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Growing The High School Smaller



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Growing The High School Smaller

Seven years ago, Newtown spent $20 million on a 70,000-square-foot addition to Newtown High School that was supposed to give the school’s 1,000-plus students in 1997 the extra room they needed for a good secondary school education. The addition was designed to allow the school to grow comfortably to an enrollment of 1,600. Now that there are 1,600 students at the high school, the comfort level is fast declining. So the answer is another addition, right? Not exactly.

The High School Space Needs Study Committee reported to the Board of Education last week that the conventional kind of expansion to the high school probably is not the best educational solution to the problems presented by overcrowding. High school enrollments of up to 3,000 are commonplace in some urban areas of the country, with some New York City schools approaching 5,000 students. Several studies have shown that smaller schools, or in the language of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 “smaller learning environments,” improve attendance, discipline, and overall satisfaction with the school experience for both students and faculty. The idea is that people care more about each other in a smaller school and believe that they can be more effective.

How big is a smaller school? While there is no consensus on a specific optimum number for a school, one study conducted at Clemson University concluded, “400–800 students is appropriate for a secondary school.” Oops! Didn’t we just say Newtown spent $20 million on creating a 1,600-student school? Isn’t it too late to create a “smaller learning environment” for our high school students? Maybe not.

Newtown is not alone in trying to address this problem. The US Department of Education has outlined a series of “structures and strategies,” that school districts can use make their large schools seem smaller. Among them is an “academy” model, which Newtown’s educators have adopted as the most feasible for this community. As it was explained to the school board last week, the academy option offered to high school students would allow teachers and students to blend academic and occupation-related study to bring “real-world” relevance to the school work of 400–500 students in one four areas of study: applied arts, performing arts, technology, or applied science. All this would take place “within walking distance” of the high school. (The space needs panel was reluctant to mention Fairfield Hills for fear or embroiling its academy discussions in the politics surrounding the development of Fairfield Hills.)

No one knows for sure whether the proposed academy and the “small school feel” it is supposed to beget will result in the perceived benefits of an actual small school, but it is one of the better, more creative ideas we have heard for addressing both the space crunch at the high school and the large-school malaise that creeps into sprawling exurban high schools. The school board will be asking for $6.7 million in the 2006-2007 budget for the new academy. Before we spend any of that money, we hope to hear a lot more about the academy, what students it will educate, and how.

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