Streams

The Case for Large High Schools

Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - 03:52 PM

With upward of 60 more schools on the New York City Department of Education’s chopping block this spring, and with eighth-grade students about to learn their high school assignments, this is a good time to reflect on whether the school system has reached Alvin Toffler’s point of “overchoice.”

As he described it in his 1970 book "Future Shock," that is “the point at which the advantages of diversity and individualization are cancelled by the complexity of the buyer’s decision-making process.”

In its push to close comprehensive high schools in particular, and replace them with campuses of multiple, smaller, “themed” high schools, the Education Department is closing down the very “choice” that helps keep many students going to school through their teenage years: the option to pursue an array of courses and after-school activities in line with their interests and abilities. If some of those interests wane, then something of more interest might be right down the hall.

To see the enduring appeal of the comprehensive high school, look no further than Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s own alma mater, Francis Lewis High School in Queens. If every student belongs in some small, themed school, then what drives so many to show up at this beehive of “high-school-edness,” so full of students and activity that it runs on split shifts from dawn til dusk?

If Francis Lewis High School is bursting at the seams, it is at least partially because so many of its peers have been balkanized into boutique “campuses” of schools. It is also because it is a choice that students and their families clearly want, since many of the smaller schools go under-subscribed.

To use business terminology, as the Education Department often does, if “economies of scale” drove the formation of comprehensive high schools throughout the nation over 60 years ago in the first place, then “consumer demand” should surely allow them to remain a “school choice” for New York City students and their families.

On paper it might have seemed like a good idea to break up all of the large high schools into smaller units. This way, the reasoning went, students will have more personal contact with their teachers. Gang activity can be minimized. “School choice” for students and their families can be maximized.

However, many high school students and their families want not just the option to choose among schools, but among courses of study as well. That is what comprehensive high schools offer: not just size, but scope.

Look at how many options we offer among all these small, “themed” schools, the Education Department will counter. Yes, but.... They’re asking students to choose a course of study, even a career path, in the eighth grade!

At my older son’s college, with thousands of students, fully 50 percent of them change their majors. How can we expect eighth graders to know what sorts of jobs they will want to have five to 10 years ahead of time?

Meanwhile, what happens to students who wind up in a school whose theme holds no interest for them? In comprehensive high schools, a change in interests can be accommodated by a visit to the scheduling office. In the small schools, students are disallowed from jumping ship!

In other words, not only are there no alternative courses of study to pursue in these small schools, but students cannot even switch to a school that would interest them.

Even if a high school they want to change to has room for them? Not to worry. An administrator from one of these “campuses” assured me, “we’re starting to share resources across the schools,” meaning options that the individual schools don’t offer.

In other words, they are seeking economies of scale to address academic wants and needs of their students. This of course begs the question: then why break up all of the larger schools in the first place?

Why indeed? To those on the ground throughout this period of “creative destruction,” to use another popular business term, the practice prompts other questions.

To teachers, breaking up the large, comprehensive high schools is throwing many of the most experienced among them into the Absent Teacher Reserve, from which they now wander from school to school as needed. Members of the United Federation of Teachers see this as a means to an Education Department endgame of ending the union.

Meanwhile, what parents don’t want experienced teachers in their children’s classrooms? Advocates cite poor academic performance citywide for our still-unacceptable graduation rate and systemic needs for struggling readers, English language learners and other special-needs students at every grade level.

To parents, the very profusion of high school “choices” has actually narrowed curricular options for their children, eliminating classes from Advanced Placement courses, to art and music, to shop and other “voc-ed” classes.

For students, the proliferation of choices means that many of the schools they prefer are now too small -- or too over-crowded -- to take them.

So as the Education Department works down students’ lists of choices each year -- this year revealing the results on March 1 -- too many students end up in schools far down on their lists of 12 schools, and which don’t really interest them.

The teacher of one such school, now on the list of 33 that the Education Department wants to close and reopen with half their teachers replaced and a new name, told me that initially his school had students who had applied to it because they wanted to be there. Now, since all students have to apply to high school rather than walk a few blocks to a neighborhood school if they choose to, fully 50 percent of the students in his school don’t want to be there, he said.

Disinterested, disaffected students? No wonder the Education Department is already closing some of its own small schools.

These are just some of many concerns that by now call for a time-out, a moratorium on school closings until all affected parties -- administrators, teachers, parents and students -- can be a party to decisions for school placements and configurations.

“For there comes a time,” Toffler concludes in his chapter “The Origins of Overchoice” in "Future Shock," “when choice, rather than freeing the individual, becomes so complex, difficult and costly, that it turns into its opposite... when choice turns into overchoice and freedom into un-freedom.”

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