Rethinking Comprehensive High Schools

Carl K. Chafin

A major part of my work and that of my partners is to help school systems and communities plan their new schools. A recent tour of yet another large, comprehensive high school prompted me to wonder: Why are we still building high schools like this? Are we spending our money on obsolete structures whose size and cost will remain an albatross for future generations? We in public education need to ask these questions every time we come together to discuss a new high school.

We have been talking reform and innovation in high schools for years. However, high school reform and high school design are not always wedded. As a result, the decades-old efforts to reform high school have fallen short because, at the local level, the discussions about programs and the discussions about facilities take place separately.

Reform and design must come together to bring about meaningful and enduring changes to the comprehensive American high school -- changes that make it relevant to current and future generations.

Comprehensive high schools costs

Let’s look at the total cost of a new high school. Although cost varies depending upon where you live, the price tag of a new high school ranges from $50 million to $100 million depending on the size of the school. (A new high school that I toured cost $54 million. A similar one currently in the planning stages is projected to cost $65 million.)

Depending on the interest rate, the true cost of a new comprehensive high school could approach twice that if it is funded through bonds and paid back over 20 years. It’s a staggering amount of money for most communities to fund, particularly for smaller localities. Furthermore, the annual debt service payment and operating expenses can have a significant impact on the availability of future revenue to address other critical needs. 

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