University study shows bigger isn't always better

May 06, 2004

How big should a school be?

That was one of the questions asked this week by task force members looking at the space needs of the Chambersburg, Pa., Area School District. We believe experts have already done a study that answers that question.

The task force met Tuesday to hear architect Paul Taylor discuss a number of possible configurations for elementary, middle and high schools.

The high school proposals drew the most comment, since Taylor said the district has the option of building one super-sized high school or two separate schools.


Susan Berrier, a member of the Parent Advisory Council, told the group that the parents she's spoken to are uneasy about the possibility of their child attending a school with 2,800 students.

And well they should be.

Why? Because a University of Michigan study released in 1996 concluded that the ideal size for a high school is between 600 and 900 students.

This was no small-sample look at school performance, but a nine-year study that tracked student progress on standard achievement tests at 800 schools across the U.S.

Students in schools with between 600 and 900 students showed the greatest progress in reading and math, no matter what their family's income was. In schools with a student body smaller or larger than the ideal, scores declined, with minority and low-income students experiencing the worst declines.

The research didn't reach any conclusion as to why smaller isn't always better, but our guess is that at a smaller school, a student experiencing problems would stand out more than he or she would at a larger school. At an age when students are painfully self-conscious, there may be some comfort (and some academic benefits) to being able to blend into the crowd.

But for some reason, when a school's student population tops 900, the disadvantages begin to outweigh the benefits. Therefore, it seems clear to us that although a 2,800-student high school may be a construction option, it shouldn't be an educational one.

Yogi Bear, Good Samaritan

Last weekend, nearly 600 educators from across the State of Maryland enjoyed a three-day stay at Washington County's Yogi Bear Jellystone Resort - for free.

Ron and Vicki Vitkun, the campground's owners, decided that because of the hard work that teachers do, they deserved something nice in return.

The free stay was the suggestion of Cheryl Smith, the facility's general manager and a former teacher in Boonsboro schools.

Ron Vitkun said Smith approached the owners with the idea in October, when the campground was planning its activities for the year.

The Vitkuns agreed and put the invitation in their brochure and on their Web site. There were only two conditions:

Reservations would be on a first-come, first-served basis and teachers had to fax in some kind of identification that confirmed that they were indeed educators.

Word of mouth spread the news and the campground was filled, with 80 percent of those attending saying that they'd never been there previously.

Then the campground's employees pitched in. Without telling the Vitkuns, they went to stationery and discount stores and bought school supplies, so that each camper not only got a "welcome bag," but also had some supplies to take back to the classroom.

Vitkun said the event went so well that they plan to repeat it every year, even those he estimated that if all those campers had been paying customers, he would made an extra $11,000.

The Vitkuns still have to decide which group will get free accommodations next year. It will be some group that serves the public, but whether it's police, firefighters, hospital workers or some other group hasn't been decided yet.

For his generous gesture, the Vitkuns deserve the community's thanks, not only for honoring teachers, but for showing off this county at their expense.

For those who don't remember, Ron Vitkun is chairman of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau. His strong leadership helped the group successfully navigate the recent problems that ensued when it was discovered the CVB director had fed his gambling addiction with agency funds.

Thanks again, Ron.

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