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Dollars & Sense: The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools

Published by Knowledge Works Foundation 2002. Link to download below
Review by Randy Fielding

More than any other recent publication advocating small schools, Dollars & Sense argues the case for small schools with the force of a sledgehammer. The study obliterates the arguments that we hear from large school defenders about the “economies of scale.” According to Dollars & Sense, small schools cost less to build and operate on a broad variety of measures. The study provides ample data, references and statistical analysis to back it up.

In addition to exposing myths about economies of scale, Dollars & Sense presents very specific guidelines for school sizes. Not long ago, many planners would point to the 400-student High School of Environmental Studies (Zoo School) in Apple Valley, Minnesota as an ideal size. Dollars & Sense proposes a considerably smaller model (see box at right).

Don’t Confuse Small Schools with “Schools Within a School.”
Dollars and Sense provides another important service by debunking myths about the Schools-Within-a-School model.

“Creating schools-within-a-school (SWaS) is one strategy for reducing schools size. It is appropriate only to make use of an existing large high school building; it is not advisable to build a new facility so that it can be turned into a SWaS….An alternate, beneficial strategy for using an existing large building is to reconfigure the grade span in the facility to include students from kindergarten thorough 12th grade. In any area, there are many social and pedagogical benefits to bringing students of all ages together.”

After effectively making the case for small schools from a broad cost perspective, Dollars & Sense addresses more subtle benefits as well. In contrast to small schools, large schools have:

  • Increased transportation costs
  • Higher administrative overhead
  • Higher maintenance costs
  • Lower graduation rates
  • Higher rates of vandalism
  • Higher absenteeism
  • Lower teacher satisfaction

Dollars & Sense includes strategies for change with examples from several states. The study is sure to have an impact on public policy, while serving as a valuable tool for educators, architects, and planners seeking to create successful, learner-centered schools.

Ideal School Sizes Harbor City School
Upper limits
Excerpted from Dollars & Sense

High Schools (9-12)
75 student per grade
300 total enrollment

Middle Schools (5-8)
50 student per grade level
200 total enrollment

Elementary Schools (1-8)
25 students per grade level
200 total enrollment

Elementary Schools (1-6)
25 students per grade level
150 total enrollment

No Maintenance Costs?
Students from the 120-student Harbor City School clean the cafe floor after school. All students and staff spend 15 minutes at the end of each day cleaning the school together.

The photos above and at left are of Harbor City International School, Duluth, Minnesota. They were provided by the reviewer and are not part of the Dollars and Sense publication. Learn more about this award-winning high school at Harbor City

Download a free copy
of Dollars & Sense at:
(44 pages PDF)

Dollars & Sense was authored by Steven Bingler, Barbara Diamond, Bobbie Hill, Jerry Hoffman,Craig Howley, Barbara Kent Lawrence, Stacey Mitchell, David Rudolph, and Elliot Washor. Sponsors include Concordia, LLC, Knowledge Works Foundation, and The Rural School Community Trust

Randall Fielding, AIA, is the editor of DesignShare, as well as a practicing architect specializing in small, innovative schools.

July 16th, 2006

DesignShare publications are submitted by designers, university professors, architects, planning consultants, educators, technologists, futurists, and ecologists. Publications include podcasts, detailed case studies, conference proceedings, interviews, original research, editorials, thesis projects, and practical design guidelines.


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