When it Comes to High Schools, Big May not Be Better

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for Dec. 3, 2003
710 words

ImageINDIANAPOLIS — The headlines warned of a crisis in public schools. An Indiana Chamber of Commerce brochure called on lawmakers to take action, noting that too many communities were "unable to offer high-standard schooling without encountering unreasonably high costs." The Indiana General Assembly promised Hoosiers that education reform would be job one.

The year? 1959.

The crisis? Too many school buildings, too few tax dollars.

The solution? Consolidation. Combine small township and county schools with neighboring districts, lawmakers figured, and all would benefit from reduced overhead and greater resources.

Within 10 years of passage of the School Corporation Reorganization Act of 1959, the number of Indiana school corporations had dropped from 939 to 382. The small 100-student high school, where teachers knew everyone by name and students didn"t dare cut class, had disappeared. And true to expectations, big schools served up more advanced curriculum to more students along with more competitive athletic programs.

Flash forward 44 years. High school dropout rates are unacceptably high in Indianapolis and other urban areas. ISTEP scores are abysmal. Drug and tobacco use are prevalent. Teen pregnancy is normal. Kids routinely fall through cracks.

In 2003, the headlines involve the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has come to Indianapolis offering millions in incentives if only school systems will create "small learning communities" to help high schoolers succeed.

In hindsight, consolidation has been disastrous for many Indiana teen-agers.

Consider the size of Indiana"s typical high school. Across the state, almost 100 have enrollments of between 1,000 and 2,000 students in grades nine through12. Nineteen have student bodies that exceed 2,000. Among them: Carmel High School, 3,677; Center Grove, 2,082; Ben Davis in Indianapolis, 2,617; Fort Wayne Northrop, 2,542.

"We"re leaving behind a third of our kids," says Lynne Weisenbach, dean of the School of Education at the University of Indianapolis and executive director of the Lilly Endowment-funded Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning. "Morally. we"ve got a huge obligation. When you look at the data, too many African Americans and Hispanics are not graduating."

CELL is working closely with the office of Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson to implement the $11.3 million Gates Foundation grant to create small schools. The goal is to open 10 new high schools in Marion County and convert a few large high schools into smaller learning centers over the course of the next three years. If it works, it could be duplicated throughout the state.

"People think this is only about making smaller high schools," Weisenbach notes. "It"s so much more than that. Smaller is a way of rethinking what we"re doing."

To that end, Weisenbach and her colleagues have traveled the country to examine models, to seek to understand why smaller schools encourage lower dropout rates and higher achievement and what methods they use, especially among disadvantaged populations.

The Gates Foundation support is critical. At the outset, it will pay for methodical planning and organization, with the bulk of funds being devoted to school startup costs.

But even that kind of money won"t convince some school corporations that they need to do things differently. After all, the biggest schools tend to boast the most National Merit Scholars and state championship sports teams. To those school superintendents, Weisenbach poses a question: "Can you go to bed at night knowing your high school meets the needs of every single child?"

It will take a few years to collect meaningful data linking high school size to student achievement. We do know this much, according to Tom Vander Ark, writing in the February 2002 Educational Leadership Journal:

It"s 2003. The Chamber of Commerce worries that Indiana graduates won"t have the skills to hold high-tech jobs. The Indiana General Assembly is concerned about rising education costs. One third of urban kids who start high school don"t finish.

Dare lawmakers rethink the bold consolidation of 1959? Dare they not?

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Andrea Neal, former editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star, is a columnist and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.


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