I've written this week (here and here) about the decision of Pittsburgh's superintendent to step down. One of the reforms he's implemented over the past 5+ years is move the district away from large, comprehensive high schools and toward smaller, specialized high schools. It's a trend anybody in NYC would be familiar with (where the average size of a middle school has shrunk by about 15% since 2004). In the past I've referred to this as the "charterization" of schools. As is clear in NYC and other places, charters tend to be much smaller and have more specialized names (think "Knowledge is Power Program" instead of "PS 100" or "Washington High"), and draw from beyond the local neighborhood.
In a lot of ways, I think smaller schools are a good thing (or at least have the potential to be a good thing). I've heard one charter operator explain that he believes in schools with about 500 students because that's what all the top private schools are like -- and I think he makes a good point. A small school makes it easier for everyone in the building to know each other and, subsequently, for schools to be more aware of the dynamics of the school environment and the needs of individual students.
But there's one major drawback to the smaller schools that doesn't seem to get much press: extracurriculars. A lot of students define their experiences in high school (and, for that matter, college) by their experiences on athletic teams, in school plays, in the marching band, and so on. When a friend mentions an old classmate and you can't quite put a face to the name, what do they say? They don't say "he really liked history" . . . they say "she played the clarinet" or "he was on the swim team". Everybody takes classes in high school, but far fewer people make pottery or play a leading role in the school play. Accordingly, some students -- at least to some extent -- care more about their favorite extracurricular activity (or activities) than they do about classes. Witness this excellent Sports Illustrated piece from last year about a school in Ohio that cut all sports and started hemorrhaging athletes.
So, what do we do to ensure that kids at these new smaller schools get to experience the activity (or activities) that might make them love high school? There are a few options.
1.) We can continue to create schools that are focused around interests and activities -- arts academies and the like -- and hope that kids with similar interests enjoy similar activities. Though I'm skeptical that athletic leagues will want to allow the new basketball academy to join its ranks. And I'm not sure what happens when the quarterback at the football academy wants to join the glee club or the soprano at the choir academy wants to play volleyball.
2.) We can combine schools for the purposes of extracurriculars. This is apparently Pittsburgh's plan, at least for football. The biggest problem with that is that it robs the power of the school play or the Friday night football game to bring the community together (both the school community and the surrounding neighborhood). If two separate schools field one football team, are they supposed to have two separate pep rallies? And if two small towns merge their schools, in which town do they play football? (Here's an excellent article on this phenomenon, again in the areas surrounding Pittsburgh.)
3.) Schools can boost rates of participation -- in various ways -- so that a smaller school can support more activities. A number of private schools (I think, historically, this is something all-boys schools tended to do) mandate that every student play on a certain number of athletic teams each year. Or schools could allow some clubs to meet during class time (I took a journalism class in jr. high in which we also wrote the school newspaper). Or they could just emphasize clubs and activities more to students, parents, and teachers.
4.) We can go back to large, comprehensive, neighborhood high schools ("back" meaning in urban areas -- that's still still the norm in the suburbs and only somewhat possible in rural areas). NYC might have the highest concentration of (relatively) small, specialized, non-neighborhood high schools in the country. But it was announced this week that a new HS in Queens will be a large, comprehensive one. “People want one large comprehensive school. You don’t want a bunch of boutique schools, a dance school, a school for lawyers,” said the DOE rep.
5.) Kids can just learn to do without. Historically, the vast majority of schools in the United States have been quite small (which, of course, doesn't mean that the majority of students have attended small schools). And many might deem other things (e.g. math skills) more important anyway. Besides, there's always the possibility that local organizations (the theater, library, YMCA, little league, etc.) might sponsor activities if a school doesn't. Of course, that would then remove one more enjoyable activity from students' school experience.
Extracurricular activities are extraordinarily important to many students, parents, schools, and communities and we do ourselves a disservice when we ignore this during our debates and discussions about education.