When is a High School Too Small?

Posted by Rick Pendergast in Blog Posts, Strategic Planning on

school lockersIn my work with high schools throughout the United States, I am sometimes asked about the minimum size for a high school.  I frequently hear that at least 400 students are necessary for a high school to be viable.  While that number, or any number, seems to be a simple way to assess a school’s viability, I believe it is actually too simplistic.

Determining high school viability is much more complicated than doing so for an elementary school.  The primary indicator of viability is financial:  Can the high school balance its budget without excessive dependence on external subsidies?

But beyond finances, one has to look at the quality of the education.  Can the school offer a variety of courses, from basic to honors level, to serve its students?  Are there enough students to provide a diversity of intellect in those classes?  Encountering the same students in every class limits a student’s access to different viewpoints.

Can the school provide opportunities outside of the formal classroom?  A small school need not offer every sport or activity that a large school does, but there must be a variety that allows it to be competitive and gives students the opportunity to develop social and leadership skills.

Some of the schools I have worked with in recent years have excellent programs, successful graduates and student enrollment below 400.

    • Gibault Catholic High School in Waterloo, Illinois, was recently featured in USA Today for one of its innovative programs, provided to its 240 students.
    • Notre Dame Academy in Los Angeles has a very successful program to assist girls who will be the first in their family to attend college.  Their total enrollment is 370.
    • St. Jean Baptiste High school in Manhattan, NY has 343 students and a long history of successful graduates in a very competitive environment.

While it is certainly easier to run a high school with 400 or more students, there are many other factors that must be considered when determining a school’s long-term sustainability.

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