Senator Jane Nelson
P.O. Box 12068, State Capitol
Austin, Texas 78711
Tel. (512) 463-0112
Fax (512) 463-0923

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 23, 2001
Contact: Dave Nelson
(512) 463-0112

MEGA HIGH SCHOOLS MAY NOT BE THE BEST PLAN TO MEET ENROLLMENT GROWTH

When it comes to educating students, is bigger really better?

Texas may not have invented the mega high school, but we sure took the concept to a new level. Our largest high schools are the stuff of legend, known for their intense pursuit of excellence -- and not just with respect to their athletic teams. Their sheer size provides a huge talent pool for bands, choral groups, academic decathlon teams, cheerleading squads and drama clubs. And these areas are the source of fierce competition, between schools and among students within the schools.

While study after study has been conducted to show that smaller classes breed better academic results, the super sizing of our high schools has occurred largely without study or scrutiny. This issue deserves our immediate attention, especially at a time when our fast growing school districts are facing multimillion-dollar decisions about new facilities.

In Texas, there were 114 Texas high schools with an enrollment of 2,000 or greater in 1990. That figure grew to 161 by 2000, and several new campuses of such size have opened in the past year or are currently under construction. The rise of the mega high school parallels the national trend. The number of school campuses fell by 70 percent since World War II while the number of students per school swelled fivefold, according to an Education Commission of the States report.

The school of thought behind these large, centralized campuses is easy to accept at first. By pooling staff and other resources into one large location, it would make sense that school districts would be able to better afford an abundance of extracurricular activities and a diverse curriculum to a large population.

But there is evidence to suggest that those savings are offset when you consider the additional bureaucracy needed to monitor the behavior and educational progress of hundreds, and in many cases thousands, of students. There are also studies indicating that smaller schools have better attendance rates, fewer dropouts and less disciplinary problems than larger schools.

The string of school shootings, which also seems to occur disproportionately at large suburban high schools, has sparked research telling us that students feel more disconnected than ever -- from their peers, their teachers and even their parents.

Our schools should not be expected to fix this problem on their own, but it is easy to see how students can feel lost in the crowd at a gigantic high school. Only the most gifted students gain the right to participate in extracurricular activities. The clique culture can be quite brutal. Teachers have trouble remembering the names of all the students who enter their classrooms, let alone recognizing signs of despondence.

As Texas' population continues to boom and as we build new campuses to accommodate the influx of students, it is important that we consider the effect school size has on student performance.

I raised this issue briefly during the interim as part of the Legislature's study of college readiness among high school students. A thoughtful discussion between legislators, local school officials, teachers, parents and students is warranted, and I plan to request that the Senate Education Committee put this issue under a spotlight after the Legislature adjourns.

As a legislator who has been trying to reduce the burden of taxpayers in fast-growth school districts, I want to make sure that the new campuses we are building to accommodate new students are cost-effective. But I also want to make sure that our efforts to improve economies of scale take other factors into consideration.

In our search for ways to make Texas' schools safer, more productive and fiscally sound, school size is an issue that should no longer be overlooked.

State Senator Jane Nelson represents Senate District 12, which includes parts of Dallas, Denton, Ellis and Tarrant counties.

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