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The Importance of Choice (why a new charter school means less choice)

November 29, 2009

It may not seem logical – a new school means less choice – until the logic of critical mass is presented.  Dublin’s neighboring school districts know this – the average size of high schools in the San Ramon Unified and Pleasanton Unified school districts is more than 2,000 students per high school (Dublin High has less than 1,500 students).  A critical mass of students enables a school to offer more choice – more advanced classes – more performing arts options – more athletic teams – more extracurricular clubs.  Choice for students is important when competing for the best colleges across the country – academic excellence is a baseline but not enough – acceptance into college requires academic and non-academic achievement.

Some examples of critical mass – the Dublin High Drama Club ( recently presented its first production of the season – “Much Ado About Nothing”.  More than 100 students from all grade levels participated in mounting this production which entertained audiences, enriched student appreciation of Shakespeare and augmented students college resumes.  A new charter high school that, year one, will have but 100 9th grade students (according to Dublin Learning Corp. statements), will be hard pressed to offer drama as a choice.  Dublin High also offers 35 different clubs supported by over 500 students.  Over 650 students participate in 22 teams.  Extracurricular activities are not superfluous or disposable – these activities that are enabled by the scale of Dublin High are what differentiate students in college enrollment forms.

Taking Stanford University as an example and using their published guidelines for what is important in freshman admission decisions (, the following items are listed as “Very Important”:

  • Rigor of secondary school record, Class rank, Academic GPA, Standardized test scores, Application essay, Recommendation(s)
  • Extracurricular activities, talent / ability, character / personal qualities

The rigorous expectations of schools like Stanford, UCLA / UC Berkeley, Harvard and other top colleges were used to craft Dublin High’s new Advanced Scholar Diploma.

Dublin High has the scale required to offer students both academic and non-academic choice – scale means choice because some programs (such as a performing arts program) require a critical mass of students to exist in the first place and other programs (academic) require a critical mass of students to be economically viable.  In a publicly funded school – district-run 0r charter – funding is tied primarily to the number of enrolled students and secondarily to charitable donations.

Unlike a private school, which can pick and choose which students are admitted (and can expel students for purely academic reasons), a publicly funded school – district-run or charter – must accept all those that apply without prejudice.  It is the stated intent of Dublin Learning Corp. to accept all students regardless of academic ability.  A new charter high school – in particular during the first 4 or more years – will have a very small enrollment relative to a comprehensive high school like Dublin High and will inevitably be forced to limit choice.  No drama program.  Few athletic teams.  Fewer academic options because the very small size of the school (100 students in the first year according to Dublin Learning Corp., and limited to 9th grade) will likely make it impossible freshman to take sophomore courses (as is commonplace at Dublin High for advanced students).  Small enrollment likely make it impossible to offer as many advanced classes (fewer students to fund additional classes).

The argument is made by some that smaller schools are better.  The real argument is around “smaller learning communities” which are designed to work in the context of a larger school.  Given that we have 1,472 students at Dublin High and are many years away (likely a decade or more) from reaching the 2,500 student capacity, it makes sense to look at alternatives that complement what we already have.

An excerpt from  “The Smaller Learning Communities (SLC) program awards discretionary grants to local educational agencies (LEAs) to support the implementation of SLCs and activities to improve student academic achievement in large public high schools with enrollments of 1,000 or more students. SLCs include structures such as freshman academies, multi-grade academies organized around career interests or other themes, “houses” in which small groups of students remain together throughout high school, and autonomous schools-within-a-school, as well as personalization strategies, such as student advisories, family advocate systems, and mentoring programs.”

The debate isn’t as simple as “small school” vs. “large school”.  There are many ways to structure the learning environment while taking advantage of the $120M brand new facility Dublin taxpayers have funded in Dublin High.

Universities, in effect, are large campuses with “schools within schools” – communities that co-exist while benefiting from shared resources (performing arts, athletics programs and clubs/extracurricular programs benefit from a larger pool of students).  International Baccalaureate (IB) programs are another example of a “school within a school” approach. is committed to organizing parents to drive further innovation and improvement in Dublin High, including concepts such as small learning communities.

We live in an increasingly competitive world – competition in high school, competition to achieve acceptance into college and competition in the workplace.  Dublin students benefit from diversity and choice.  The position of and the parents from across Dublin supporting this initiative is that Dublin High has the scale to provide our students with both academic and non-academic choice, and to do so with excellent.

A final thought since you’ve read this far is best provided by Ken Robinson – an excellent (and entertaining) lecture on the importance of nurturing creativity in our education system:

  1. Lori permalink
    January 12, 2010 9:26 pm

    Using this argument, it seems that instead of focusing on the charter school, we should be seeking to merge with neighboring school districts to reduce administrative costs and provide multiple campuses. Our district is small and has limited funding and so focuses on the top and bottom performers and students with special needs. I think the SLC concept is excellent, but you need funding for that, so that again points to larger school districts that are then able to spend dollars on differentiated curriculum rather than administration. Nothing against the DSD administration, but understand that you are trying to use the cost-benefit analysis to pan the charter school when it also works against having our current small district! I believe people are open to the charter school concept because they have kids that fall in this middle group who need a different educational structure than the district is able to provide.


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