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Quality a concern as schools grow

Some high schools in Hillsborough County are getting bigger at a time when experts say that smaller is better.

By KATHERINE GAZELLA

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2000


Adam Boutwell attends one of the biggest high schools in the county, where students have trouble getting to class on time because the halls are so crowded. Other than having to share a small locker with two other people, though, he has no complaints about the size.

"I don't mind," the Gaither High School junior says.

Many fellow students agree. But plenty of other people do care about the size of Gaither and other high schools, and they worry about the effect it has on students.

A growing number of experts say that schools should be smaller to foster a sense of community and prevent school violence. They say elementary schools should be built for 300 to 400 students, and middle- and high schools should be built for 400 to 800 students.

But in Hillsborough County, schools are going in the opposite direction. The school district is adding space for 370 more students each at Gaither, Sickles and Wharton high schools, which each already accommodate more than 2,000 students.

New high schools in Town 'N Country and New Tampa will have capacities above 2,500 students, up from the current average of closer to 2,000.

"That's way too big," said Kathleen Cotton, research associate for Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory based in Portland, Ore. Cotton has done extensive research and concluded that in smaller schools students benefit in all areas, ranging from academic achievement to self-esteem.

School officials in Hillsborough say they don't have a choice. Rapid population growth, particularly in the northern suburbs, means that more and more students will need room, and new schools can't be built rapidly enough to keep up.

There are some limits, though. Officials have balked at mega-schools of nearly 5,000 students, said Bill Person, who draws attendance boundaries for the school district. He said Hillsborough is reluctant to build anything larger than the planned high schools in Town 'N Country and New Tampa.

"We think with anything over 2,500, you're really affecting the quality of education," he said.

Some observers think even that's too big. School Board member Candy Olson said she fears that students in large schools will get lost in the shuffle. Some students might need help, she said, but nobody will recognize it because the student body is simply too large.

"What do you do about a kid who gets lost and who leads a life of quiet desperation until he explodes?" she said.

* * *

With prominent advocates such as Education Secretary Richard Riley, the small schools effort is getting a lot of attention lately. Still, the movement faces some challenges.

Some people believe it's cheaper to build larger schools and that larger schools offer more academic and extra-curricular opportunities.

But Cotton said those common perceptions aren't necessarily true. Indeed, she said, it may be slightly cheaper to build large schools than small schools based on per-pupil costs. But when you factor in the dropout rates, which tend to be higher at big schools, the cost per graduating pupil favors smaller schools, she said.

Larger schools may offer some classes not available at smaller schools, she said, but there is not a great difference. She said a number of studies show that academic achievement does not favor students who attend larger schools.

The variety of extra-curriculars tends to increase slightly at larger schools, she said. But students at smaller schools are more involved in sports and clubs than at larger schools, where a small group of students tends to be extremely active and other students are marginalized, she said.

Other school districts are working on solutions, even in places where it isn't practical to build smaller schools.

In Chicago and New York, the school districts are trying to compensate by creating schools within schools, Cotton said.

That can work in other districts as well, she said. For it to work though, each school needs a separate administrator with complete autonomy, she said.

Olson also likes the idea, and said the system has worked well at Tampa Bay Tech and in the International Baccalaureate programs at King and Hillsborough high schools.

School district staffers probably will examine the idea as part of a broader study about ways of dealing with large high schools, Olson said. She doesn't know what the researchers will find, but she hopes they discover a way to make students feel more like they belong in their schools.

"This is not a factory. . . . We still have the factory mentality of "everybody can fit in a box,' " she said. "You need to give (students) a feeling of community."


-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Katherine Gazella can be reached at 226-3472 or gazella@sptimes.com.

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