TomGerry Irrizary’s Manufacturing Lab at Urban Assembly Maker Academy
High school is often a pivotal stage in a young person’s development, a stage in which they formalize a sense of identity and make early but important decisions about their career and lifestyle. Context, relationships and expectations matter a great deal during this period, but so do the experiences and environments of the institution, many of which have been inherited from decades or even centuries past.
How to organize a high school? This is a question that is reconsidered as educators reflect on a year and a half of distance and hybrid learning and as society continues to change rapidly. There is no one right answer to the question, the solutions depend on the objectives and the context.
What’s the right size for a high school?
For over 100 years, the best public and private high schools have organized themselves into grade-level cohorts of 100 to 125 students. With a total enrollment of 400 to 500 students, a high school is small enough to maintain an intentional culture and large enough to offer a cohesive curriculum.
The average American high school has approximately 850 students– twice the ideal but half of the stereotypical suburban high school.
Why have large comprehensive secondary schools become the norm?
Beginning in the 1970s, suburban high schools often had more than 1,000 students. Offering more electives and extracurricular options, which has come to be known as “shopping center high schools”Offered more choice. With the presumption of profitability and the growing interest in winning football teams, suburban schools, especially in the south, often had over 2,000 students in the 1980s and 1990s.
What does not work in large comprehensive schools?
While large schools can do things right (more details below), there are seven challenges typical of large schools:
- Large schools have often been followed by affluent white students in a sequence of college-related courses and underserved students of color in career courses.
- The grandes écoles have a culture of students. Without heroic leadership, great school cultures are a mixture of cliques that exclude a lot and do not develop positive dispositions.
- Large schools with a catalog of choices reduce the likelihood of lasting relationships with adults, reduce the integration and coherence of programs, reduce the sense of community and with it a sense of security, belonging and attachment.
- Large schools are inefficient. Large schools have in fact produced diseconomies of scale (above about 600 students) requiring more administration, more security and more transportation, thus increasing the percentage of non-teaching staff.
- The large schools slow down participation. Scale and consolidations have often been fueled by zeal for competitive sports, but this often comes at the expense of participation. Large schools generally have lower participation rates in extracurricular activities as they become larger and more selective.
- Large schools are less responsive. It is difficult for large schools to integrate the voice of students in decision-making. Size can make them less agile when changes are needed.
- Large schools damage rural communities. Several thousand small rural high schools have been closed over the past four decades. This grouping into large regional schools is initiating a spiral of death for many communities.
Can small schools support personalization and personal interests?
Every high performing charter school network in the country has high schools of 400 to 500 students with a cohesive college preparatory program. Examples include Achievement First, Aspire, Basis, DSST, Green Dot, Harmony, IDEA, KIPP, Noble, Summit, Uncommon, Uplift, and YES.
The 300 high schools of New technological network, EL Education, and High Tech High are schools of around 400 students that offer a cohesive, team-taught curriculum that supports personalization through projects. Rather than a large number of electives, students in these deep learning schools explore and express interests through project-based learning.
In the Philadelphia School District, the faculty of Academy of Scientific Leadership, shared educational values, including inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, which are evident in every classroom. It is difficult to create the same level of loyalty to a sophisticated learning model in a large comprehensive school.
What are the advantages of small schools on shared campuses?
New York has a 50-year tradition of small public and private high schools. From 1995 with the Julia Richman Educational Complex, the large comprehensive secondary schools were closed and replaced by several small schools that share a common space and extracurricular activities. New high schools opened between 2000-2006 often doubled the graduation rate of the schools they replaced and outperformed the remaining comprehensive high schools.
Over the past 30 years, more than 1,000 vocational academies have been formed as semi-autonomous schools in shared facilities. Learners benefit from strong and lasting relationships, a cohesive curriculum and related workplace learning experiences, as well as extracurricular activities on large campuses. Academies supported by NAF and Bound have high graduation and university education rates.
Da Vinci Schools in Los Angeles offers three small thematic high schools – Design, Communications and Science – in a shared facility. Each school has three career paths in small supportive environments. The three schools share common spaces and activities, including music and the performing arts, as well as a strong athletics program. Da Vinci represents the best features of small career-oriented schools and large comprehensive schools.
What’s the next step in personalization?
For hundreds of years, high schools have been organized around a series of compulsory graduation courses. As schools focus more on Essential Skills and respond to the needs of individual students, these building blocks of content can become limiting artificial constraints. Some small innovative schools including Purdue Polytechnic High School in Indianapolis and a stone in Boise organize learning skills sprints, advisory groups and projects. Each learner has a learning path that combines individual skill building with team projects and the support of a coach and a cohort of counselors.
The Association of Superintendents recently published Apprenticeship 2025, a report encouraging co-authored learning paths. This means more voice and choice for learners, less on a large catalog of courses and more on the ability to tailor learning paths that combine the right level of communication and problem-solving experiences with projects. on topics that are important to the learner and the community.
It is likely that as capacity is built to support individual and cohort learning paths, the size of schools will become less relevant – as the point of consistency shifts to the individual learner, it becomes less relevant. necessary to rely on a sequence of lessons or a school model. be the unifying factor.
Can large schools do things right?
Yes, but you need four strong elements that borrow from the lessons of good small schools. First of all, an intentional culture rooted in shared values, and it takes committed and sustained leadership in a great school. Shared values must be evident in the climate, in communication, in the school curriculum – they must be observed, heard, lived every day.
Second, the use of small units (houses, academies or micro-schools) can foster strong relationships and a sense of belonging and attachment. While these structures may limit optional options, they promote deeper learning through integration and application.
Third, strong advisory programs provide a basis for performance and growth monitoring, skills development, and post-secondary planning. In addition, a multi-year advisory relationship is essential (see essential and optional advisory functions).
And fourth, an integrated, multi-level support system (often coordinated through the counseling system). Recovery for children notes that “level 2 and 3 supports must be provided in a way that meets the often complex needs of students experiencing trauma and adversity”.
Small schools don’t guarantee a compelling, cohesive and personalized high school experience, but big schools make it a real challenge.
Some suggest that the future is made up of ecosystems of learning opportunities that, with the help of an advisor (and a few good apps), come together for individual learners – and this may be the best answer to the question of how to organize a high school.