10. More grades in one school alleviate many problems
of transitions to new schools.

Transition is one of the most difficult things for any child - from birth right on up to the teenage years. If you can ease the jump from algebra to calculus by keeping the student in the same building, and at the same time put less stress on the environment by not busing the same student miles away from his own neighborhood - then it's a much better thing to do.

I could see Learning Communities within larger facilities work very well to allow districts who want the small school effect but don't have the funds to build new small schools to give the best of both worlds.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi
Pointing at Naked Emperors

I'm thinking about new schools as well.

In a more rural area, we don't have the built-in transportation, so the buses are a must anyhow. Having the new school(s) centrally located in an area makes it easier, and possibly more cost-effective in that way, anyhow.

As I said above - it all comes down to class size, for me. Honestly, if we have schools with 5000 students in them, I would be less concerned about them if the student:teacher ratio is 10:1 than if we have schools with 500 in them and the student:teacher ratio is 50:1. Of course I'm being dramatic.

In the southern part of Moore County, there are 6 schools, currently all separated by age group. I am now absolutely fascinated by the idea of Learning Communities and am in my head dividing up the school population along community lines, and wondering if you could fit 18 year olds into some of those rooms. It will never happen. But I like thinking about stuff like this.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi
Pointing at Naked Emperors

Small class size isn't

Small class size isn't everything in a large school. Class size is limited by state law. What people don't seem to realize is that so many schools are not just large but in fact way over capacity. In my county we have middle schools built for 800 but there are 11 to 12 hundred there. We have high schools built for 1200 and there are 1800. Dicipline problems increase, hallways are overflowing, lunchrooms are overburdened, auditoriums can't hold one grade level much less the student body, huts make the school grounds look like a mobile home park. Computer to student and library books to student ratios are much higher. In short students and communities are being shortchanged. There is no money for new buildings and teacher supliments are so low that we can't keep enough competent teachers in the classrooms. On top of that my county is bracing for a huge influx of students as a result of BRAC. Students we don't have anywhere to put. I wish the only problem we had was how large our schools should be. The reality is that in a lot of places here in NC it's where are we going to put them and who's going to teach them.

I'm a moderate Democrat.


You make excellent points. I was exaggerating to make my point; as part of the educational process a class of 15 students with one teacher is a lot better than a class of 30 students with one teacher. But when a school or system is as stretched as you describe, then everyone, particularly the students suffer. We've seen similar issues in Moore County, though not quite to the extent you're describing. I see it in the early care settings (day care and preschool). Despite my best efforts to warn that this would happen (and I would be one of the ones to warn of this in my county), no one listened.

The problem with BRAC is that we all knew it was coming, and while those of us in the field of education knew as soon as it was brought up that these families moving here would be bringing lots of students with them, "officials" didn't listen, or didn't listen hard enough, and failed to make their case to the general public who think that the schools already get the money they need, or, as happens in my county, "I'm retired, my children have already been to school, so I shouldn't have to pay for anyone else's education."

where are we going to put them

And that's the sad reality. Where are we going to put them? Shouldn't that be our first priority? No one's child should go to school in what is so lovingly described in my county as a "learning cottage". No child should be without a current textbook or library book.

And it wasn't that hard to plan for this - we've known it was coming. But planning doesn't happen by accident, it has to happen on purpose. The planning that is happening now, especially in the BRAC counties, is something that should have happened as soon as the communities affected knew what was happening. But when you plan for growth, it means you plan to spend money. In your personal life, this is a good thing - have a long term investment plan, plan for your retirement, plan for your children's higher education. But in our public policy, planning to spend money is anathema. It didn't take rocket scientists to know that BRAC was going to have an enormous impact on Cumberland county, and every county surrounding it. I don't know about Cumberland, but what I've seen over here next door has been an amazing insufficiency, even though that BRAC train has been coming.

who is going to teach them?

Who indeed? I'm a teacher - by profession, but I can't afford to teach. We get to this point in every school year, and I think - next year, I'm going back. Then I look at the pay cut I would have to take. My family cannot afford for me to teach. That's the sad truth.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi
Pointing at Naked Emperors


There is supposed to be BRAC money to address school needs. Perhaps it is in the pipeline? May it bring small neighborhood schools (funded by "home tax"? and BRAC) and relieve pressure on existing schools.

