School Size

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the problems associated with closing neighborhood schools. As you’ll recall, we have lots of data coming out of places like Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia suggesting that school closure has serious consequences for students and communities, and often does not save districts nearly as much money as they predict. [See “Again and Again”] But a Facebook response to that piece from a Yinzercation reader got me thinking about two key issues that we have to deal with here in Pittsburgh: school size and spacing. Today let’s talk about school size.

This reader suggested essentially what our district administration has been saying for a while now, too: that Pittsburgh’s average school size is just too small to support all the classes and programs we might wish to have in each building. He wrote, “With less than 500 students per school [on average in PPS] we’re not talking about megaschools where students feel lost. If we still had 93 schools, we would only have 283 students per school–hardly enough to support a variety of classes and facilities such as libraries and a gym, as well as central staff such as a principal, librarian or school nurse.” I actually agree with the premise of this argument, but I have some concerns, too.

Here’s some data to put this into perspective. This academic year, the mean (average) size of our 20 K-5 schools is 352 students. (See the table below.) Now a school with 350+ kids is hardly an “empty” school building – and it’s probably nowhere near “half empty” either, which is the common rhetoric you will hear around school closures. At the Occupy the D.O.E. event last month, Chicago teacher’s union Karen Lewis gave an inspiring talk explaining how this very narrative of “half empty” buildings had been used to justify mass school closures there. (Chicago is calling any classroom with fewer than 30 kids “under-utilized”!) So I’ve been very sensitive to this phrase and the power it has to convey an unrealistic picture of what it looks like inside our schools.

That said, we have a bit of a spread in terms of school size at the K-5 level. The smallest school in the district is Pittsburgh Woolslair at 175 students (which appears to be quite an outlier), then we have several in the mid-200 range, and the largest is Pittsburgh Faison with 534 students. We have to remember that these are student enrollment figures, and don’t take into account actual school building size. So a building designed for 400 students is nearly full with 350 kids; but in a larger building, we have the problem of extra seats. It’s that excess capacity that is costing us real money in the city, so this is a non-trivial issue.

The other issue to pay attention to when talking about school size is the difference in student needs. A teacher pointed out to me that some of our lower-enrolled schools are serving high populations of children with special needs, where you necessarily want a much lower student-to-teacher ratio.

That said, our K-5 schools do appear to be on the small side when compared to some of the highest performing school districts. For example – the Pittsburgh suburb of Upper St. Clair where I grew up and recently named the best school district in the state – has an average elementary school size of 491 students. Fox Chapel is 466. These numbers suggest that we should not fear slightly larger schools if – and this is the big if – if they come with the additional resources so that every building can have those full-time librarians, art and music programs, nurses, guidance counselors, and the rest. In a conversation with me, one district official called this the “Cadillac plan” and explained that we just can’t have all things in all schools when they are this size.

Just to finish looking at that data: our K-8 schools average just over 500 students, with a range from 251 at Pittsburgh Manchester to well over 700 at Pittsburgh Colfax. Our middle schools seem small compared to our suburban peers, averaging 357 students, whereas Upper St. Clair has two middle schools with an average student population of 658 and Fox Chapel has one large middle school with 1,019 students. And our 6-12 schools appear quite small in comparison, averaging just 688 students, when you consider these are both a middle school and high school combined.

Pittsburgh has four high schools remaining: Perry (951 students), Brashear (1,461 students), Carrick (830 students), and Allderdice (1,351 students). Again to put this in perspective, USC has 1,357 and Fox Chapel 1,432 students in their high schools. This is not to suggest that Pittsburgh should necessarily try to match these suburban peers which are quite wealthy and white and different in many other ways. But just seeing these numbers has helped me feel better about the thought of somewhat larger schools. Again, if the resources are there to support the full, rich curricula we want in each building.

Ah, but there’s the rub. Evidence from school closures in six urban districts – including Pittsburgh – over the past decade reveals that “the average annual savings, at least in the short run, were well under $1 million per school.” School districts really only save money when they couple mass teacher layoffs with building closures. [PEW Charitable Trust, October 2011] And even then, districts have often been disappointed to get only pennies on the dollar for shuttered schools when they prove difficult to sell and are surprised by how much it costs to maintain mothballed buildings. [Post-Gazette, 4-15-13]

The limited “savings” from school closure have not been enough to plug the overall budget hole, let alone increase resources to remaining buildings. After each of the last four “right sizing” plans, Pittsburgh did not see dramatic improvements to the remaining schools. Just the opposite: in the past few years we’ve seen crippling cuts to everything from tutoring programs to the arts. Yet we’re still spending over $20,000 per student. In other words, we’ve been through four rounds of school closure and are paying Cadillac prices without ever getting that Cadillac plan for our kids. So while I am not afraid of larger schools per se, I worry that additional school closures in the city will just yield more of the same.

What do you think about school size in Pittsburgh?

3 thoughts on “School Size

  1. During the closing of Schenley and the move toward “specialty” stand-alone schools, such as Sci-Tech and Obama, parents repeatedly made a related argument.

    Many classes, services, and other opportunities for enrichment were lost as schools became smaller. Home ec and shop classes disappeared in the moves. Middle schools that had previously supported multiple musical groups, several sports each season, and many clubs or activities no longer had enough students or teachers to keep the range of options open. Having those kinds of choices is a plus for students in this age range — it connects them to the school, to students in other grades, and to the teachers that coach and supervise clubs. Those are often the relationships that keep kids in school or keep them working in the classroom so that they can attend the “extra.”

    Having smaller high schools (and again, I agree, we’re not arguing for huge schools!) multiplied this effect, as course offerings dropped dramatically — fewer choices, because class sizes would be too small. Sports drop out, elective choices become smaller, vocational choices, well…that’s another option that has been quietly strangled during the Broad/Gates era.

    The previous model, having multiple programs offered through a comprehensive high school, offered far more choice and opportunity for students. Fortunately, we at least escaped the multiple schools with separate administrators in one school building fiascoes of other cities.

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