Big School or Small School


By Gabrielle.

A couple weeks ago we discussed the advantages and disadvantages of having your kids focus on one particular activity and getting really good at it, versus more casually trying a lot of different activities. Related to that discussion, I’ve been thinking about small schools versus big schools and the opportunities they offer.

It’s actually been an ongoing topic of conversation at our house for ages, but especially since Memorial Day, when we got together with our dear friends, Becky and Rob Lattin (parents of 7 great kids).

We know the Lattins from Colorado. While they lived there, their teens went to Arapahoe High School, which is quite big — approximately 2200 students. But about a year ago, they moved to a tiny town in Idaho called Weiser. It’s the town Becky grew up in, and now her kids attend the same high school she did.

The two high schools — Arapahoe High and Weiser High — are very different, and we were discussing what that meant for her kids, and what she remembered from her own experiences as a teen. I’m going to talk about both high schools, but I want to note that it’s all secondhand, because I’ve never had personal experience with either school. These notes and thoughts are just what I remember from my conversations with Becky, and if you know the schools, and I’m getting some details wrong, then I apologize in advance. : )

Arapahoe High School is an excellent school with high achieving students and a modern, up-to-date facility. The school has a ton of resources (including its own pool) so they can offer every team sport under the sun, a slew of AP classes, an excellent theater department, and lots of performing arts opportunities. But it’s also very competitive. For example, our nephews went to the same school and I remember being shocked to hear that they hadn’t made the school soccer team. They’re natural athletes, they’ve played on soccer teams since they were teeny tiny, and they practice hard. They’re really good soccer players–like maybe intramural champions at BYU? But apparently not good enough to make the team at Arapahoe. It’s that competitive.

Weiser is much smaller with not quite 500 students. People don’t necessarily choose to go to Weiser, it’s simply the default because it’s the only high school in town. Certainly, Weiser doesn’t have the same resources or campus as Arapahoe, but happily they do offer a wide range of sports and other extra-curricular activities. Though instead of competitive tryouts, at Weiser, to join any team or group or club, you pretty much just show up. Never played tennis before? No worries. You’re still on the team!

Becky mentioned that when she was a Weiser student, she participated in a ton of school activities and felt like she got the chance to excel at all of them — she was captain of the cheer squad, a school leader and an excellent student. She said high school gave her a lot of confidence. When she got to college (she went to BYU, a big campus with 30,000 students), she said she came in with the same confidence, but learned that maybe her Weiser experiences in excellence were relative.

She and a friend decided to go to the BYU cheerleading tryouts and when they got there, Becky was a bit wide-eyed and shocked. The tryouts were incredibly competitive, and many of the women trying out were super serious athletes with professional-level gymnastics skills. Becky’s experience on the Weiser cheer team had been a little different. A little more small town. And she could see that she wasn’t at all prepared to compete at the level needed to make the BYU team.

On the other hand, she was struck as she watched her own teenagers adapt to high school life at Weiser. She encouraged them to try out for lots of teams and groups, but based on their experiences at Arapahoe, they hesitated, feeling they weren’t good enough or competitive enough to even try out. Eventually, they learned that they could try pretty much anything they wanted at Weiser, but it took awhile to open up their confidence.

Watching and living all of this has left Becky wondering. Was it an advantage for her to attend a small school and feel like the queen of the town? Even though she found out later that being “the best” means different things in different places? Or was it a bigger advantage for her kids to attend a world-class school like Arapahoe, where there were tons of resources and the programs were excellent? Sure, maybe they didn’t make the football team, but the clubs they did participate in (like cross-country) were high quality and the kids had access to amazing coaching, and excellent performance at Arapahoe was probably a more objective gauge of excellence.

That wondering got us talking about Malcolm Gladwell’s book, David & Goliath, which has a section comparing being the big fish at a small school and being a small fish at a big school. The example I remember most is about kids that make it into Harvard for undergrad but that find themselves at the bottom of their class rankings once they get there. These are some of the brightest kids in the country, but they end of feeling like losers being they’re not the top student. If they had chosen a smaller school or a less-competitive university, they would likely still be at the top of the class and continue with the confidence they learned in high school. (Have you read the book? I enjoyed it.)

Our conversations got me curious. I know for most of us, we’re not making a choice between a big, highly-rated school, and a tiny small-town school, but if we did get to choose, what would you prefer? What would you have preferred for yourself as a teen? And what would you prefer for your own kids? Also, can any of you relate to these different high school experiences? Do you have other thoughts to add to the discussion?


