Big is not always bad. How a 4,100-student high school changed a culture and minds about large schools

Successful mega schools are defying the mantra that smaller is always better in education.

Successful mega schools are defying the mantra that smaller is always better in education.

In the last few weeks, I have watched three new documentaries on education that suggest small, intimate settings are more effective in reaching children and raising achievement.

My own view of school size was altered a few years back when I spent a day at Dacula Middle School, then one of the largest in the state. (The opening of a new school the following year decreased the school size.) I was impressed with the school, which did not feel anonymous or chaotic. I expected Grand Central Station at rush hour. Instead, the school was inviting and efficient, and students seemed at ease with the size.

The school functioned well and the classes I saw were engaging, all of which reflects credit on the principal and staff. (I will stand by my observation that Alvin Wilbanks is a great judge of leadership, and has put some very fine people in charge of Gwinnett schools.)

Another one of the schools that shatters the myth that big equals bad is in Brockton, Mass. Take a gander at this excerpt from a  New York Times profile of Brockton High, which has 4,100 students:

A decade ago, Brockton High School was a case study in failure. Teachers and administrators often voiced the unofficial school motto in hallway chitchat: students have a right to fail if they want. And many of them did — only a quarter of the students passed statewide exams. One in three dropped out.

Then Susan Szachowicz and a handful of fellow teachers decided to take action. They persuaded administrators to let them organize a schoolwide campaign that involved reading and writing lessons into every class in all subjects, including gym.

Their efforts paid off quickly. In 2001 testing, more students passed the state tests after failing the year before than at any other school in Massachusetts. The gains continued. This year and last, Brockton outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools. And its turnaround is getting new attention in a report,How High Schools Become Exemplary, published last month by Ronald F. Ferguson, an economist at Harvard who researches the minority achievement gap.

What makes Brockton High’s story surprising is that, with 4,100 students, it is an exception to what has become received wisdom in many educational circles — that small is almost always better.

That is why the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the last decade breaking down big schools into small academies (it has since switched strategies, focusing more on instruction).

The small-is-better orthodoxy remains powerful. A new movie, “Waiting for Superman,” for example, portrays five charter schools in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere — most with only a few hundred students — as the way forward for American schooling.

Brockton, by contrast, is the largest public school in Massachusetts, and one of the largest in the nation.

At education conferences, Dr. Szachowicz — who became Brockton’s principal in 2004 — still gets approached by small-school advocates who tell her they are skeptical that a 4,100-student school could offer a decent education.

“I tell them we’re a big school that works,“ said Dr. Szachowicz, whose booming voice makes her seem taller than 5-foot-6 as she walks the hallways, greeting students, walkie-talkie in hand.

She and other teachers took action in part because academic catastrophe seemed to be looming, Dr. Szachowicz and several of her colleagues said in interviews here. Massachusetts had instituted a new high school exit exam in 1993, and passing it would be required to graduate a decade later. Unless the school’s culture improved, some 750 seniors would be denied a diploma each year, starting in 2003.

Dr. Szachowicz and Paul Laurino, then the head of the English department — he has since retired — began meeting on Saturdays with any colleagues they could pull together to brainstorm strategies for improving the school.

Shame was an early motivator, especially after the release of the 1999 test scores.

“They were horrible,” Dr. Szachowicz recalled. She painted them in bold letters on poster paper in the group’s Saturday meeting room.

“Is this the best we can be?” she wrote underneath.

The group eventually became known as the school restructuring committee, and the administration did not stand in the way. The principal “just let it happen,” the Harvard report says.

The committee’s first big step was to go back to basics, and deem that reading, writing, speaking and reasoning were the most important skills to teach. They set out to recruit every educator in the building — not just English, but math, science, even guidance counselors — to teach those skills to students.

19 comments Add your comment


September 29th, 2010
6:41 am

I would say the size of the school is less of an issue than the size of the classrooms once the students are in their seats ready for instruction. If I’m standing there with 40 in front of me, it’s going to be a lot harder to address the needs of my class than if I’m there with 25-30. Actually, I’ve gotten lucky this year, between my three classes I have a total of 69 students this year, my largest being 28.

Clayco Parent

September 29th, 2010
7:31 am

I say “whatever works!” A positive, cohesive and bonded group of individuals (teachers, paras, admin, et al) makes the difference between a top performing school and one that struggles, in my opinion. Being here in Clayco, we’ve seen up close and personal how disjointed, fussy and uncooperative educators can ruin the environment of learning. Whether it be a school of 500 or one of 4,100, it’s the team of people behind the school that matters most.

