Does school size really matter?
You are 16-years-old. You’re ambling through your high school’s hallways and it seems crowded as everyone is rushing to the next class. You see familiar faces, some that aren’t so familiar and a few that are downright scary. Think you’re in a big high school? If you attend high school in this valley, you’re not.
Vail Mountain School in Vail graduated 12 seniors last spring. Vail Christian High School has about 90 students. Red Canyon High’s enrollment tops out at 70. And Battle Mountain and Eagle Valley High Schools, the biggest in the valley, have 688 and 615 students respectively.
Battle Mountain and Eagle Valley are considered “moderate-sized” schools – just barely though. “Moderate” is defined as a Colorado high school with 600 to 900 kids.
“Our elementary enrollments have slowed down, yet our high schools continue to increase in size with more students,” says Eagle County School District spokeswoman Pam Boyd.
Eagle Valley, Red Canyon and Battle Mountain are all part of the district.
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Voters in the valley have consistently voted in favor of building additional elementary and middle schools, apparently valuing the small-school atmosphere. And there had been community discussions about consolidating Battle Mountain and Eagle Valley into one school, but the overwhelming response has been to keep them separate.
“High schools are a very important part of the community’s fabric” says Boyd.
In recent years, research has suggested that small- and moderate-sized high schools create a more positive social and academic environment for students. Smaller schools typically offer more “personalized’ education where teachers connect and care about individual kids.
“Smaller schools have a much better climate,” says Eagle Valley’s assistant principal Jeff Lueders.
The school that Lueders recently came from – Clinton High School in Iowa – had 1,600 students. Lueders also said bigger schools have more gang-related and drug problems, but is that always the case? Administrators for Cherry Creek High School don’t think so. Cherry Creek is the biggest high school in the state with 3,500 students, but bucks the national trend by having some of the highest test scores and a excellent reputation – eighty percent of graduates enroll in programs of higher education.
“It’s not so much size as it is quality,” says Tustin Amole, of the Cherry Creek School District. “We are able to offer a greater variety in foreign languages and arts programs.”
Amole say in years past Cherry Creek has offered Chinese and Latin for students interested in studying those languages.
“We feel that those programs aren’t “extras’, but essential for a well-rounded education.” The high school also offers more in the way of advanced placement, or AP, courses.
Many teens who attend bigger high schools agree that size can be a boon. “We have a lot more people to interact with and more connections throughout the school,” says Matt Ritchie, a senior at Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument, near Colorado Springs.
Lewis-Palmer has 1,400 students in grades nine through 12. Senior Boyd Fritzsche adds, “We have more opportunities in different sports and clubs, plus more choices in academics.”
Another senior at Lewis-Palmer, Brandon Allison, says he likes the diversity at the school. “We are exposed to different types of people and cultures,” says Allison.
But Charly Hoehn, senior at Eagle Valley High, insists sometimes there is more diversity at smaller schools. “Many of the larger schools mirror their neighborhoods – suburbia,” she says. “Our school encompasses different towns and numerous neighborhoods.”
Forty percent of the students in the Eagle County School District are Hispanic.
All high school students say such connections make the difference. Lewis-Palmer junior Jessica Byrd says she feels very connected.
“We’ve got so many people to connect with and so many different clubs and activities to be involved in. There is better interaction because there is more opportunity for that,” says Byrd.
But Hoehn says you get a more personalized education at a smaller school, with teachers truly caring for the students.
“We know all of the teachers and students and it feels like a community,” Hoehn adds.
Students from both big and smaller schools tend to feel either connected or left out, suggesting that it may have nothing to do with the actual number of kids in a building, but that connectivity may be of the utmost importance.
Eagle County schools are striving to offer more classes that students are interested in, including some programs that were phased out because of a lack of participation.
Eighth-, ninth-, and 10th graders are currently being surveyed regarding course offerings for next fall.
Gary Rito, director of secondary education for the district, said colleges have announced that requirements will be changing drastically for in-coming students. Current sixth graders, therefore, will eventually enter college on a more difficult playing field, which means engaging students is more important than ever.
As the Eagle County School District is working at determining students’ interests and preferences, they are also concentrating on the more rigorous core classes. Rito says that the district is continuing to add advanced placement classes and career programs, while maintaining the small school setting.
“It used to be the three R’s,” he says. “That’s still there, but now add the three T’s, which are thinking, teams and technology.”