Photo: FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images | USC cheerleader Betty Brown in a stars and stripes outfit, Los Angeles, circa 1945. Via NYMag.

47 thoughts on “Big School or Small School”

  1. Maybe it isn’t considered polite to mention this, but as someone local to Arapahoe High School, I can’t help my first thought being the fact that they’ve had a school shooting there – hard to leave that out of the equation as a parent of a child who’s likely going to have to attend high school around here. Perhaps it’s anecdotal, but it seem to me that it’s no accident these things have mainly happened in giant schools in sprawling suburban areas with little sense of community (like Arapahoe or Columbine), where students are more likely to feel disconnected and isolated, rather than in smaller schools in small towns.

    1. The data do not support shootings occurring more often in larger cities/schools. I understand the fear of course, but it is likely just anecdotal (like you said). I feel a great sense of community with a small subset of people in my large, sprawling suburban area. I think you just have to find your tribe! I grew up in a smaller town and was not comfortable there. I loved going away to a big ten school and then living in Chicago. To each their own – very interesting discussion either way!

      1. Maybe, but I’ve lived in both small cities and big ones before, and I have never been anywhere where teens and preteens seemed as solitary and isolated as here in the suburbs of Denver. I was previously used to seeing kids roam around in groups – often rowdy and perhaps even annoying to the neighbors or local business owners, but still, it seems healthy and natural that kids should hang out with friends and be young together.

        Here, though, I generally only see kids walking to or from school alone, with headphones on, and yeah, I can’t help wondering whether that isolation isn’t connected to the high incidence of mass shootings in this part of Colorado.

  2. I love this topic! I attended a high school that was considered good for the medium-sized city where I grew up. The school didn’t have a ton of resources, but they did have competitive sports teams and occasionally sent students to Ivy League schools. I was an excellent student, but I remember that I was rejected by my top college choice because I hadn’t taken more AP courses. My school didn’t offer AP English, which I really would have liked.

    When I arrived at college (the University of Illinois), I was blown away at some of the choices other students had had in high school. They had taken a poetry class or a Shakespeare class in high school, versus the plain old honors English class I had taken. I was intimidated, but I realized pretty quickly that I had the study skills to keep up with those students even if I didn’t have the sophisticated background. One of my high school classmates was later named a Rhodes Scholar, which further affirmed my belief that kids don’t need a fancy school to succeed.

    I’m hoping to find a middle ground for my kids. I want them to feel that they have had good opportunities, but I don’t want them to feel the intense pressure of a very top school.

  3. Great post :) I’m looking forward to reading the comments on this subject. My kids will likely go to a large, wealthy public school because we live in the district. We are considering going the homeschool or private route but my oldest is only 4 right now so we have a couple of years to figure it out.

  4. Weighing in as a Colorado mom who has the luxury of choice within our medium-sized community, my answer is a decisive “it depends.” Our oldest daughter went to a large (2000 students) high school with many, many opportunities for interests, sports, and AP classes. Our son and younger daughter attend an expeditionary learning K-12 school with about 150 high school students, no sports, and no AP classes. The large high school has spectacular teachers who are able to specialize quite a bit. The small school has equally great teachers who bring tremendous breadth in their teaching and knowledge. All 3 kids are introverts to varying degrees, and the smaller school has been easier to navigate in that respect. I worry that the lack of advanced classes may limit the smaller school kids but the district pays for community college classes for kids who have reached the limits of what an individual school offers, and with a large public research university 1/2 mile from the small school, there are a wealth of opportunities. I don’t worry too much about the size of pond or number of fish. I’ve made it my policy to recognize effort and authentic accomplishment and treat awards and achievements with casual “nice job” reactions. Thank you for the thought provoking post!

  5. I myself went to a very small high school (overseas DoDDS) with 55 in my graduating class. I REALLY enjoyed it. I was able to be the yearbook editor jr & sr year. I made varsity volleyball by my jr year and I definitely was not that good. I knew everyone and was able to flourish socially and academically. I highly doubt it would have been the same in a massive school. My husband and I are trying to decide where to move based on school districts which will impact my daughter before she goes to kindergarten. The area we’re looking at is either a. awful rated schools K-12, b. lottery system good charter schools with your best chance albeit small by entering at K, or c. $$ private schools. It’s a tough choice! Or we can move elsewhere and commute?

