How Big?

With the heavy and essential conversations happening during these search finalist visits, it’s not surprising that the question of our optimum enrollment number comes up. It’s one of the three biggies for any school—the range of grades to serve, the progression of class sizes from grade to grade, and the total number of students in the school community.  There’s no question that we’re bigger than we used to be. But what’s the sweet spot? Here’s some food for thought:

We’ve settled nicely into life as a preK-12th grade school, thanks to the singular partnership with KCC, the opportunities of a 30+ acres campus, and the seemingly endless capacity to add yet another small and not too costly building to our inventory. To be honest, I still haven’t mastered the various names and purposes of all of our academic spaces—almost no numbers on doors here. There’s an area for elementary, another that’s mostly middle school, and a set of classes largely dedicated to high school, with some shared space tossed in. But we are bursting at the seams.

Fortunately, six new classes and a maker space will be added to the mix late this summer, as a decade-plus project finally comes to life. The schedule calls for us to just barely make it in time, and I’m busy hustling to raise the last $1.5MM to make sure we don’t take on any long-term debt. Any help appreciated, by the way. That new space alleviates the pressure on existing facilities and should benefit every part of our program as we reallocate. We can open at the budgeted enrollment target of 500 students for August, 2023—a new high-water mark for Island School.

I’m told we’ve been aiming for that total in planning going back many years, and now we’ve almost arrived. The question is, what shape should that enrollment take? Should we get bigger in the younger grades? In high school or, as we have more recently, in middle school? There’s a lively conversation happening with my experienced colleagues here about the best answer. In short, the smart course of action looks like staying with one class per elementary grade, with each room limited to a group size in the low 20s. Then, a similar class size model for middle school, with two sections and a total per grade in the low 40s. Then, a high school with graduating classes in the mid 50s and a total in the low 200s. Add in 35 or so pre-K keiki, and there’s your 500.

What’s the rationale for that size and shape? We stay small and personal, especially for the youngest, then we grow to accommodate demonstrated interest in coming here in the middle grades, and we leave room for more addition at high school and an enrollment there that supports the programs (arts, athletic, academic) that let high school students really shine. Tiny high schools face huge challenges offering much to their students, and that’s a loss. Studies of the ideal size for high school actually suggest that optimally we could be larger still than we’ll be next year.

There are practical considerations in all this, too. Knowing our targets makes planning so much more productive, helps get our staffing right, and is absolutely better for the budget than resetting our numbers every year. And there are absolutely benefits to size, i.e. returns to scale. Miniature schools almost always cost more per student. But we need to be sure we have room in the common spaces, the shared areas, the gathering spots (like lunch areas and assembly areas) that go with a larger enrollment. That will be a big part of the next head of school’s to-do list.

One last thing to consider—we are nearing if not exceeding our capacity in many grades already, even as we have grown. What that means practically is that we’ll face pressures to overenroll, grade by grade and room by room, and no matter how much someone may want us to add just one more student, doing so can be bad for all involved. We need to get ready to say we’re full, no matter what. This is all to say that when the re-enrollment materials come out at the end of the month, jump on that task to secure your spot.

My prediction is that we’ll need to pay attention to our enrollment numbers more this year than has ever previously been the case. And it all starts with the group that’s already here. Then we’ll look at who can join, and how best we can make that happen. And then we can start imagining how best we can and should grow into the future.

Just telling it the way it looks to me,

ps- thanks for all the interest and participation during the search process—it really has been well done from my perspective, having seen many elsewhere. Look for news coming soon about outcome. I’m as excited as you to hear how it all turns out.