To all the embittered educators out there, I BEG you to step out of the box and be open to new ideas. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to be angry and resentful for in education right now, but PLEASE quarantine that part of it away while you’re in the building.

Last year, my child was in a special ed self contained classroom, and the tension and overall resentment (for any and everything) was palpable. No one worked together, and one person in particular refused to participate in any of the classroom events (Holiday presentation for example) which was just plain SAD. Whining and complaining to anyone who will listen from parents, to cafeteria staff, janitorial staff and bus drivers/monitors was the norm, and the principal seemed to be in La La Land avoiding the whole situation. Basic people skills, good manners and an openness to try something new would have made a HUGE difference in that classroom. Sadly the “ME” generation has infiltrated the ranks!

So there is a perfect example of how even a low teacher/student ratio can seriously backfire. It’s all about the people, people! All you fussy and irritable folks out there (and come on, you KNOW who you are!) Take your happy pill everyday and stop back stabbing each other! Pretty please.


September 29th, 2010
7:46 am

As long as we are focused on superficial features of schools – school sizes, daily schedule, annual calendar, etc. – we will not make any dent in the real problems schools are facing. What matters is what happens in classrooms.

Ed Johnson

September 29th, 2010
8:06 am

“Unless the school’s culture improved…. The [teachers] eventually became known as the school restructuring committee, and the administration did not stand in the way. The principal ‘just let it happen,’ the Harvard report says.”

Imagine that. School leadership allowing teachers the freedom to learn, to innovate, and to improve the system’s culture. So, what has school size to do with this kind of learning and leadership?

dear teachers

September 29th, 2010
8:07 am

This Brockton example screams: BE A LEADER IN YOUR SCHOOL!

Great leaders create change for the better one way or the other. They listen, compromise, struggle, sweat, cry, scream, whisper, and inspire.

They work the hours needed to get the job done. They put aside petty egos and make the sacrifices for their students. They find creative ways to work within the rules, the regulations, and the red tape. They inspire parents to complete the job at home as well.

The Brockton HS success stems from teaching students how to communicate. Every hour, every day, every activity. And isn’t that 90% of the problem?


September 29th, 2010
8:50 am

Belief in myths is apparently very hard to break even when presented with evidence of their falsehood repeatedly. But we’ve really got to get beyond the myths of believing that smaller schools and smaller class sizes are material factors in a successful school. Everything points to the fact that they make little to no effect no middle school and beyond. As many have repeatedly pointed out – larger schools actually have several benefits that smaller schools cannot take advantage of since they don’t have enough ‘niche’ students to justify more specialized classes / clubs / activities / sports / etc.

Just an observer

September 29th, 2010
9:05 am

If we are blaming all the failures of schools on teachers, then why give the success to “parents, students, and administrators?” If school failure rests on the shoulders of teachers alone, then you must say the success is theirs alone as well.


September 29th, 2010
9:17 am

We like to use a broad brush when addressing education and make the solutions simplistic. I suspect that in successful large schools, you will find a variety of classes that are filled with 35+ students and smaller classes. Also, many large schools will break into smaller learning communities that work like a school within a school.

My take on the article above is that the success of the school began when teachers banded together to come up with their own solutions. They took ownership of the problem and worked together to solve the problem. It also appears they had the support of the school leadership to implement the changes. I also noted that while they were able to increase their passing rate in one year, the overall improvement was slow, steady, and consistent.

Eddie Longs Cadillac

September 29th, 2010
9:20 am

Big school little school. Who cares as long as I keep my Caddy.


September 29th, 2010
9:28 am

@Maureen – skirting entirely the questions about ‘learning styles’; What do you think about The Khan Academy story that was in Forbes? I haven’t seen you talk about that much.

Georgia also offers an entire virtual classroom school that is online.
I think the virtual classroom idea offers some real promise if people are willing to experiment. This allows self-paced learning so kids can progress at their own pace. Kids that need more interaction can get it while kids that need less interaction can continue on to the next subject after showing mastery of the current one. Instead of a teacher teaching 30 kids at a time they could teach 100 kids at a time since their workload is reduced to assisting them with individual problems while the software or videotaped teacher does the repetitive work of lessons and walking through examples. That would free up teachers to work with students that pretty much absolutely need 1-on-1 interaction like special education. Is this pie-in-the-sky or is this something that could be done right now?

Big for a reason

September 29th, 2010
9:29 am

Most of these big schools are a result of parents breaking the rules to wrongfully get their kids into better academic situations. I wish the two major districts of Cobb and Gwinnett would address that, they say they are but they are NOT!

V for Vendetta

September 29th, 2010
10:17 am

Listen, this isn’t that impressive. Some people took initiative and were allowed the freedom to do so. They got good results. Is anyone surprised?