    1. I would highly recommend looking more closely at the awful rated schools. I have found that the ratings don’t always give an accurate picture of whether the school is actually “awful” or not- in fact, I’ve been to some “awful” rated schools (2,3) and they’re actually really, really good schools. They often just battle fewer financial resources and the students often come from difficult backgrounds. In other words, they are simply dealing with a lot more, but they can still be full of great students, teachers, and administrators.

        1. Be skeptical about test scores, too. They usually reflect demographics, NOT teaching quality. (Overall scores will be lower if there is a high percentage of English Language Learners or kids growing up in poverty… but English-speaking kids with college-educated parents may be thriving at the same school…)

  6. I myself went to a really small school, maybe 500 students compiled of the three small towns in the area. The Same situation of everyone making the team if they showed up. We didn’t win a lot of games, but that’s not really the point. Having a smaller school meant that the facilities weren’t that great and we had to raise the money ourselves if we wanted/needed new uniforms. I didn’t even know my school had a girls soccer team until one of my friends joined the team our sophomore year. Small schools are nice that you can get to know everyone, and everyone gets a chance to be part of a team. But, the funds for having a great team aren’t always there. We also had no AP classes, and only one foreign language to “choose”( It was required to graduate)
    My husband went to a really big high school, I think his graduating class had more students than my entire high school. His school had AP classes, and multiple foreign languages to choose to learn.
    The city we live in now is mostly larger schools, and it honestly makes me nervous for our little boy who will be starting kindergarten soon. He has some development problems (mostly just speech delay) and I worry about him getting lost in a big school, getting bullied and all that. But I also think that at a smaller school, they wouldn’t have the funds, or the teachers to help him the best they could. So I am honestly torn, I think small schools are, or seem, safer. At the same time, bigger schools seem to have better opportunities to get a better education.

  7. I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately too. I think it totally depends on the kid and their personalities/interests. My two girls are currently in a very small private grade school. The only extracurriculars that it offers are sports and band. Period. My eldest is not especially interested in athletics. She plays soccer not because she really likes it, but mostly because if she doesn’t play, they don’t have enough girls for a team for her grade. All the kids are perfectly friendly towards her, but she doesn’t really have any super close friends at school. She doesn’t have opportunities to bond with her classmates over shared activities. We’re starting to look at high schools for next year and she’s really leaning toward the large public high school because she’s excited about participating on the newspaper or in the theater club or chess club or foreign language club or creative writing club or … the list goes on and on. She feels that finding people who share her interests will be easier when she has a larger pool of people to start with.

    On the other hand, my youngest has really thrived at the small school. She’s naturally really shy so a large school would have been overwhelming for her. With a small school, she very quickly met all of the students and families and quickly became comfortable with the entire community. She loves sports but isn’t necessarily the best athlete; the “everyone welcome” approach to the teams at school has been perfect for her. We still have a few years before high school for her. I don’t know that both of our kids will end up at the same school. We’ll just have to figure out what seems right when the time comes.

    1. Your daughter’s thoughts mirror what I remember as a kid and teen. I grew up in a small German town and attended the local high school (1000 students). I didn’t really feel like I belonged there with my mindset and interests, had a small group of friends and didn’t participate in many school activities although I reached excellent marks. This changed when I visited New Zealand for a few months, went to a big (girls only) school, met lots of people on my wave length and just realized that there are indeed more “kids like me” out there. It was grand. Funny enough, I went to a big city to study, but chose a small university – turned out to be the perfect mix. My kids (now 5 snd 1) attend a tiny, tiny daycare facility (28 kids) but enjoy everything our city has to offer – next year, the older one is off to school, a whole new journey ahead!

  8. This is a really interesting topic. In our community schools are very competitive, especially where sports are concerned. If your parents don’t have the forethought and resources to put kids into “club” sports programs early – chances are you’ll never make a high school team here. I don’t care for this model as it takes away the opportunity for kids to explore options and the learning experience of trying, learning, excelling and possibly failing all somewhat tied to your effort.

    Academically we have seen a huge growth in charter schools that offer specialized education paths and methodologies and the achievements coming out of some of these schools is quite stellar but again that creates more demand than supply and another form of competition.

