I’m writing to you with regard to the impending plans in the Fort Mill School District to add the capacity for 600 additional students to both Fort Mill High School and Nation Ford High School. These additions, as I understand it, will increase each of their potential student populations from approximately 1,800 to approximately 2,400 students.
I am concerned both about the message being sent by this action and the likely negative effects on the quality of education both in Fort Mill and across York County, as well as the related negative impacts on property values that I believe will subsequently result.
While I do not live in the Fort Mill School District, I am a concerned resident and taxpayer of York County and a concerned citizen as it relates to the quality of public education across the County. I believe the actions being planned will be detrimental to both the image of education facilities in York County and to the quality of education both in Fort Mill District 4, and overall in York County. The Fort Mill schools have justifiably attained a very good reputation over the years. This reputation reflects well not only on Fort Mill, but on all of York County. However, with a good reputation comes a certain level of responsibility for excellence and thoughtfulness, as others tend to follow and emulate what Fort Mill does. There are also potential impacts that extend well beyond the school district’s expense statement.
I would hope that, in keeping with the school district motto, “Children First” and in light of the well-documented and intuitively apparent relationship of school size to education quality, each School Board Member has spent significant time researching the effect of high school size on the student’s educational opportunities and performance. As they did that, they may have run across some or all of the following:
• The philosopher, John Ruskin, said words to the effect that “There is always someone who can do or make something a little worse and a little cheaper, and those who would buy or make decisions on price alone are this man’s lawful prey.”
• “National” Rankings of the best high schools in the country tend to show that, as a school’s size gets larger and larger, the school’s rankings get worse and worse, particularly as the size exceeds about 1,200 students.
• There have been literally dozens of studies done by well-recognized and highly credible institutions and organizations concerning the optimum size of high schools. They’ve been done by universities with outstanding credentials in education and independent research organizations with long-standing expertise in education such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and New York University’s Institute For Education and Social Policy.
While there are some differences in the conclusions of the studies, I believe you will find that the following are fairly consistent findings across the universe of studies:
• Smaller is better. Most studies support the idea that the ideal size of a four-year high school is between 600 and 1,200 students.
• Social development tends to be significantly reduced as school size increases. In larger schools, teachers don’t personally relate to their students nearly as much as in smaller schools. The individual educational regimens tend to be departmentalized and teachers tend not to communicate with each other about students or to know much about individual students.
• Smaller schools generally have an equivalent or lower total cost per graduate as compared to large schools. The studies indicate that larger schools will often have a somewhat lower annual cost per student.
I realize that the country is at an indeterminate point in an economic downturn. Where we are depends on who you talk to. Many “knowledgeable insiders,” however, would say that long-term decisions made based exclusively or in great part on the current economic situation are likely to be looked back on with regret. This is particularly true when the decisions have a longevity of 15 to 30 or more years. Once you have two high schools in the community each with the capacity for 2,400 students, you have probably forever established 2,400 as the “ideal” size. How do you build a third high school with 600 to 1,200 student capacity in the face of two others at 2,400? You probably don’t, so you increase the cost of the third high school by 35 percent in order to save a little in the short term, and do permanent damage to the quality of education and to the important role of the high school in the community in the process.
Don Long is a resident of Lake Wylie