Facility Planning: Does Size Matter?

Over the years, small elementary schools have been closed; junior and senior high schools have been merged into bigger schools; and small school districts have been consolidated into larger districts — driven by the belief that it costs more to operate, maintain and staff small schools. The number of public schools in the United States decreased 55 percent from 1940 to 2000 despite an increase of more than 20 million school-age children.

Many schools with budget problems are trying to save money by cutting administration, staff and programs, and some are increasing class sizes. Critical maintenance is deferred or ignored, creating unhealthy environments.

And yet, many educators, parents, foundations and researchers continue to make the case for small schools because students perform better. Some indicate that students learned the most in high schools of 600 to 900 students, while some recommend smaller enrollments. The “smaller is better” theme dominates school reform — not just creating smaller schools, but breaking up large schools into smaller learning areas.

Many small schools do exist. The U.S. Department of Education says that in 2000-01, 46.7 percent of all schools contained 300 to 749 students. Average enrollment in a high school was 752 students; middle school 612; and elementary school 441.

So many districts have to confront the question: two small high schools or one large school?

The area per student increases as the enrollment decreases. With two small schools, spaces such as administration areas, the media center, technology areas, the auditorium, food service, and athletic spaces need to be duplicated. This can increase the total building area by 16 to 40 percent:

A high school for:

  • 525 students required 273 square feet per student.

  • 900 students required 258 square feet per student.

  • 1,900 students required 180 square feet per student.

  • 3,200 students required 150 square feet per student.

A larger school requires additional teaching stations, but only minor space increases in support facilities.

Constructing two smaller schools requires duplicating costly site purchases and preparation. Construction cost effectiveness increased and cost per student decreased as the building enrollment increased.

Many variables exist when comparing schools: age, systems, operations, maintenance, use, and competence of personnel operating and maintaining systems.

Upgrading facilities for energy conservation, indoor air quality, disability access, health and safety is a necessity. The average district spends 7.7 percent of its budget for M&O services, and that's not adequate to maintain or replace an inefficient aging infrastructure.

Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].

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