  9. Really nice topic! And I think as parents, we should try to figure what is best for our kids according to their personalities, without making projections of our own experience or what we personally thin dreamed for our “ideal” kid. Easier to be said than done. I exchanged my kids schools after I realized I was making them chase my dream and not theirs… Being in a high quality sports team or cheerleader group is important for whom? For the parents or the kids? Being in excellence math programs is linked to the child’s interest or our insecurities for their future? Putting them in a small school to lessen their stress and then they are stressed that they won’t have the level to compete afterwards… Tough calls… but the thing is we can re-access and change if we see our children are not thriving, nor as happy as we thought they would be…
    But I read something really nice in comparative studies in Education. The Danish students are never very well classified in all the international exams… They are not bad, but they do not excel. But once they get to College and professional education, they become extremely good in almost all they do. Why is that? It’s because until the end of high school, their deepest concern is on creating good, compassionate, thoughtful citizens. Their idea is that the kids will have the rest of their lives to learn and excel in the areas they are interested in, but the ethical foundation, sense of community, sense of harmony with foreigners/immigrants, the art of thinking critically, auto evaluation is something that should be developed in the younger years… and then they become the foundation to become good students and professionals in whatever they put their own mind to…
    This really made me put things on perspective too…

  10. I grew up in a small rural town and attended school with most of the same kids from kindergarten through 12th grade. My graduating class had just over 80 kids. Though I didn’t necessarily love it at the time, I now realize how lucky I was to have that experience. I was able to try and participate in lots of different sports and activities. I I left home to attend college confident that I had the ability to succeed at a wide variety of things. Though I did come to see that the “best” in my small town didn’t equal the “best” from other places when it came to sports, etc. It didn’t dampen my confidence to give it a shot. My kids are growing up in the suburban bay area and will attend a high school with 2000+ kids. The school has the “best” in terms of programs and sports teams but the reality is with so many kids, my children won’t have the opportunity to participate in many of those activities. They most likely won’t make the basketball team or be chosen for speech and debate. And at this age, I’d like them to have as many enriching experiences through school that they can. Due to this, my husband and I have discussed moving to places that may not have the “best” but give everyone the opportunity.

  11. I tend to think that my kids will do fine wherever and it really makes the most sense to focus on what works for the family as a whole. I’m perfectly happy with our setup which is a large school that’s not particularly well ranked and fairly diverse. There’s competition due to the size but parents looking for something elite will likely go elsewhere.

    I went two elite high schools and often felt the pressure was too much so I’m perfectly fine with good enough for my kids.

  12. I attended small schools in a small town (HS graduating class of 60!) and I loved it. I graduated top of my class and was in everything: cheerleading, band, chorus, theatre, newspaper, dance team. I ended up going to BYU and had the same experience your friend did in terms of being shocked at how GOOD my peers were (and how average I was :)), but I was able to find clubs and extracurriculars that I loved even if I wasn’t always (ever ha) the star. My family lives in Phoenix and the huge schools here really scare me– I’d love to move back and for my kids to attend the same schools I did! I know my younger brother didn’t have a great HS experience though and probably would have loved being in a bigger school, so I guess it just depends on your kid.

  13. Love this topic! Personally I went to a HS very similar to the one you describe in CO, but in SoCal. Huge, over 3000, my graduating class was over 900 students. I loved it, had a great time, was on drill team and cheer. Academically it was very hard too and I fell into the more average ranking academically. I remember discussing with the school college advisor when I was very disappointed I didn’t get into a UC school. She told me if I had been at a different school I’d have been an A student but here I was more of a B, and it kinda hurt my chances for UC. So I ended up at a Ca State Univ, and found college tone much easier for me academically than HS was!! As a result I graduated college more at the top of my class, Cume Laude, and I learned the whole small fish big pond philosophy pretty quickly. In the end life turned out fine and I loved both experiences but I still to this day wish I had gotten into a UC straight from HS. Just a little story on how it played out for me.

  14. Interesting topic! My boys went to a small private school K-8 (class size under 20). Then to a large urban high school (2000) with lots of opportunities and diversity. They both matriculated to a small (2000) private liberal arts college far from home where the average class size was 12. It was another great eye-opening experience for them. I’ll never forget the welcome speech we parents heard on Day One of drop-off…”all of the freshmen here were in the top 10% of their class in HS…in 9 months 90% of them won’t be…deal with it.” It was great for us to see our sons flourish despite not remaining in the top 10%. They took advantage of many wonderful opportunities the college provided and met kids from all over the country.

  15. I went to a small, Catholic high school-and I have to say I really hated it. Part of the issue was that I was coming in from public school. Most of the kids had been at parochial schools before and had been with the same people since kindergarten. For them, it seemed really nice and cozy. For me-I felt like they were in cliques. There were so few “groups” that who was “popular” and who was not, seemed very apparent. My oldest just graduated from a large high school-and I have another starting his sophomore year there-and I think the pluses outweigh any negatives. There are so many kids-there are all types of people, with all kinds of interests and abilities. There are many more activities to participate in. And maybe because my oldest did Speech & Debate, and was an excellent student, and my son is in band, I felt like they had teachers who were looking out for them. They don’t seem to get lost in the shuffle which I assume could happen if your child is at a big school and not particularly connected.

