When it comes to the size of its high schools, Frisco ISD thinks small

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In Frisco ISD, size matters. For more than two decades, the district has followed a small-school model for its high schools. Rather than one mega campus, like neighboring Allen ISD, educators decided to limit the size and build more of them.

But with tens of thousands of new residents, its 10th high school set to open in the fall and more growth on the way, district leaders decided it was time for a review of that practice.

"Formally we hadn’t engaged our community since the early 1990s on this topic," said Todd Fouche, deputy superintendent for business services. "Are we doing what the community still wants?"

The district formed a long-range planning committee made up of residents at the beginning of the school year. Nearly 300 people applied. The district chose 50 of them to serve three-year terms. Similar discussions are happening with the district’s faculty council, which includes representatives from each campus and members of the district’s instructional support teams.

The goal is to gather information to help guide major decisions as the district of more than 58,461 students continues to grow. Efforts so far will be presented at the Frisco school board’s next meeting on Dec. 11.

A big component of that report will be the results of a recent online survey that found overwhelming support for the district’s smaller-school model. Currently, the district’s high schools have a capacity of about 2,100 students.

In the survey, 22 percent of the 4,181 respondents said the model was the reason they moved into the district. A total of 80 percent of respondents said the model played at least some role in their decision to locate in Frisco ISD.

The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.

Limited options

With 10 high schools already built, the district has limited options moving forward. It can’t scrap the existing campuses for smaller high schools. And several schools don’t have the available land to expand and become larger campuses.

Its high schools are currently classified under UIL rules for competition in 5A, which caps enrollment at 2,149 students. Frisco ISD could continue building at that size with the remaining campuses. It could make its 11th high school — which still must be designed — large enough to accommodate about 4,500 students. It could also reconfigure its schools like Plano ISD with high school campuses for ninth- and 10th-graders and separate senior high campuses for 11th- and 12th-graders.

According to survey respondents, the biggest advantage to sticking with the current campus size is the feeling that students are more connected to their school and their peer group.

Having more high schools also increases participation in extracurricular activities. Instead of just one starting varsity quarterback, Frisco ISD will have 10 next year. The same goes for other activities, from theater to marching band to student council.

More high schools also means that rezoning to balance enrollment is an annual event that triggers angst among some families whose students have to switch schools. Larger schools don’t have to deal with rezoning because everybody goes to the same school.

‘Priority No. 1’

The operating costs for the smaller high schools are about 3 percent to 5 percent more when compared with mega campuses, according to estimates from Kimberly Pickens, the district’s chief financial officer. The bigger difference comes with capital costs.

The district has $100 million approved from the last bond election to build high school No. 11 at the 2,100-student size. If the district decides to go with a larger 4,500-student campus, $60 million more will be needed, Pickens said.

"This high school thing is really priority No. 1 for us to get information on," Pickens said.

Phil Lohec volunteers on the district’s long-range planning committee. Two of his kids have already graduated, and a third is still in high school. He said he moved to Frisco ISD 15 years ago because of the smaller high school size and hopes to see that concept continued.

"It’s the biggest way that we can separate Frisco from other communities across D-FW," he said.

Fellow committee member Megan Holland has two children who will enroll in Frisco ISD when they get older. She also has a background in education and previously taught high school in Louisiana.

She also favors Frisco ISD’s current model. Having a larger high school doesn’t change class sizes, she said. But it does become more apparent in shared spaces, like hallways, the cafeteria and the gyms, which can become crowded, she said.

The smaller-school model also encourages more students to participate in extracurricular activities and connect with groups outside of class, she said.

"Students need to feel like they’re a part of something bigger than just themselves," she said.

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