Overcapacity undermines any learning community's students and teachers. It is painful to hear about these circumstances, particularly when the discussion was about why a positive community environment is so important.

The Rural School and Community Trust is the national nonprofit organization addressing the crucial relationship between good schools and thriving rural communities. There are branches in each state. The web site,, gives interesting demographics for rural NC. For instance:

North Carolina is one of only two states to rank in the top ten on both absolute and percentage rural student enrollment. More than 45% of all North Carolina’s students attend rural schools; however, less than 3% attend schools in small districts and rural schools and districts are the second largest in the nation. Schools serve an impoverished student population, as well as the third largest
minority student population in the nation. Per pupil instructional expenditures are among the lowest in the U.S. NAEP reading scores are also among the nation’s lowest, and fewer than 64 of every 100 students earn a high school diploma in four years—better than only five other states.

It was the rural school districts of Hoke, Halifax, Vance and Robeson, along with Cumberland, that decided that their long-standing inability to raise local dollars to supplement state public school dollars was not going to be resolved in a meaningful way by the state legislature. In 1992, these counties sued the state in the now famous Leandro school funding case arguing that the state had a constitutional obligation to provide what is now called a “sound basic education” to every North Carolina child regardless of local circumstances. Two state supreme courts have now ruled that there are students who are not receiving their constitutionally mandated sound basic education. The 2006 session of the General Assembly finally responded, initiating the Disadvantaged Student Supplemental Fund (or DSSF, already begun by executive order by the governor) and fully funding the low-wealth school fund for the first time.

The NC group is looking for interested local volunteers. Involvement with The Rural School and Community Trust could give a real boost to local and state wide issues, and a helpful nudge to the funding folks.

Please email me if you would like NC contact information.

DOD will provide schools for

DOD will provide schools for elementary and middle school military dependents but they will go to the County High Schools. Much of the growth will be from dependents of non-military families that relocate as a result of BRAC. BRAC funds will not be adequate for the need. In addition the federal government provides funds to local government based on a formula that includes the number of federal employee dependents in the school system. However the formula provides a much higher per student alottment for a county like Cumberland where the vast majority of Ft Bragg is located as opposed to Harnett or Moore or Hoke where many military families live.

I'm a moderate Democrat.


There is a lot of residential growth in Harnett County induced in the south by Fort Bragg and in the north by proximity to Raleigh and Wake County but they don't have a way to pay for it. A lot of people in Harnett County are dependent on employment in other counties, especially Wake. People in Angier commute to RTP. There's not a lot of retail and industry in Harnett and industry in Dunn and Erwin has been dying out so local governments are heavily dependent on property tax. Transfer tax and sales tax options were turned down last November. Like Davie County in the Piedmont, Harnett is faced with the task of providing schools esssentially for the benefit of neighboring counties without a lot of funding options.

I know I'm a broken record on local funding options, but something's got to give in Harnett. They are poised for a massive explosion of residential growth but are stuck with a lot of two lane roads and few ways to pay for schools and water/sewer needs.


Moore County is raising property taxes - because the land transfer tax and sales tax options failed after the county approved a bond issue for improvements. Now everyone will moan and complain about their property taxes going up -- when it could have and should have been paid for in a different way.

At least here, they can't blame Democrats.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi
Pointing at Naked Emperors

Regarding Harnett

Harnett Central High School is currently 500 over capacity and Harnett Middle is 350. Western Harnett Middle and High were in the same boat a few years ago until Overhills was built. Both Western and Overhills will be over capacity (again) with the BRAC influx. Teacher suppliments are some of the lowest in the region so we can't get or keep enough teachers. I'm losing about 10k a year by not crossing the border and teaching in Wake County. As a lifetime resident I have a strong sense of loyalty to my home county but I don't know how much longer I can hold out. I need retirement security and to put a child through college in just a few years. Something has to give.

I'm a moderate Democrat.


I need retirement security and to put a child through college in just a few years. Something has to give.

I completely understand this dilemma. I hope you can find a way to stay in the county and the profession that you obviously care about.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi
Pointing at Naked Emperors