    1. Oh-and coming from a big high school, I wasn’t worried about my daughter being at a big college. I knew she could handle it.

  16. Ooooh! I’m loving all the comments so far… it’s such a great topic! And one my husband and I were very thoughtful about as we enrolled our own children in high school. We moved from rural Utah to rural Idaho the summer before our oldest daughter entered 9th grade. We’d been homeschooling our children in Utah because of the poor schools where we lived, but we needed to put them back into public school because I had 6 children ages 14 to 1, and that last year of homeschool had been super difficult with two babies, who were now 1 and 2-½.

    We actually live in a county here in Idaho that has three! separate school districts and high schools — 1 large one (1600+ kids in the HS covering several small towns), and 2 smaller ones (with 100-200 in each HS covering a single small town). Where we live is on the edge of both the larger school district and one of the smaller districts, so we were allowed to choose which we wanted to send our children to. After researching both districts and schools, we went with the larger one because bullying was more prevalent at the small school, and because there were more AP/ college opportunities at the larger one. As the years have passed, 2 of our kids have graduated from this high school, and while it hasn’t been perfect, I’d say that it has been fabulous for our family. I now have a junior and freshman at the high school, and the opportunities have only grown. This year my junior is being able to take multiple classes that cover the HS requirements, but also are offered for college credit through various colleges here in Idaho. By end of the school year, she will have completed 18 credits of college, and she’s looking at another 18 for next year. For my daughter who thrives on challenging classes, this is perfect for her. My freshman isn’t quite like his sister, and I doubt he’ll take the same route as she does, but I’m very pleased with the way the school helps struggling students as well as their advanced ones.

    As for sports, our school has a good mix of super competitive sports (football, soccer, volleyball, basketball, baseball and softball) and “join a team” sports (swim, cross country, track and tennis). A large portion of the student body is involved in sports and I think it’s a great opportunity for the kids to try new things.

    This district also turned out to be a perfect fit for our elementary students, because our 3rd and 1st grader are enrolled in a Mandarin Chinese immersion program that is top notch! We’ve had the opportunity to be part of the program since its inception 4 years ago, and I can’t say enough good about it. This district is very forward thinking despite serving relatively small communities — of the 5 elementary schools in the district, 3 of them now offer immersion programs. Our school is the only Mandarin one, but the other 2 are Spanish immersion schools, and it’s a fantastic fit for our rural agrarian population that has many native spanish speaking families.

    On a slightly different topic, I had an amazing experience this summer with my college freshman that I can’t get out of my head. She’s at Utah State, and their freshman orientation required them to read a book written by one of the professors there, titled “Becoming a Learner”. The book’s premise is that college’s true purpose isn’t so that you can ‘get a job’, but so you can ‘become a learner’ and then with the skills of a learner, become incredible in any field you desire. This book so completely resonated with me, partly because that’s how we homeschooled our children so many years ago. My high school junior and freshman are reading it now, hopefully so that this new perspective is something they embrace and utilize during high school. I am convinced that the population at large needs to think as learners, rather than just being satisfied with the cram/ regurgitate/ get a grade that seems to permeate educational experiences these days. Anyway… off my soapbox, and off to read Gladwell’s book — thanks so much for the recommendation — and for this thought-provoking thread!

    1. I’m an former Aggie! I hope your daughter enjoys USU! Cache Valley will always have a special place in my heart! :)

  17. As a suburban Denver mom, I have to say that I’m seeing a social breakdown at many of the big “good” schools here. Classes are so large that students can easily be grouped by ability level–but once they are, it’s really hard for a student who is a later-bloomer, say, to break out of the academic track he’s on, but it’s even harder to break out of the social stigma of being “not a smart kid” or “not a jock” or “the theater kid.” My son, a competitive tennis player, was interested in auditioning for a play, but he wouldn’t do it because he felt like it would be too far outside what people expected him to do. “I don’t want to hear all that crap from the other kids,” he told me.

    My husband and I both went to small-to-midsize high schools, where there weren’t enough students to segregate too deeply by ability or interest. In fact, my husband got recruited to be in a play in high school because the drama teacher (his neighbor) needed more boys to produce the show! He ended up loving it and minoring in theater in college (which helps him now, as he’s a corporate trainer for a Fortune 500 company). We were both very prepared for college–especially because we hadn’t labeled ourselves as athletes or geniuses or musical prodigies, so we had the personal freedom to explore. (And we’re both graduates of highly competitive colleges, so it’s not that we didn’t aim for competitive, rigorous campuses.)