If I were allowed to restructure ANY failing school in the state as I saw fit, there would be a DRAMATIC increase in test scores and graduation rates. Of course, there would also be a dramatic culling of the student population.

School size and class size DO NOT matter. What matters are expectations and how well we are allowed to adhere to them. Students pick up very quickly on empty promises and threats.


September 29th, 2010
10:17 am

Maureen, you’re trying to draw the focus away from the real problem with our schools. These are the exceptions rather than the rule……you can always find these if you look hard enough. The APS situation is not gonna go away, no matter how much you want it to. The situation there is not going away until 1) all the top dogs are gone and, 2) the parents of the students attending APS are held accountable, i. e., it’s never gonna happen. This system needs to be split up between the schools in the south part of the city (the SAPS) and the north side of the city (the NAPS). The way it is now, the whole system is being hurt because of the schools in the south and it’s ruining the whole city.


September 29th, 2010
11:48 am

I wonder what other changes have happened in that time, either by demographics, or opening another school where the “problems” are sent, or a change in the cut scores for the tests; did they add a special interest magnet component or rezone? You cannot always think that the situation is exactly the same for today’s students at that school as it was 10 years ago.

So after asking, good for them. In general, the vast preponderance of nationally gathered data indicate that, for at-risk students, larger is vastly worse. Are there exceptions? Yes. But that is what they are.

David Sims

September 29th, 2010
4:07 pm

Brockton High School has a “4 out of 10″ rating from That rating, which is a poor one, is based on students’ test scores. Brockton’s students are 54% black, 29% White, 12% Hispanic, and 3% Asian. Sixty-seven percent of the student are eligible for the free-lunch program.

It’s tax-based funding is $13615 per pupil, of which 60% goes into instruction, 17% goes into student and staff support, 8% into administration, and 15% into other stuff.

By comparison, Atlanta Public Schools are funded at $13150 per pupil, of which 56% goes into instruction, 14% goes into student and staff support, 16% goes to Beverly Hall and the Overpaid Principals, and 14% into other stuff.

The test used in Massachusetts high schools to evaluate proficiency is the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). The following table shows the percent of students at or above proficient in the 10th grade during the 2008-9 school year.

English Language Arts.
All Students, 78%
Female, 81%
Male, 75%
Asian, 88%
White, 86%
Hispanic, 75%
Black, 73%

All Students, 60%
Female, 62%
Male, 59%
Asian, 100%
White, 73%
Hispanic, 51%
Black, 53%

I’m surprised at the poor showing of this school’s whites in Math. They usually don’t trail the Asians by that much. Here’s the MCAS-STE extention test results.

All Students, 48%
Female, 44%
Male, 50%
Asian, n/a
White, 63%
Hispanic, 34%
Black, 42%

All Students, 75%
Female, 74%
Male, 74%
Asian, n/a
White, 74%
Hispanic, 100%
Black, 61%

I’m surprised again. I wouldn’t expect the Hispanics in any school to get rated at 100% proficient in any science, as they apparently do in chemistry. The percentage given for biology (34%) is about what I would anticipate, or perhaps a bit more. Something’s screwy about these results, but I don’t know what it is.

Maureen, this might be a peaceful and orderly school, but tests show that it isn’t an effective school. And the orderliness and peacefulness you saw might not be as typical the writer thought. Perhaps the school was prepped for the writer’s visit? Maybe the writer had a bias, or a conflict of interest?

David Sims

September 29th, 2010
5:02 pm

@James, who wrote: “Belief in myths is apparently very hard to break even when presented with evidence of their falsehood repeatedly.” YOU ARE RIGHT! Yes, you are. I know this from long experience. It’s true!


September 29th, 2010
7:59 pm

Good leaders can make just about anything work.

But large schools who have a few bad teachers or administrators do not typically have safety nets in place to catch the kids who are falling through the cracks. Just ask any one of the 4100 students who found out their last semester they didn’t have enough credits or the wrong classes to graduate, or the bright but quiet student who is not even known by name by the college counselor. Or the average student who is not disruptive and is passing the state tests but getting C’s in class.


September 29th, 2010
9:33 pm

One mega school success story in a well-funded district does not a trend make. It’s an exception and an exception existing in the very best of circumstances.

pink lady

September 29th, 2010
10:16 pm

@David Sims: You will be even more suprised when you realize that the “well selected blacks” are doing better than you think they are. And the biggest suprise of all, the hispanics are actually chasing the “American Dream”. I hope they all become citizens and turn your dream into a nightmare. Beunos Noches!!!!