Pros and Cons of Small High Schools

“Smaller class sizes may have been the most popular school reform of the last ten years. But smaller high schools may become the most known as the most effective. Both research and a bumper crop of newly launched small high school initiatives in Oakland, Sacramento and San Diego evidence of this success in the making.” This comment opens an article, written in 2003, entitled “Small High Schools Are Delivering Results.” The article suggests that there is more scope for a controlled, healthy balance of independent and monitored learning than there is in a large high school. And that produces higher grades.

But small high schools are not the perfect alternative to over-crowded high schools. They may appear to have social merit, optimizing the individual and individual learning, but they have distinct demerits that may not, at first, be immediately apparent.

“Kathy Christie, the vice president for the Education Commission of the State Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization conducting nationwide research for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said smaller school environments often are more conducive to reaching at-risk students Christie said research indicates the ideal size for a high school is between 600 and a little more than 1,000 students.” So, in the light of this statement, a small high school will be deemed to be one in around the 600 students category and the larger high schools will be over 1,000 students.

Naracoorte High school in South Australia is a small rural high school of 487 students in the limestone caves district of Naracoorte Caves Conservation Park. Small does not necessarily equate with lacking in facilities. This school has a library resource centre, video conferencing centre, a multi-media centre housing more than 130 PC’s, a technology and visual arts and craft centre, a performing arts centre and a home economics centre. It is also equipped with a gym, a state of the art vineyard and agricultural centre. Agriculture is introduced as a “hands on” experience subject at Year 8. Tourism and Indonesian are additional subjects offered at the school. The Challenge Program caters for students with learning difficulties and there is a Gifted and Talented Program. Community based projects, such as the Lighthouse project and the Caves project, are offered at Year 11. The school actively participates in inter-school sports events. A school chaplain has been appointed to the school.

By contrast, small high schools in the tropical region of northern Western Australia, especially in the Kimberleys, are in urgent need of renovation and state funding. The ABC reported recently on 19.02.08 that some buildings at Kununurra District High School have stood since 1964 without upkeep. And, in a tropical climate, which weathers buildings more rapidly, the situation is critical. In contrast to Naracoorte, the school does not even have a website listed on the internet. Features of the school are barely discernible, even on Kununurra community websites. Kununurra District High school is almost invisible.

These two schools reflect the two faces of small high schools. A well funded small high school is a competitive rival to the mega high schools. But the under-funded small high school raises barely an identity.

However, there can be generic views of the pros and cons of small high schools.

1. Intimacy of small class sizes and small social environment creates a feeling of personal value and a personal sense of identity. The teacher has the opportunity to know the student and the student has the opportunity to know the teacher, (as does the student’s family).
2. Learning should be a highly energized experience with plenty of backstops ready to curb weaknesses.
3. A small school creates a caring, family atmosphere. There is a sense of belonging to an intimate, learning family.
4. Bullying should be a non issue in a small high school because the incidence of it can be more readily noticeable and identified. It will not be “lost” in the crowd.
5. Small high schools are often the school of choice for parents who wish their mentally disabled students to experience main stream education. An environment of a few students presents a less threatening social environment for the disabled. And parents feel they have some control of a “filtered” social world.
6. Small schools are often the pride and joy of a community. That community may be either a particular region or a religious community. A middle class community with a small high school takes pride in providing additional funding for the school and being involved in the dynamics of the school.

1. Small school environments can represent “risk” education if under-funded. A poor physical state of buildings can create a parallel poor attitude, a “don’t care” attitude to learning.
2. Small school environments can reflect the poor social attitudes or poor conditions of a small, local community. This comment particularly applies to isolated, outback high schools in Australia. The schools then perpetuate (rather than changes) those attitudes if they subsequently attract under-funding. Their only life-raft is a connection to Distance Learning to fill the gaps.
3. A small school environment can give students a narrow, (some say “false” or skewed) social view of the world, unpreparing them for the world at large. This particularly applies to a religious small high school. Once the students leave this protected environment, how tuned are their lifeskills for the world outside?
4. A small high school environment can be a nightmare for a student who does not “fit in”. There is simply nowhere to escape and hide. Even if a teacher steps in and tries to diffuse the situation, good intentions can have the reverse effect at high school level. The student could be labeled “teacher’s pet” and could be isolated further into the “wimp department”.
5. Minimal resources generate minimal choice of subjects in a small high school. Teachers may have to double up on subjects to provide some diversity. There is then the danger that the teacher may be forced to teach outside his/her trained subject area.
6. Small, remote high schools are in danger of being a long way from educational support networks. Although, this risk is being minimized with the advent of the internet. (Providing, that is, that the area can be connected to the internet effectively.) As recently as September 2007, it was reported that “Broadband internet connection in the outback just got a whole lot better with the announcement of a joint venture today between Dodo and NewSat to deliver a new “fair go” for the bush. Called “Dodo Satellite powered by NewSat” the new service will deliver a new “lowest price and best performance” benchmark in broadband internet connection for remote Australia.
“Dodo Satellite powered by NewSat” will offer a range of seven connection plans, all capped, with a starting price of below $20 per month. This move is set to revolutionize the price of broadband satellite connection in the country by slicing approximately 30 percent from the current starting prices for a 256/64kbps speed connection.” Obviously, till this date, many outback connections were, at best, very expensive; a luxury beyond the average, small, outback high school.

To overview the pros and cons for small high schools, it seems that the ideal small high school is the one that can generate funding from a community. Then, all the best features of a small high school can come into play effectively. But a small high school without substantial, extra funding, struggles to survive not only in the educational world, but even in the social world.