  18. Thank you for this post! I went to a fairly large high school, as did my husband, but now we are raising our family in a small town with a small high school (probably less than 500 students!). I’ve been concerned that my kids won’t have the same opportunities my husband and I did, but you’ve given me a different perspective. So thank you!!

  19. I think part of the equation is the personality of the student. My quiet son would have been eaten alive at the larger (2k plus) high school. Although they had excellent and varied courses, it was also competitive for everything. My son opted for a smaller 500-ish school and, although still quiet, managed to get involved in the drama productions and student retreats..something he would not have been able to do in the larger school.

  20. I went to a small school and felt that I was woefully unprepared for math, science, and French at two different colleges, although I “excelled” at my high school. I remember my frustration, disappointment, and a sense of betrayal. I think it really depends on the quality of the school, not whether it is large or small.

    1. Great point! I also was very unprepared for college. My HS offered no AP classes and I struggled to keep up with my classmates at my big ten school. I ended up taking summer classes just to get the basics of chemistry and math before taking the courses again at my college. There is no one size fits all for sure!

  21. Oh, wow, this topic is so relevant–and one I think about a lot. I went to a big high school–much like Arapahoe–with over 2000 students. Now my husband and I and our four kids live in a town with fewer people total than were in my graduating class of 700-ish.

    My daughter and oldest son attend a JH/HS with roughly 120 students, and their experience is along the lines of what you’re describing for the small school, but on an even smaller scale. :) They LOVE it, and the faculty is wonderful, but my daughter, who’s now a sophomore, gets a little envious when she talks to her cousins and hears about all the options they have in their bigger schools (Debate! Art History! Psychology! French! Philosophy! European History! Anatomy! Not to mention all the AP options.) We’ve decided to look into some online options for her to supplement the courses she’s taking at her school, and her principal is all for it. He’s also been really good at looking into dual enrollment options for students who need more of a challenge.

    In terms of the small school being a disadvantage when my kids go to college, it’s definitely a possibility, and one I worry about sometimes. However, all I know is that my kids are way more confident than I was in junior high and high school. And maybe that self-assurance will help them get through some of the challenges they’ll face due to growing up in a small town. I guess only time will tell!

    Such a great post! I look forward to reading all the comments.

    1. I went to a really small high school (graduated in 2012 with 80 classmates), and just graduated from a small college (1200 students). Other classmates and friends went to bigger colleges. Some of them did struggle a bit with their classes (particularly the one who did competitive sports in college as well as a highly intense field of study, though she still ended up graduating with a GPA above 3.6), but even though they struggled, they’re all doing really well now! And I know that the friend I mentioned is really happy for the other things she learned in high school that she wouldn’t have had the opportunity for at a bigger school (drama club, sports teams, etc.).

  22. My daughter is in kindergarten and there are SIX people in her kindergarten class. It’s a very, very small school in Wyoming, and I’m grateful it exists for her and this rather unique experience.

    But later grades, particularly high school, I want her to be at a bigger school with more opportunities.

    I went to a medium/large high school and I took six AP classes in high school and graduated with a lot of college credit. I love the opportunities a larger school offered–lots of extracurricular and good academics. I was very prepared for college, got a scholarship, and then graduated college with honors.

    My husband went to a small school and frankly, his teachers were not very good. He was labeled as not very smart and even encouraged at some point not to go to college. But he went to a state college, did well, and then to a university. He got progressively smarter with better educational opportunities and he’s now finishing a graduate degree. But his small school experience was not very helpful, and mostly led to a lot of labels and some bullying. (And his parents actually sacrificed to live in a small town, thinking it would be better for their kids.)

    I think you want a middle ground–not too big, not too small. Something that is the best of both worlds.

  23. Love this post and discussion. My kids are at a large economically and ethnically diverse public high school (2000+ students). But they are in a small program within that school, so 2-3 classes a day are spent with the same group of students and with teachers they’ll have again throughout their high school years.

    It’s a good balance of being able to be close to a group of peers and teachers but not being completely separate from the rest of the school. Plus, the school can support lots of teams and clubs. Some sports (soccer and baseball, really) are very competitive, but others welcome anyone who shows up. The whole concept of having a choice when it comes to schools (which really means having parents who can make that choice and are able to arrange transportation for their children) is a “problem” we’re lucky to have, I know.

