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Orange Alert! Large High Schools Don't Train Our Kids to be Good Citizens

August 15, 2003

I recently attended a small political candidates' forum at the local cable access studio in a nearby town. The candidates were given presentation and Q&A time before the cameras. One topic that came up in the Q&A part with the candidates for mayor in a nearby town brought a response from the incumbent mayor that got me to thinking about how we train our children for life as adult citizens.

The topic was the large debt load the town's current administration had incurred in an effort to create a "build it and they will come" infrastructure (schools, roads, recreation, sewer lines, water lines, etc.). A large part of that debt was for the town's school district. A question from the audience was about the amount of funding the town's schools were receiving. (This town has one of three school districts in the county; there is another city school district and then a county district for the unincorporated areas.)

The mayor responded to the high level of school funding question by stating that until the two town and one county school systems got together and consolidated their operations, all three would unfortunately be spending more than they would have to under a consolidated system. I have heard this concern expressed before from some Tennessee state legislators: Why in a state with 99 counties are there over 135 school districts?

After the mayor made his comment, I saw many in the small audience shake their heads in approval. I wondered if I was the only one that saw school consolidation as a disastrous idea; but for more than the obvious conservative suspicion of big government (and let's be truthful, public schools are really government schools).

I remember hearing at a meeting several years a discussion about a study that was done on a large school district in a Midwest state that had closed its many small high schools and built one large high school as a way to reap economies of scale. (See my www.rightturns.com articles of June 15, July 1 and July 15 in the site's archives for why larger government agencies never realize economies of scale.) A sociologist studied the differences between the adult lives of the boys and girls who had gone to the small high schools with those who had gone to the large high school. What he found would have discouraged our Founding Fathers.

The adult lives of the children (many had spread out across the country) who went through the small high schools were loaded with community participation: many ran for local offices where they lived, participated in Boy/Girl Scout troops, were church members and sat on church committees, formed neighborhood associations and helped run them; were Little League coaches; voted regularly; and were members of many informal groups also.

The adult lives of the children (many had also spread out across the country) who went through the large high school had much less community participation: fewer went to church, fewer belonged to any formal or informal local groups, fewer voted, and even their children were less likely to join groups.

The sociologist's conclusions on why this definitive difference existed were deceptively simple. (Keep one key fact in mind: the group of smaller high schools produced about the same number of graduates as the one large high school.)

Every year the smaller high schools produced many class presidents and school council members, many captains and members of sports teams, many presidents and members of math, Latin, etc. clubs, i.e., many students that developed skills in how to belong to and lead a group. In fact, his research uncovered comments from the adults that it was difficult to avoid belonging to something while in high school. This participation pressure carried over into adulthood.

Graduates from the large high school usually commented on their lack of connection to those years. Fewer belonged to any club or participated in anything. Most left high school lacking the experience and skills of belonging to groups that accomplished things or having led such groups. The largeness of the school allowed most students to glide through without much participation or training on how to get things done. In adulthood, they continued to feel no need to participate.

Our country is great only to the extent that our local groups/institutions remain the source of our daily activities. It is not state legislators nor is it Washington that make our country work. It is you and I going about our days with the hope of improving our families and communities and working together with our neighbors to do so.

Large schools built to "save money" clearly do not create the citizens we need for our future.

Sam T. Harper graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University.  Following a tour in the US Navy and a stint as Operations Manager at Roadway Express, he earned his MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He was a contributor to “In Search of Excellence,” the best selling business book of all time.  Sam was also Manager, Economic Planning & Analysis at Sohio Petroleum, Partner and Chief Financial Officer at investment-banking firm Bridgemere Capital, and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco Bay Area-based think tank and international publishing firm that specializes in self-governing and entrepreneurial public policy.  Sam was a chairman of the San Francisco Republican party and the GOP co-host of California Political Review on KALW-FM in San Francisco.  Sam is currently the co-owner of the Tennessee based Institute for Local Effectiveness Training, LLC – a management consulting, training, and coaching firm.