Efforts to improve secondary education increasingly emphasize the size and structure of high schools. The U.S. Secretary of Education is actively promoting the expansion of the standards-based performance measures mandated in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 to high schools as well as a discussion of the most effective models of high school reform. In addition to measuring progress and accountability and grappling with staffing and curriculum issues, many school districts are focusing on the size, design and characteristics of their high schools. Many urban school districts are planning to build new, smaller high schools and break up larger high schools into smaller “learning communities” (Harris, 2003). The National Governors Association’s 2004-05 Chairman’s Initiative is titled Redesigning the American High School and it highlights state commitments to “open smaller, personalized high schools” as part of its agenda for reform (National Governors Association, 2005a).1 The U.S. Department of Education, in collaboration with the Council of Great City Schools, included “create smaller learning communities” as an ingredient in all successful urban high schools (U.S. Department of Education, 2000).

The high school reform movement includes prominent endeavors from the non profit sector as well as from governments. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been an outspoken critic of the current structure of American high schools and a prominent funder of efforts to create what it deems better-quality high schools. The foundation asserts that “It is time to rethink the purpose and structure of the American high school. Today’s large comprehensive high schools are obsolete.” (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, undated a). The foundation unambiguously includes the size and structure of high schools at the heart of its high school reform efforts: “We know where to start. We need to redesign large, ineffective schools, create new, small high schools, and replicate proven models.” (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, undated b). The foundation has invested over $1 billion to improve education, “including supporting the creation of new, small, high-quality high schools and the conversion of existing low-performing schools into smaller, personalized learning communities.” (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2005)

Since 1992 the New York City school system has prominently and aggressively opened small and experimental high schools in an attempt to improve secondary education with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation and other philanthropies. The Los Angeles Unified School District is implementing a plan to change its high schools by constructing nontraditional high schools as part of its building program and overhauling existing schools by creating “smaller learning clusters.”

While there has not been a voluminous amount of empirical research on the effects of school characteristics, “research has suggested that small and moderate size high schools foster more positive social and academic environments than large high schools, especially for economically disadvantaged students.” (NCES, 2003a). Careful statistical studies conclude that students in large high schools (especially those with more than 2,100 students) learn less and are more likely to drop out of school.

Associated with the movement toward smaller learning communities is a longstanding concern regarding concentrated poverty in schools. Concentrations of economically disadvantaged students may adversely affect school performance, and the effects of school size may also interact with lower socioeconomic status. There is some evidence that smaller schools are particularly conducive to learning in schools with a higher incidence of student poverty.

This report analyzes the characteristics of the public high schools attended by Hispanic students in comparison with schools attended by white and African American students. The educational outcomes of Latino students, especially high school dropout rates, have been widely monitored,2 but the characteristics of the schools attended by Hispanic teens have received much less attention. For example, the U.S. Department of Education’s summary volume Status and Trends in the Education of Hispanics does not present any information on the characteristics of schools attended by Latinos, omitting their size, the characteristics of teachers or school principals, the guidance counseling and support-staff resources of the school and the instructional expenditures per pupil (NCES, 2003b).

While understanding student characteristics and outcomes is important, school characteristics, including design, processes and organization, are critical as well. Schools and educational policymakers can only directly influence characteristics of the school; student background and behavior are not directly in their purview. Furthermore, the nature of schools is growing increasingly important as the No Child Left Behind mandates hold individual schools accountable for the achievement gains of students. The characteristics of the school are important context for judging how well a school is performing.

Hispanic students tend to attend public high schools with different characteristics than the public high schools attended by white or black students. Hispanics are more likely to attend extremely large high schools. The typical American high school has about 750 students, and the most recent high school enrollment figures indicate that 10 percent of American public high schools have enrollments of 1,838 or more students. More than half of Hispanic public high school students attend the largest 10 percent of high schools in terms of enrollment. Hispanics are not only more likely than whites to attend the largest 10 percent of public high schools, they are almost twice as likely as blacks to attend public high schools with more than 1,838 students. This is in spite of the fact that Hispanic and black public high school students are equally likely to attend schools located in central city areas.

Hispanic teens are more likely than any other racial or ethnic group to attend public high schools that have the dual characteristics of extreme size and poverty (the latter measured in terms of the percent of the student body eligible for free or reduced-price lunches). For example, Hispanics are six times more likely than blacks to attend public high schools that are both greater than 1,838 students in size and have more than 67 percent of the student body eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.3 Hispanics are more than 50 times as likely as whites to go to a public high school with both these characteristics.

The distinct nature of the public high schools attended by Hispanics arises partly from residential patterns. Public high schools tend to differ in their characteristics across states. In particular, the public high schools in the states with the largest Hispanic enrollments are different, on average, than the high schools in the rest of the United States. White and black youths are more evenly distributed across the country and so smaller shares of their total high school populations are in the states where Hispanics are concentrated. The differing geographic concentration of Latino youths across states is, however, only part of the explanation of the national differences in high school characteristics between Latino and white youths. Even when they reside in the same state, Hispanics and whites tend to go to very different kinds of public high schools.

This report is based on the data collected on high schools in the U.S. Department of Education’s Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey of its Common Core of Data (CCD) survey system. The information is based on the entire universe of public high schools, not a sample of high schools. Thus, there are no sampling errors and confidence intervals associated with the analysis. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) works actively with state education agencies to minimize inaccurate reporting of the information. The CCD is the only uniformly collected data available on enrollment at individual high schools throughout the entire country. The most recently released data are for the 2002-03 school year.

This report analyzes high schools in the 50 states and the District of Columbia and omits other geographic entities (for example, schools in outlying areas of the United States) included in the CCD (see the Appendix for further details). NCES regularly publishes school enrollment tallies from the Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey in its annual Digest of Education Statistics volume, but the tabulations for high schools and by race and ethnicity are quite limited.