How to Go From Large to Small

In last month’s column, I suggested that the availability of stimulus funds to help school districts upgrade their buildings creates an opportunity for districts and architects to look ahead and prepare existing schools for a future educational program, rather than just fixing them up.

A key step would be to break large schools, particularly high schools, into smaller, self-contained units that would allow students and teachers to get to know one another, where teachers would act as coaches and counselors, where students would be directed in the use of tools such as the Internet, where every student would be known to at least one teacher, where, hopefully, the smaller size of the school would allow it to be operated in a less formal, less expensive manner.

Breaking a large high school into smaller ones is not easy. It must be done deliberately, with a philosophy and a long-range plan, and with the support of the faculty. If that is not done, there is a good chance that what is created will fall back into a single large high school with an administrative overlay that pretends students and faculty are in separate small schools. That’s what most of the “house” plans of the last century became.

Here are some key ideas to keep in mind if you are breaking a large high school into separate academic units.

Size. There is no agreed-upon definition of a small high school, but experienced principals tell me that a high school of 200 to 400 students works well as a small school, with faculty taking on many advisory and disciplinary roles. Once a school gets up above 500, the advantages of small tend to get lost.

Academic facilities. Each school must have its own space including classrooms and science labs that are not shared. There will be pressure to share labs on the basis of cost. Don’t do it. That’s the first step back towards a large high school. Each school needs at least one lab for chemistry and biology (which will need water and proper drainage) and a second for physics.

Each school should also have its own music space, art studio and computer labs. If the small school is thematic — i.e. technology, performing arts, health sciences, public service, etc. — it will need more sophisticated facilities that support its theme. Thus a performing arts high school would certainly need performance space (perhaps the existing auditorium) but students in every school should be able to take a full range of courses including art and music within their own space.

Each school must have a common space where the whole school can gather to discuss matters of general interest, where student work can be exhibited, where clubs can meet, where thematic materials can be created and displayed, and where informal performances can occur. This is the school’s center and may also serve as its lunchroom. The existing large high school probably has a cafeteria, but small schools will work best with their own lunchrooms served by a central kitchen.

Entrance and exit. For safety, control and to establish the importance of the individual small schools, each should have its own separate entrance. If this is a physical impossibility, consider scheduling programs so that no two schools use the same entrance and exit at the same time.

Support space. Each school needs its own administration area and its own rest room facilities. If there is a faculty lounge, each school should have its own. (More important, each school must have its own separate faculty. Resist the temptation to share or to allow students to cross over so that they can take an English class, for example, with a favorite teacher.)

Library. I’m not sure what the future of the school library is, but in existing high schools, they are often the physical center of the building. If I were creating small schools in what was a single large high school, my inclination would be to leave the library alone and look at it as part of a central building that might be visited on occasion for special needs. But each school should have its own satellite media center with a collection designed for its thematic needs, and with computer access not only to the school library, but to libraries around the world. The implication is that each school would also have its own librarian whose main task would be helping students learn how to use research tools.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year." He can be reached at

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