How Littleton leaves a parent wondering
By Jeff Flock
April 29, 1999
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
CHICAGO (CNN) -- I have a dilemma.
My older daughter is a very bright 13-year-old, and I want the best for her. She attends a small parochial school where everyone knows her name, where the school secretary bandages skinned knees and where the thoughtfulness of the teacher's comments on one of her papers last week made it seem like they came from a member of the family.
She loves it there and is doing great, even though there is only one sports team a semester, foreign languages aren't required and it seems they're always raising money to finance their tight school budget.
This week, I visited Glenbrook South High School. I found a caring staff and flourishing students there, too. But Glenbrook South also has 23 interscholastic sports teams and 60 clubs and activities. It offers 19 advanced-placement courses as well as Russian, Latin, French, German and Spanish. It boasts its own cable television channel and radio station, even its own underground newspaper.
"Because you have a large school, you have resources you don't have in a small school," explained Glenbrook South Principal Dave Smith, who oversees 2,320 students.
The problem is that I was visiting Glenbrook South because the suburban Chicago high school is about the same size and has about the same demographics as Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, site of America's latest and worst school shooting.
Some people think big schools like Glenbrook South, so-called "comprehensive schools," are the wrong idea.
"All too often students in our biggest high schools are just numbers. They get lost and fall through the cracks," said Michael Klonsky, who heads the Small Schools Project at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
He suggests high schools are growing in size at an almost alarming rate. It is not uncommon to find high schools larger than colleges. In New York City, John F. Kennedy High in the Bronx has some 3,900 students.
"We found a direct correlation between large school size and increases in violence, lower levels of achievement and increased use of drugs and alcohol," said Klonsky.
"But what about Glenbrook South?" I asked. "Nine in 10 of their students go to college, and U.S. News and World Report this year named it one of the 'Outstanding Schools in America.'"
"Schools begin to feel self-satisfied," said Klonsky, who pegs ideal high school size at about 600 to 700 students. "If their kids are graduating, going to college, they think everything is fine. But I think the events of the last week have shown us everything isn't fine."
Klonsky says his research shows that big, comprehensive schools can work well for bright students who are well-adjusted, make friends easily and come from families with some means.
But for most, he said, "We'll take a sense of family and community and safety over the 50 different English classes or a hundred after-school programs."
At Glenbrook South, they think the size that some find isolating is what creates so many more opportunities for students to get connected.
It seems to be working. I met Lauren, a Glenbrook senior with bright purple hair and a nose ring. She says when she came to the school, it seemed nobody liked her, and people thought she was weird. But she eventually found an alternative theater group at the school and found her niche.
"I've really developed from it and I've totally become more confident in everything I do because of it," she told me.
I talked to Jim Lacivita, who has been teaching at Glenbrook South for 34 years. Back in 1974, he started a peer counseling program at Glenbrook South. It's students counseling students.
"This was one of our attempts at giving a feeling of a smaller school," he said, "to give a sense of belonging as part of a group."
As my daughter, now in seventh grade, prepares to choose next year what will become her educational home for high school, she has two top choices.
One is the local, cash-strapped parochial school where most of her classmates will go. The other is a bigger, perhaps more impersonal high school that has the courses and programs that are sure to challenge her quick, young mind.
Of course, there's no guarantee that any school, big or small, is safe. As parents, we only want what's best for our children.
What makes it tough is when we don't know exactly what "best" is.
Big schools can mean isolation, opportunity - April 27, 1999
U.S. Department of Education
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