A Final Thought

All Things Are Not Always Equal

Last month i wrote about the trend (identified in the suburbs of Minneapolis) towards bigger and bigger “mega” high schools and I questioned the educational effect. Bigger is certainly not better for the educational program. As shown, bigger high schools tend to deprive students of opportunity and of individual attention without any added benefits. Unfortunately, despite the educational problems, the trend to build bigger apparently continues.

The plus of mega schools

There are reasons to develop mega schools. For some adults, the prospect of better sports teams is the lure. As one school administrator put it, “large high schools provide… powerhouse athletic programs.”

That same administrator stated that a large school can offer more academic choices than a small one, though this was disproven as long ago as 1978, when a program developed for a high school with fewer than 500 students allowed students to take a wide variety of courses including Advanced Placement. And that was before there was access to computers and the internet. A better statement might have been, “if we run a high school the same way we did 50 years ago, we can offer more academic choices.”

Some community-minded people fear that two high schools will spit their community into warring camps, and that is something that can occur. Though dual high schools have existed in school districts throughout the United States without harming the community, it takes awareness and positive action (from drawing district lines, to program, to naming) to insure that both schools represent the community.

Those are all issues to be considered, but the overriding reason to add to existing schools rather than build new ones is cost. Depending on where you are and the size of the building, a new high school today will cost anywhere from $40 to $100 million and, in some jurisdictions, even more.

If you have an existing high school, it likely includes at least one performance gym, a cafeteria and kitchen, music rooms and instruments, a library, an auditorium and, perhaps, sophisticated science labs and computer systems. Build new and these all have to be duplicated; add on and they can be used more often, saving the costs of construction. But, as a Gershwin song says, “it ain’t necessarily so.”

Corridors that were designed to accommodate 1,600 students moving from class to class may not be able to handle 3,000. The kitchen may be large enough to produce the additional meals, but is there enough room in the cafeteria or will some students have to eat early in the morning or wait until late in the afternoon? Restrooms and locker areas can become trouble spots unless care is taken to provide additional facilities where they are needed. Parking of cars and buses is another issue. Adding 1,500 cars to an existing lot is asking for trouble. Bringing an additional 20 or so buses to the site could be a nightmare even if the school building itself is able to accommodate a larger student body.

Making big smaller

It is interesting to note that many of the mega high schools are trying to overcome the problems of size by “down-sizing.” They are trying to create small schools within the single mega-school. As one administrator put it, “students want to know that adults in the building know their name.” By breaking the big school into smaller ones, students can be known to members of their faculty.

Breaking big schools into small independent units can help overcome the problems of size while still allowing students to feel a loyalty to the larger school. But the small schools must be meaningful. If a student is in School A, but takes her classes throughout the larger building with no reference to School A, the small school system will quickly break down and faculty will not know the student’s name.

All things being equal, small units are educationally preferable to mega high schools. That is confirmed by the drive of megaschool advocates to find ways to make them smaller. But all things are not always equal. Creating mega schools will save on construction dollars (and may or may not be less expensive to run than two small buildings). It’s simply a question of our nation’s focus. Which do we value more — the education and future of our children or the dollars in our pockets? Unfortunately, too often money, not educational factors, is the determinant.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of School Planning & Management.

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 intelled@aol.com.

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