Thursday, November 14, 2013

Will Bigger Schools Harm the Goals of the Diversity Policy?

In the past year, the Board of Directors passed the Diversity Policy and adopted the Facilities Master Plan. In many respects, these two policies complement one another. The renovations to older schools, such as adding air conditioning, will likely improve academic performance at many of our community schools that currently have the highest free and reduced lunch rates. The new schools, particularly new South Sycamore Elementary School, will solve the overcrowding problem at Grant Wood. In these respects, the goals of the diversity policy and the Facilities Master Plan align, and mutually support one another.

Unfortunately, there are other features of the Facilities Master Plan that undermine the goal of the diversity policy. At least one of the goals of the diversity policy is intended to reduce the effect of socioeconomic differences on student achievement, but it is also the case that one of the central features of the Facilities Master Plan is to have larger and fewer elementary schools that are farther away from each other. The Facilities Master Plan is building three new 500 capacity elementary schools, and it expands (often extensively) Longfellow, Mann, Twain, Shimek, Penn, and so on and so forth. It also expands City High to almost 1,600 students while building a 3rd comprehensive high school with a 1,500 capacity.

The rationale for this building plan is that larger schools allow the district to reduce operating expenses. This argument only has merit, however, if (a) larger schools produce similar academic outcomes compared to smaller schools, and (b) it does not conflict with other district goals. Research on the relationship between school size and academic achievement, particularly low-income students, consistently and unanimously indicate that the larger a school (e.g., a 500 student elementary school or a 1,500 student high school) the more detrimental it is to academic achievement among low-income students. The first study was a National Report called the Matthew Project, and their results have been replicated in Georgia and Washington, D.C. Follow up studies have indicated that the result is not simply about schools that serve low-income areas, but that it affects low-income students within large schools more generally (Howley and Howley, 2004). The explanation for this is fairly intuitive – if poorer students, on average, lack the support network that more affluent students have, on average, then the school community will provide that support network if it's small enough and stable enough, and furthermore, it is much easier to get lost in the shuffle in a larger school than in a smaller one.

These matters were discussed to some extent in the visioning process –  (see specifically, pg. 23-24) – and although the presentation says "there is no definitive causal relationship" it later suggests that the differences are mediated by economics, race, and other factors. It behooves us to consider how at least one of the major trends embodied in the FMP may, in fact, set us back in mitigating the achievement gap.

The solution to this problem is not to keep our schools small in low-income areas, but it does mean that as a community that we should be concerned about the trend in our district to have fewer and larger schools that are farther apart from each other.  We should not sacrifice the least well off in our district for the sake of the few dollars that are saved by building larger schools. The costs are much too high to do that, since we aren't likely to get the same results, though we may lower our financial costs.

So, my question is: is a 500 student elementary school (note that Penn will be significantly larger than that) and a 1500 student high school the "sweet spot" or is it just the sweet spot for our relatively well-to-do students?


  1. Your post has raised excellent questions. At a minimum, the district should be examining (or should have already examined) the extent to which school size at the high school level impacts participation by students of all income levels in extracurricular activities and additionally whether school size impacts whether students of all income levels are able to attain leadership roles in extracurricular activities.

    I would also be interested in whether high school size impacts drop out percentages as I would not want to see the number of drop outs increase.

    Additionally, given the proximity of the south Sycamore elementary site to Grant Wood elementary, which I believe had a 77% plus free and reduced lunch ratio last school year, I would be interested in having the district explain how it is going to bring the Sycamore site, if built upon, within 15 percentage points above the mean percentage of free and reduced lunch for the district to satisfy the diversity policy (I believe the free and reduced lunch ratio needs to come in around 49 or 50 %).

    Thanks for writing.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Mary. From what I've read, school size does has a significant effect on dropout rates. And if you consider operational costs as the cost to graduate a student rather than a simple case of dividing the annual costs by the average number of students for the year, then smaller schools on balance are significantly cheaper per graduate.

    I think I disagree with you about the south Sycamore elementary school. Based on my calculations, something like 45% of capacity will be east of the river at the end of the 10-year phasing process, but only 41% of projected enrollment is supposed to be there. I talked about that if an earlier post (Swapping Sides) a bit. This implies that the south elementary school will probably pull some kids from the current Twain and Grant Wood districts (probably 100-200?), and the rest will probably come from west of the river (probably from part of the current Horn or Weber districts?). So, I don't think it will be difficult to get it at the right percentage, but it won't be what people are expecting, I imagine.

    I also think it is pretty clear that the south elementary will ultimately be assigned to West High, and arguably Northwest Junior High. The distance if great enough there to give me some pause, but it probably fits best with the building plan and the diversity policy.

  3. This is Mary Murphy. I couldn't get this to post under my name. Thank you for your reply. I continue to see balancing the socioeconomics at the south Sycamore site, if built, a challenge for the district. You're right that students would have to be moved from elsewhere. Mark Twain's free and reduced lunch rate was around 79% last year and convincing those with means west of the river not to open enroll elsewhere, if assigned to the south Sycamore site, might be problematic. Prior to building, the district ought to articulate its plan for this location. If the district has no solid plan to balance the socioeconomics, this school, if built, will present many of the same challenges as the current Grant Wood and Mark Twain. If this site is going to result in a lot of bussing costs, this information should be brought forward also since some of these costs would be paid out of the general fund.

    I am also curious about how restructuring under No Child Left behind will impact all of this. See

  4. I agree that the district should explain their plan, but I suspect they are strategically avoiding doing so. I'll have to take a closer look at the restructure of NCLB.