  24. I grew up in a small, rural town. There was only one option, which was the small public school that graduates (I’m a fairly recent graduate) about 60-80 students a year. The entire high school is fewer than 300 students. For me, it was perfect! I really excelled in school and was able to be involved with so many different things- I could play 3 seasons of sports (and I wasn’t particularly good at soccer, but learned so much from playing on the team), be in band AND orchestra, be involved with leadership opportunities (class officer, etc.), be in newspaper club, etc. Perhaps there weren’t as many options, but I had more opportunities to participate in the options we did have. We didn’t have AP courses, but we did have a few college-credit courses with a local state college, which actually transferred over better than AP credits. I went to a small (1200) university. Although small, it was a very good university, and I excelled there as well. Because I had the ability to choose different things in high school, I was more willing to try new things (and potentially fail) when I was in high school. Despite not taking a single art class in high school (they offered them, I was just “too busy” with other classes), I ended up with a degree in art in university. I think that one thing no one else has really mentioned so far that is HUGE when it comes to smaller schools is the ability to form really strong connections with teachers. I had a couple of teachers that I was very close to, and I don’t know what I would have done without them during some of the hardest years of my life (I was also battling depression throughout high school). I also made close friendships that I don’t think would have happened at a bigger school.

    As a side note, I visited a very large (I think they graduate around 700 a year) high school as part of my education courses during college. Even as a visitor and adult, I was so overwhelmed just entering the building. It was HUGE! Although I probably would’ve been okay in a big school if I had been in it all along, I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it would have been for me to switch between my little school to a school like the one I visited.

  25. When my family moved a few years ago we DID have to decide what to do – Columbus, Ohio has it all – urban/rural/large/small, etc.
    We ultimately chose suburban large- we wanted our children to be able to try to all – Show Choir? Yes! Athletics??? Yes! Art Club?? Yes!! I went to a high school where there was a place for everyone and we thought that was ultimately where we wanted our children to grow.

  26. We live in a big city school district with school “choice” so my two elementary kids are in different schools. One school is tiny – less than 150 kids – and one is really big – more than 700. At the tiny school, every teacher knows my child and he knows every kid, and it’s wonderful for him because he’s really shy. At the big school, they have a really active parent council and every imaginable after school activity. On balance I honestly prefer the tiny school, but maybe that’s because I’m an introvert myself and find the big school totally overwhelming!

  27. This is a great topic! Right now my oldest is 6 and she attends a private Montessori, with 12 kids in the room, ranging 6-11. The smallness is wonderful for her in so many ways. She can totally be herself and study what interests her, at the pace that works for her. But the social aspect is a major challenge. When one friendship is on the outs, there are very few other options. And there aren’t enough kids for different groups to naturally form. We constantly go back and forth about the pros and cons of the school she attends vs a large, but well-rated public school.

  28. My children attend a small private school while my husband is the principal of a large urban public school. The contrast between the two is so interesting. Academically, my kids have 12-15 students in their classes while the my husbands school has upwards of 40 per class. Football games are crazy at my husbands school with loads of students, middle school students, parents… think Friday Night Lights while my children’s schools football games are more of a family affair not so crowded and overwhelming. The arts at my husbands school is fantastic. We attend several concerts, plays and performances at the large high school with an amazing Performing Arts Center on campus. While the private school is very limited with their arts. My children are thriving in the setting they are in now but truly believe they would do well in either situation. Fortunately, my children are able to experience both school settings.

  29. Academic opportunities aside, I think the social experience is different too. To illustrate: I went to a small school, both for primary (up to age 11) (16 in my class) and secondary (high school) (around 60 in the year group). I have really fond memories of both and felt really close to my classmates at the time, but now that I’m in my forties I’m not in touch with any of them. This is possibly because I’ve moved out of the area, but I think more likely because we only really had the school in common. Conversely I went to university in a big city, felt really homesick and way out of my depth socially in the beginning, but subsequently made friends with some amazing people who I still cherish today.
    My kids go to a large primary school now, simply because it was the nearest school to us. They have 90 kids in each year group divided into three classes. The school has a policy of mixing up the classes each year, so by the time they finish year 6 (11 years old) they will know all 90 kids. My youngest is pretty introvert and struggles a bit socially, but already he has found some soul mates within the year group. I’m not sure he would have settled so well in a small school as he would have had less opportunity to find other kids who see the world the way he does. He will go on to the local high school which is also big, again primarily because it’s the closest to our home. Although I worry about his ability to thrive in such a big secondary school I am confident that the size of the peer group will mean that he is more likely to meet likeminded friends there too. How we interact with other people and form friends in our early years can set the tone for our interactions with people for the rest of our lives, so I think if there’s a choice to be made (and I totally understand that sometimes there isn’t a choice) it’s important to find a school with the right ‘fit’ and feel for your child’s personality.

