I’M A SUCKER FOR THAT uniquely Texan spectacle of youthful beauty and energy: the Friday morning pep rally at a big public high school. Everything is choreographed to generate exhilaration: the drum line; the noisy, jostling kids; the cheerleaders handspringing in a blur of ponytails; and, of course, the morning’s heroes in letter jackets, bristling with testosterone. If it’s a theme day, the class clowns show off in hilarious costume; the sexy dance team adds a flourish of theater. The sentimental moment at the end, when the swaying throng sings the school anthem, is sweet enough to bring a tear to your eye—unless you happen to know that this huge, overcrowded building is, according to all credible research, the exact worst venue for delivering a quality education.
By any measure, Texas public high schools are broken. Although you wouldn’t know it from the Texas Education Agency’s prettied-up dropout statistics, around a third of all students who enter high school never graduate; for inner-city students, the percentage is even higher. Among students who continue to college, nearly 30 percent will require remedial courses. Texas’ SAT scores rank forty-seventh in the nation. Anglo students in the class of 2005 had an 82 percent passing rate on the state’s high school exit test, but the figures were much grimmer for African Americans (52 percent) and Hispanics (56 percent). The true failure rate would have to account for the kids who didn’t stay in school to take the test in their junior year.
For at least the past decade, a growing body of research has suggested that smaller high schools graduate more and better-prepared students than megasized schools. If common sense tells you that huge institutions are intimidating to teenagers, so do the statistics: The U.S. Department of Education compared crime at small high schools (three hundred students or fewer) with that at large schools (more than a thousand) and found that big campuses incurred 825 percent more violent crime, 394 percent more fights, and 378 percent more theft. Even the presumed economic benefit of operating larger campuses is in doubt. A study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is an active proponent of smaller high schools, found that “diseconomies of scale” occur when extra administrators, support staff, and security personnel must be hired to manage hordes of students, although conventional wisdom holds that big schools still come out ahead. While some cost-per-student comparisons favor big schools, those comparing cost per graduate—and isn’t that what schools are supposed to produce?—overwhelmingly favor small schools, which experience fewer dropouts.
For kids who are star athletes, talented performers, superior students, or just socially gregarious, large public schools are a wonderful stage to showcase their gifts. Unfortunately, for every eleven starting varsity football players, there are hundreds of kids in the middle, drifting unnoticed through those four years of high school—if they make it that far. Those fragile years known as adolescence are made palpably less painful in a small school setting, where the grown-ups actually know the kids’ names, care if they show up, and hold them accountable for doing good work. The best predictor of whether a kid will forge ahead to college, says John Fitzpatrick, the executive director of the Dallas-based Texas High School Project, another advocate of smaller high schools, is whether there is one—just one—grown-up “to take their hand and tell them, ‘I believe in you. You can go to college.’” That can happen in large public high schools, but it’s a lot easier to accomplish in a smaller setting.
Thanks to the involvement of the Gates foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the supersizing of high schools is now a national issue. In the 2003—2004 academic year, California led the nation in megaschools, with 25 campuses having more than 4,000 students to Texas’s 6. The three biggest: San Antonio’s Judson, with 4,660 students; Dallas’ Skyline, with 4,410; and suburban Houston’s Spring Westfield, with 4,338. But another 24 Texas campuses have more than 3,000 students. Fitzpatrick’s high school project, a $180 million public-private venture with funding from the Gates and Dell foundations and from state agencies, administered by the Communities Foundation of Texas, is actively promoting alternatives to the current high school design, which is a century-old model based on the agrarian calendar. It’s that model that’s failing, not teachers and administrators.
After Hurricane Katrina refugees descended on Texas schools, Fitzpatrick recalled, he read about a school official who attempted to reassure his community that schools would continue to operate seamlessly. “We won’t even notice they are there,” he’d said of the refugees. What could be worse for a teenager, Fitzpatrick asks, than anonymity? “People are working hard, doing the best they can,” he says. But with huge schools, even superhuman efforts fail. “Teachers know the top ten or twenty percent—the band kids, the football kids. And they know the bottom twenty percent. But if you are in the middle, it’s highly likely no one will know your name.”
And yet all over Texas, schools serving 3,000 and 4,000 students continue to be built as quickly as linoleum and bricks can be delivered. In the state’s fast-growing suburbs, it’s easy to understand why this is happening: There’s simply no alternative if a district is going to keep up with the growth rate. For instance, the Cypress-Fairbanks school district, northwest of Houston, which grew by an astonishing 23,000 students in the past five years, currently has seven high schools, and six exceed 3,000 students. The newest school, Cypress Ridge, opened in 2002 and already is serving 3,511 kids. High school number eight is under construction, and nine and ten are being planned. The schools fill up as fast as the school district can build them.
Granted, very large schools do have some benefits. School districts are willing to invest in state-of-the-art computer and science labs, since so many kids will be using them. More-sophisticated choices in foreign languages and other electives can be offered. And the football and band experience