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 is nowhere better than at a high school with such a large pool of talent.
Ah, yes, football. Now we’re on to something. Because, you see, football is a major reason for megaschools. In communities whose schools are bursting at the seams, voters have firmly refused bond proposals to build a second high school, even when the educational benefits for students are clear-cut. Usually, the “anti” campaign wraps itself in platitudes like “tradition” and “excellence,” with the not-so-opaque subtext of “state championship football team.” Opponents of building a second high school in the Austin suburb of West Lake Hills a few years ago sported bumper stickers proclaiming, “Westlake Divided by Two Equals Mediocrity.” “You mean ‘mediocre football,’” snorted the parents of kids in Austin schools whose football teams regularly get shellacked by Westlake.
The insidious role of football dawned on Bill Ercoline, a former president of the school board in the Judson Independent School District, on the northeast side of San Antonio, as he sat on the graduation stage one year in the late nineties and saw how few students were getting their diplomas. His daughter had graduated from Converse Judson, a football powerhouse, in 1990 in a class of 850, so Ercoline braced himself for a long evening, since the student body had been growing steadily for years. “I thought we’d have eleven hundred kids,” he recalled. “We didn’t have seven hundred.” Ercoline later discovered that that year’s graduating class had started with 1,400 ninth-graders. “We were graduating one for every two kids. If we were a business, no one would accept this,” Ercoline said. “Somebody has to be responsible for these kids.”
In 1999 Ercoline persuaded the board to propose a bond package for a second high school. It was soundly defeated. “It came down to football,” he told me. “We had name-calling going on. It was ugly. A high school assistant principal called me and said, ‘We’ve got to think about those big bears that sit on the fifty-yard line’”—a reference to an influential group of die-hard football boosters. “It had nothing to do with the kids. It was about keeping a large pool [of athletes] to pick from.” Ercoline managed to get the board to call for a second referendum, but it also failed. Finally, the board found a strategy that prevailed in a third referendum. An extensive early-voting program—ballots available at every parental event at every school—helped the proposal win. “We lost every polling place on Election Day,” Ercoline recalled. “Then, lo and behold, the early voting from these little elementary schools came in and put us over for the high school.”
Duncanville, a Dallas suburb that Sports Illustrated last May rated as having the twenty-fourth best athletic program in the country, went in the opposite direction. Three years ago the school board had to decide whether to expand the high school or build a second one. Since the construction of a new ninth-grade center was a more pressing concern, the board decided to enlarge Duncanville High. After the community passed a bond issue, the expanded school opened last year with 863,137 square feet—about the size, as the Dallas Morning News noted, of four Wal-Mart Supercenters combined. Nearly 3,800 students attend the school. Steve Martin, a Duncanville businessman who was the president of the political action committee that helped pass the bond issue, told me that athletics was “a very minute part of the discussion” on whether to enlarge the current school or build a new one. But he also said that Duncanville High boasts some of the premier athletics facilities in the country, including a 1,500-seat baseball stadium, a fitting tribute to its three state championships in that sport. If the district chose to build a second high school, Martin told me, it would be very expensive to match Duncanville High’s athletics facilities. “We don’t have the resources,” he said. “There’s a sense of pride for the kids too.”
But nowhere is it etched in stone that a good high school must be encircled by costly green fields. So the Texas High School Project, armed with philanthropic dollars, has begun doling out grants to school districts willing to take a chance on entirely new types of schools. An example of a high school that could receive such funding is a high school named Challenge Early College, in southwest Houston, where teenagers are allowed to work concurrently on high school and associate college degrees. “They started out in a bunch of portables on a community-college campus. It is not a typical setting with a lot of green grass,” says Fitzpatrick. “But getting kids on a college campus when they are fourteen and getting them comfortable with the idea that they are college material has a huge impact.”
What about downsizing the megaschools that currently exist? In four districts with high-needs students—Austin, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Ysleta—Fitzpatrick’s group has funded redesigns of large schools to divide the campus into smaller “schools within a school.” The idea is to allow teachers to work with the same teens during their entire high school careers. After Austin’s Johnston High received an unacceptable rating from the Texas Education Agency, the school district reorganized the campus into themed “academies” called Arts and Humanities, Global Enterprise and Information Technology, and Scientific Inquiry and Design. The idea, according to Rosalinda Hernandez, an Austin ISD associate superintendent, was to reduce the number of kids that a group of teachers would be responsible for. “Here, the teachers get to know three hundred kids, instead of twenty-seven hundred,” she said. “It is very difficult to establish that relationship in a big school. That’s a big plus.”
Cynic that I am, that sounded a little bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, until I visited Johnston and talked with its campus academic officer, Celina Estrada. She told me that by dividing up the school, the same twenty teachers will track the same group of kids for four years. Once a day, they meet in “seminar” with a teacher who talks to them about their grades and goals. And that teacher too will stick with them for all four years. I visited a seminar class, and the kids told me that their teacher, Lindsey Vela, regularly talked to them one-on-one about their grades. “I never had a teacher who actually wants us to get ourselves to college,” a boy named Jose said. All the kids expressed a preference for Johnston’s new format.
Two things are certain about the future of Texas high schools. One is that the big-band, big-football high school is not going to disappear. The other is that Texas cannot continue to rely solely upon this model without losing entire generations of students. Big urban and suburban districts are going to have to offer a menu of smaller high schools, theme high schools (such as a girls’ school), or schools within a school based on career tracks (for instance, high tech) if they are to perform their mission of educating every student. Then kids can choose the atmosphere best suited for them, one in which a grown-up will know their name and be responsible for their success. And that will be something to do handsprings over.