The third (or fourth or fifth) highschool idea

In regards to a couple of recent “letters to the editor”:


Again, I will go back to a presentation by Lisa De La Rue who suggested that, after doing an extensive literature review, the optimal size for a school is 600-900 students. Currently, Unit 4 is planning for two 1700-hundred-student high schools. According to the FAQ, allegedly this is “what the community wants”. I personally disagree with this general statement, based on the way the original Dejong-Richter questions were asked, and the fact that even Dejong-Richter mentioned that a third high school is worth discussing. It was never discussed.


To this date, Unit 4 has had a narrow focus of looking for 1700-hundred-student high school on a plot of land whose size requirements seem to bounce around a lot, from 35 acres to 80 acres to 47 acres. I have not heard Unit 4 talk about possibly doing a third high school altogether. And for that matter, what about 4 or 5 total high schools? You think I am crazy – the administrative and logistical overhead for that many high schools would make them cost inefficient. A very interesting thought, considering that the primary purpose of a public school system is to teach kids, not cut corners. If the focus is truly to make kids successful at life, we should be asking how does that best happen. And yes, I realize that there are many different theories, opinions and passionate arguments about how best to “do” education. Most likely, there is no one single answer, no silver bullet – our society, our technology and our understanding of the universe around us continues to change every second. Our approach to education and pedagogy must be equally agile. But since it has not been, we are stuck where we are today, arguing and complaining about where to put a so-called “21st century” high school.


Here are some quick thoughts on the “more than 2 high schools” scenario:

  • More flexible and dexterous in the long-run; a building can house a set number of students, but can be re-purposed as either a high school or a middle school or even a PreK building in the future.
  • Most immediately address physical space needs at the lowest cost – you don’t need to spend mega millions on brand new facilities that house a large population of students.
  • Infinitely more options open up where you can put that smaller building. Judah site? Bradley and Neil? Bristol Park? West of I-57? North of I-74? South of Windsor Road?
  • Yes, under the current model there would be more administrative staff. But do we really need all those positions at smaller schools? I question why we have so much overhead – is it purely because of all these myriad unfunded mandates from lawyers, the Koch brothers, DC and Redmond?


Lest we forget, this whole dilemma is much more than just a high school. This effects how we plan for the future, how we “do” education, and what we prioritize as a community.



14 Responses to “The third (or fourth or fifth) highschool idea”

  1. pattsi Says:

    You have for some time argued for small high school configurations. Having read the paper included in this posting, there appears to be a macro variable–that is how to create a supportive school learning environment. None of the research is definitive, but does point to transitions are an inhibitor. This potentially could lead to more conversations about K-8 configurations. Next might be how to build the best of all possible worlds of school/staff team trust and then collaboration. A third has to do with how to create school help students develop independence, which might translate in one aspect how can walkable schools be planned and placed within a community. There are certainly variable mentioned in the paper that point to a correlation that smaller works better, but not “nailed” as of yet. And there is no analysis as to cost benefit including all externalities for any of the present or future configurations.

  2. charlesdschultz Says:

    I agree. Given the right environment, I am confident that a school of 1700 students (or even 10,000 students) could be wildly successful. To me, it is not the size or even the location that is most important. However in our day and age, those are the most flexible parameters.

    For those that follow Todd Lash and Minsoo Park on twitter, they have some very interesting threads going about the recycled idea of doing education differently. Lots of exciting things to pick from but here is a chart that I wish reflected the current delivery of education a little more closely:

  3. pattsi Says:

    A bit of description background about the two mentioned individuals would put the matrix chart into perspective. Absolutely nothing gained by looking at 140 character tweets. 🙂 Context helps.

  4. pattsi Says:

    This helps, thanks.

  5. kshannon617 Says:

    I am very interested in the idea of having 3 high schools. I went to a high school with around 2,000 people, and I think it’s easy for kids to get lost in schools that big. Champaign currently has 3 middle schools, and at those schools, it seems like teachers and staff are much more likely to know almost all the kids, and they are more likely to notice if those kids are having problems.

