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The best size for a school

April 07, 2005

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin this week told the state's School Building Authority that many people feel it is forcing school consolidation on counties that don't want it.

If there is any more contentious issue than the issue of closing small, local schools, we're not aware of it.

But the issue shouldn't be decided on gut feelings, but on solid research about the effect of the size of schools - and the long bus rides sometimes necessary to reach them - on student achievement.

The School Building Authority became less independent earlier this year when Manchin succeeded in getting his government reorganization bill passed.

While presiding at his first SBA meeting, Manchin endorsed having schools that are safe that can also develop "a learning environment."

Doing that doesn't always mean new schools are needed or that consolidation is required, he said. But, he said, sometimes consolidation is necessary.

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In areas that are losing population, it is difficult to argue against consolidation when new facilities can have things, such as fully equipped computer labs, that would be too expensive to replicate in every school.

But if a consolidated school is so large that students who aren't academic stars or disciplinary problems get lost, that's a problem.

How big is too big? In 1996, the University of Michigan released a study that 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 United States.

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.

Why isn't smaller always better? This particular study didn't address that, but we are sure there is research available that does. The governor should find those studies and push the SBA to make decisions based not on economics, but on what is best for West Virginia students.

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