American high school enrollments in 2012 ranged from several hundred to more than 3,000 students. High schools need student enrollments large enough to pay the costs of operations and offer enough staff to teach a variety of courses, but extremely large schools also have distinct disadvantages for the students, staff and the community compared with schools hosting small populations.
Many large schools operate in older buildings and facilities designed for smaller classes and activities. The physical size of the campus rooms limit combining classes for guest lectures or large discussion groups. Smaller schools have the option of scheduling the guest speaker in a school auditorium, while larger schools have teachers competing for these spaces. Large schools sometimes schedule graduation ceremonies at different times or at various locations to accommodate large student populations. This means some students miss their friends attending the other scheduled ceremonies.
Some large high schools take into consideration the larger population and hire additional staff to keep the student to staff ratio low, but the opportunities involved in extracurricular activities aren't always equal at larger schools even with more teaching staff. Schools with large student populations still have only one class president, a single student council and one football team quarterback. Larger schools have more competition for these coveted positions due to the number of students on campus. Some secondary students find the lack of honored activities a distinct disadvantage when applying for college admission.
Supervisors and department chairs at smaller high schools have an opportunity to visit numerous classes during the semester to track the quality of instruction. Smaller schools allow several visits during the year, while supervisors at larger school may have time to observe only once. Department chairs and principals in charge of curriculum have less time to help new teachers and veteran instructors teaching a course for the first time in larger high schools. Studies reviewed by the National Education Association in 2005 claim students at larger schools sometimes have less visibility to staff, making it more difficult for teachers and administrators to meet individual student needs.
Sociologists Elizabeth Vaquera and Grace Kao note friends are the key to high school students' social world. The reduced time available with friends during the regular school day means fewer opportunities for close relationships. Large high schools present logistical problems moving from one class to another in the required passing period. Students must move quickly on large campuses and this means little time to socialize. Most large secondary campuses also schedule different break and lunch periods, so students may miss lunches with friends who have different eating schedules. Large campuses have numerous class offerings, reducing the chances of sharing classes with friends.
Scheduling impacts student learning and some large-school scheduling forces students to change important health habits. High schools with multiple nutrition breaks and lunch periods require some students to eat outside regular times, some eating lunch as early as 9:30 in the morning. Many teens snack to replace regular meals due to the irregular dining times and this discourages development of healthy lifetime eating habits. Class offerings at some large high schools also require students to start class at or before 7 am to accommodate the larger student enrollment. This means early bedtime for students or less sleep during the week. The National Sleep Foundation notes most teens need at least 9 hours of nightly sleep to function well in school. Some students with early classes may also skip breakfast to arrive at school on time.
- National Education Association: Research Talking Points on Small Schools
- Florida Department of Education Information and Accountability Services: Enrollment Size of Florida's Public Schools
- NASP Resources: Social Skills -- Promoting Positive Behavior, Academic Success, and School Safety
- Journal of Child Nutrition and Management: How Long Does It Take Students to Eat Lunch? A Summary of Three Studies
- National 4-H Council and the University of Arizona: Peer Relationships and Friendship
- National Institute of Health: Do You Like Me As Much As I Like You? Friendship Reciprocity and Its Effects on School Outcomes Among Adolescents
- National Center for Education Statistics: Overview of Public Elementary and Secondary Schools and Districts
- Huffington Post: Florida Schools Early Lunch -- Why Students Are Having Their Midday Meal at 9:30 A.M.
- University of Michigan Health System: Feeding Your Child and Teen
- National Sleep Foundation: Teens and Sleep
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