By Greg Toppo
Small secondary schools often do wonders for students' academics, but they may not help the emotional well-being of every student, new research suggests.
In a study appearing today in Sociology of Education , Texas State University professor Toni Terling Watt examined small and large schools to compare the number of students who report depression, attempt suicide or bring weapons to school.
She reports that, all else being equal, male students in small middle schools and high schools, both public and private, are almost four times as likely to attempt suicide than those at larger schools. They also have a higher incidence of depression.
Boys at private religious schools are nearly twice as likely as others to bring a gun to school or threaten to use it; girls at religious schools are three times as likely to do the same.
The study challenges widely accepted notions that small schools create safer, more nurturing environments for teenagers.
About 5 million students in the USA attend private schools in kindergarten through 12th grade; 47 million attend public schools. About 32% of public and 62% of private high school students attend schools with enrollments under 300.
For larger private, non-religious schools, the findings are generally positive. They have lower rates of suicide attempts and weapons use than comparably sized public schools, and similar depression rates.
The study adjusted to account for other possible contributing factors, such as previous suicide attempts, children who live in dangerous neighborhoods and parents' level of education.
Watt theorizes that small schools offer less diverse social groups. “So if you are different, you are all alone in that environment. You're kind of under a microscope.”
Big high schools may foster anonymity, she says, but they also offer a critical mass of students who can form like-minded groups — computer geeks find other geeks, skaters other skaters, and so on.
Watt says breaking large public high schools into “multiplex schools,” or schools within schools, may counter some of the drawbacks of big schools.
“ The students still have those opportunities to meet and socialize with that wider group of people," she says. "It might be the best of both worlds.”
Watt used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, a congressionally mandated survey of 13,000 students in grades 7 through 12 from 1994 through 1996.
Private-school advocates point out the limited nature of Watt's findings.
“ With 150 kids, I know all of them,” says Paul Stockhammer, headmaster of Atlanta's Brandon Hall School. “They can come see me, or for that matter, any other administrator or teacher, about anything.”
Myra McGovern of the National Association of Independent Schools, which represents 1,200 mostly small private schools, says many place as much importance on emotional development as on academics.
"“ There's not a best school for every kid,” she says. “There's a best school for an individual, but that might be the worst school for another individual.”