  30. I find this fascinating. Both my husband and I are teachers (he’s math and and I’m theater), so topics about education are always being discussed at our house. I posed this one to time and we both agreed that there can be pros and cons to both, as already discussed. But the truly important underlying question is, “What is the purpose of a high school education?” Is the purpose the help students hone and perfect skills (both academic and extracurricular)? If so, than a large, competitive school is a good fit. Or is the goal to give students the opportunity to try a lot of things? Then the smaller school is a better choice. We both agree that students should be given the chance to try a lot of things. The pressure to perform at some of the levels required by ferociously competitive schools can be too much for many students. So few of them will go one to make their life’s work out of an extracurricular activity that it seems to a shame to prevent others from exposure to something new simply in the pursuit of titles and awards.

  31. I feel grateful that I attended F High School where I was one of the top students because it wasn’t the school that attracted the highest performing students in the city. At that school I felt smart and to had a high GPA rank compared to my peers and I developed academic confidence. I know my high ranking helped me get a college scholarship. I could have gone to High School G with many AP programs and I surely would have done well and been surrounded by students more similar to me, but I think I would have felt more stress and been more average. When I got to college and there were 8 kids from High School G and no one else from F, I was proud to see that I was just as smart and prepared as everyone else. It was a good choice for me.

  32. I attended the only high school in my town so … There were probably about 200 people in my class. There were lots of options for sports and extracurriculars, and I was involved in a lot of non-athletic clubs. The academics were ok and I did well, but I ended up feeling under-prepared my freshman year at 10,000+ student private university (and ultimately graduated from a state university).

    My daughter (a sophomore) goes to our neighborhood MS/HS that has about 1,500 students in 7 grades (she’ll likely have between 150-200 kids in her graduating class). She’s involved in soccer and softball, but beyond athletics there aren’t just a ton of extracurricular activities. That’s the one thing I’d change about the school. There are a lot of AP courses and a dual-credit program with a local college so I think academically she can be reasonably well challenged. It’s not in the same league as the city’s specialized high schools, but it’s a solid neighborhood option.

    All in all it’s been a good experience for us, but I agree that school fit is dependent on each kid.

  33. I am from a small town in Idaho too! Shelley, ID…and our mascot is the Russet. (As in the spud.) I loved a lot about growing up where I did. People were very friendly. I knew all of my teachers well, and they knew all of their students. It was a good place to attend high school. However, I was always discouraged by the lack of Arts programs available. Most of the funding, attention, and prestige goes to athletics. Thankfully, there was a strong choir program, which I was a part of and loved, but no orchestra. (I’ve since learned that they now have an orchestra program! Hooray!) There was only one musical during my whole high school years, and the art room was teeny tiny. We always joked that when the football team ran out of room in their equipment closet and needed a new one, they made their old closet the art classroom. Ha. When I went to major in art in college, I went from being the best artist in my grade, to a kid who had never taken a single AP art course…and was very behind. But, I worked hard and made up the difference. :) It was a good place to grow up, with many good people, but I wish I and others could have had more opportunities in the Arts. Us non-athletes sometimes felt looked over or forgotten.

  34. i’m loving this discussion! my husband and i talk about this often even though we don’t even have kids yet!

    i grew up in a small town and therefore graduated from a small high school. my husband is from a suburb of minneapolis and attended the largest high school in the state alongside classmates who are now professional athletes.

    we now live in a town of 2500 people (yikes!) but have no intention of living here for 15+ years, so our future children will probably end up attending a suburban high school. i worry about them being little fish in a such a big pond if they end up at my husband’s alma mater. but i also can’t fathom them attending the small high school where we live right now. more than anything, i want them to have lots of life experiences and have good perspective on the world when they go to college. i was well-prepared academically for the small private college i attended, but socially…. wow. i thought i was a big deal because i had just traveled to europe on a school trip after graduation, but my roommate had lived in new zealand for a year! all of my classmates had far more interesting lives than mine, which is not necessarily a big deal, but i do feel like my small-town upbringing had left be a bit sheltered for life after high school. more than anything, i want my kids to go off to college having traveled, etc.

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