OPINION: Smaller high schools are better for students

By Melanie Rossacci

The large, mega high school model proposed for Wallingford would establish a school environment that we know is not best for students. Those of us who oppose this plan are not driven by nostalgic memories of Samaha Bowls, Carini Bowls, and homecoming dances of the past. Rather, we come armed with facts about the many benefits of small class sizes and small high school settings. We also come with still-unanswered questions for the Board of Education and objections to the opaque process that led to this decision.

In recent decades, at least 24 states mandated or incentivized class-size reduction. The influential STAR study conducted in Tennessee during the late 1980s found that reductions of seven students or 32 percent in class size correlates with increased student achievement by the equivalent to about three additional months of schooling. Yet by merging schools, we will be increasing class sizes rather than reducing them. Beyond academic achievement, the current proposal would mean that student leadership opportunities are cut in half, since there will not be two student council presidents or extra officer positions. There will also not be 10 sports teams captains or four theater productions per year. Wallingford will have fewer scholar athletes and college scholarships, and class rankings will be affected. The negative impact on Wallingford students would be broad and permanent.

Surrounding towns of similar size and fiscal capacity have taken steps to preserve the many benefits of small schools for their students. The Town of Milford has two public high schools: Jonathan Law with 834 students and Foran with 874 students, with a school district budget similar in size to Wallingford’s and no talk of combining. The Town of Southington has one mega high school with 1,979 students, alongside a “9th Grade Academy” housed in a separate building in order to help a larger school feel like a smaller school. Even the Board of Trustees at Choate Rosemary Hall voted, in 1994, to reduce enrollment from 1,025 students to 825 students; they also have a 7:1 student-teacher ratio. Most families in Wallingford cannot afford the $65K tuition at Choate; but we can maintain the great benefit of two public high schools, with the power to keep class sizes small.

Wallingford’s Board of Education has also failed to earn the public’s trust, based on both the current process surrounding the proposed high school merger and the 2011 elementary school reconfiguration. While an ethics document on the town website states that Board of Education members must “strive to ensure that the community is fully and accurately informed about our schools and try to interpret community aspirations to the school staff,” the board has not employed this approach. In 2011, for example, parents and teachers opposed to elementary school reconfiguration came to public meetings and filled out surveys to shine a light on concerns; yet the Board of Education moved forward anyway. We were promised lower budgets and higher test scores. Yet none of the promised benefits have come to fruition. What did happen was major disruption in families’ child care plans and before and after school routines, longer bus rides, and parents struggling more than ever to balance multiple school activities. The “benefits” of reconfiguration were just as untrue then as the supposed benefits of one mega high school are now.

The process of considering whether or not to maintain the two smaller high schools or convert to one large mega high school began in 2018, with surveys to families and staff. Both groups overwhelmingly supported renovating both high schools rather than merging them. Additional surveys in 2022 and 2023 showed that the majority of both staff and families still support the current model. Many community members who came to meetings in both 2018 and 2023 also expressed opposition to the one mega high school environment. A Facilities Subcommittee meeting to discuss the project was held when most families are working: on Thursday, February 16 at 11:30 a.m. and scheduled with less than 48 hours notice. Then, at the most recent board meeting held on February 27, the public comment link was broken and, by the time a new link was sent, people had become frustrated and dropped off. When will the Board of Education listen to the community it serves?

It has been clear since 2018 that Superintendents Salvatore Menzo and Danielle Belizzi prefer the one mega high school model, with major efforts undertaken to make the case for why one high school is best. At the same time, minimal efforts were dedicated to assessing benefits of the current model or how to preserve it. There have been no efforts dedicated to solving the underutilization of Sheehan High School — for example, by establishing a preschool program in the building. Utilization percentages continue to change for both Sheehan and Lyman Hall, with each meeting bringing “updates” to show further “proof” that the one high school model is preferable to two both in “potential” programming options and cost. In the most recent iteration of the proposal, the square footage of the proposed new high school was reduced in order to increase potential state reimbursement — leaving us with a proposed facility and property that are grossly inadequate for a town the size of Wallingford.

Our school facilities have been neglected for far too long and are in desperate need of massive upgrades. It is time to renovate both high schools as new and maintain the small high school environment that is best for students. It is what they deserve. Wallingford students and families need the mayor and members of Town Council to listen to the people they are elected to serve and appropriate the budget dollars needed to renovate our two existing high schools to new. We cannot allow a plan to proceed that we know is not in the best interest of our community and runs contrary to its expressed will.

Wallingford resident Melanie Rossacci is executive director at Clifford Beers Community Care Center in New Haven.


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