    I was talking to a local high school teacher about this, and he told me he wished we just had one school, because there’s so much more potential for extra-curricular activities. I can see that this would be a big downside to three smaller schools, but I think you can make up for it by having different choices at different schools, and more mobility between schools (either magnet schools or lots of free after-school transportation from one school to another.)

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      kshannon, there are a metric ton of pros and cons. I don’t even know how to weight them all. The way I see it, we have a ton of variables we can tweak in order to help students succeed, but first we need to know and understand the student. System-wide variables may allow us to observe a “Pareto effect” whereby we can address 80% of the population, but we still have another 20% that cannot be addressed by such a large scope.

      So I guess the question becomes, what size (and how many) schools best fit the needs of 80% of the students? We can only ask that if we are also willing to ask what needs to be done for the other 20%. Personally, I am hugely in favor of the ACTIONS initiative and the Novak Academy – if we can do those successfully, I would be all in favor of a single large high school, given that we have smaller, targetted, focused locations sprinkled elsewhere.

      But those are big “IFs”. And as Pattsi points out, there are many other variables like sustainability, and socio-emotional-physical health of being able to walk/bike.

  6. Karen Says:

    Unless Common Core is done away with, any control you think you can have over education from here on out is illusory. I only hope that enough other states repeal it (as IL would be tough to do, even though the issues transcend political ideologies), so the thing is no longer a cash cow. Then it’s game over for Common Core. There is such an irony with this whole siting/building/configuration issue, as if Common Core is the curric, it will pretty much be the same thing in every building. None of that other stuff is really going to matter.

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      Karen, I have to respectfully disagree, at least on a small scale. Kenwood is now officially a Computer Science/Computational Thinking Magnet school, but the big news is more that folks like Todd Lash and Minsoo Park are working with folks like Jessica Pitcher to make real curriculum changes. It’s almost subversive. 🙂

      As to having the same stuff at every building, the boon and the bane of our schools is that this is not necessarily true. As you well know, CC is but a framework – how the framework is implemented varies from school to school. Well, it did. Now that we are buying materials from Pearson, things will meet more conformity, but I still give credit to Principals and teachers for being creative in specific cases. From what I have learned, the more creative a teacher can be, the more successful that teacher usually is.

  7. charlesdschultz Says:

    One of the reasons I got involved in eToys and am excited about Kenwood is because they are re-inventing education. And I really like it. The most empowering thing is that change can be made, even if subtly. 🙂

  8. kshannon617 Says:

    I was just reading an article about how difficult it is to re-invent education, specifically math education. It has some interesting stuff about Common Core in there too:

  9. charlesdschultz Says:

    I asked Stephanie Stuart about the fact that Dejong-Richter acknowledged community support for 3 high schools in the form of “Two comprehensive + one magnet” schools. She responded by reminding me of the specific question from where that came:

    There are approximately 3,000 high school students in the Champaign Unit 4 School District. If you were to start your school district from scratch, how would you best divide high school students?

    (Please select only one.)
    24 (17.3%) 1 Traditional, Comprehensive High School (1 at 3,000 students)
    35 (25.2%) 2 Traditional, Comprehensive High Schools (2 at 1,500 students)
    12 (8.6%) 3 Traditional, Comprehensive High Schools (3 at 1,000 students)
    14 (10.1%) 1 Traditional, Comprehensive High School (1 at 2,600 students) AND 1 Magnet / Thematic
    High School (1 at 400 students)
    37 (26.6%) 2 Traditional, Comprehensive High Schools (2 at 1,300 students) AND 1 Magnet / Thematic
    High School (1 at 400 students)
    17 (12.2%) Other

    Going strictly from this, I have not heard talk of the 1 magnet/Thematic High School that won the most votes. Also, I noted to Stephanie that this question was for 3000 students, but yet we are planning for 3700 3400 students.

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      I was wrong – we are planning for 3400 hundred students, not 3700. Thanks to Stephanie for correcting me.

  10. What are public schools supposed to do? | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] am not shy about my own preference, but the point I want to make with this post is that I believe the board as a whole needs to focus […]

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