November 19, 2003 1 min read

Small Schools

A study suggesting that small middle and high schools could be harmful to the emotional health of some students has some researchers scratching their heads.

That’s because the report, appearing last month in Sociology of Education, runs counter to the steady drumbeat of studies in recent years extolling the benefits of small schools.

On the contrary, researcher Toni Terling Watt found that male students in schools with 400 or fewer students are four times more likely to attempt suicide than are boys at larger schools. She also found a higher incidence of depression among the same group.

But Michelle M. Fine, a professor of social psychology and urban education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said those findings feel a little “chicken-and-egg” to her. That’s because most small schools, outside of New York City, Chicago, and a few other big cities, were created as alternative schools for students who are having trouble in regular schools.

Could it be, Ms. Fine said, that students in small schools are more likely to report problems because they’ve learned to trust adults more?

Ms. Watt, an associate professor of sociology at Texas State University in San Marcos, doesn’t think so. She said her study controlled for differences among students, including whether students had attempted suicide previously or had come from traditional, intact families or dangerous neighborhoods.

She based her findings on a nationally representative sample of 13,000 students known as the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Youth. The students were interviewed twice—one year apart—in the mid-1990s.

To Ms. Watt, students who dwell on the margins of their teenage social worlds may feel uncomfortable in small schools because they have fewer friendship choices and feel more pressure to conform. When enrollments swell to 1,000 students or more, it may be easier for “geeks” and “skaters” to find like-minded teenagers to befriend them.

She said her findings may also differ somewhat because most of the previous research on small schools focused on their academic benefits, rather than students’ emotional well being. “I’m just pointing out maybe we should take a look at why, for some youth, these schools aren’t ideal environments,” she added.

Debra Viadero