Michael D. Clark reports:
Brooke Middleton glances up from her lunch in the gigantic cafeteria of Mason High School and mulls over a fact of life about attending Ohio’s largest high school.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever recognize all my classmates,” the high-school junior says about the other 3,330 students joining her each school day under the roof of the expansive Warren County school. “There are always some people you pass in the hallways that you’ve never seen before.”
Each school day, more students congregate in Mason’s massive high school building than the total district enrollment for nearly two-thirds of all school systems in Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky. And all those Mason students – according to the Ohio Department of Education – mean their high school is the most populous in the state.
Mason officials embrace the enormousness they created. They say it’s part of their decades-old strategy of “bigger is better” that has three of its five schools – high school, middle school and intermediate school – on a single, 73-acre campus along South Mason-Montgomery Road.
They point to the district’s consistent Top 10 academic ratings among Ohio’s 614 school systems and the high school’s long-running “Excellent” state ranking. Last month, Mason High School celebrated a record number of National Merit finalists – 19 – second in the region, behind Cincinnati’s Walnut Hills High School.
Mason schools are also unique in Southwest Ohio in their location strategy, with most other districts emphasizing a smaller “neighborhood schools” theme locating buildings throughout their communities.
“In Mason, big means big opportunities,” says spokeswoman Tracey Carson. “Our scale opens up a world of possibility for students and allows us to make cost-effective choices for our residents.”
The close proximity of Mason’s schools “offer great economy-of-scale and allow us to more efficiently serve students,” Carson says. “Not only have we realized savings by reducing duplication in administration, cleaning and purchasing, but our students benefit from having entire grade (groupings) of teachers able to collaborate and learn from others’ best practices on an ongoing basis.”
But the high school’s size also brings problems, forcing a constant balancing act of changes.
Prior to adding a giant, new wing of classrooms in recent years, nearly two dozen high school teachers were forced to be “traveling instructors,” moving their teaching materials on carts from room to room.
Schoolwide pep rallies must be held outside at the football stadium. The annual prom of about 1,800 juniors and seniors is held in a giant Clinton County convention facility.
And so many students registering for classes has flooded the online process, resulting in errors and some students having the unfair advantage of a parent at home pressing a computer key seconds after registration begins. To remedy that, Carson says, a new system reverting to paper forms and requiring students and parents to meet with teachers and counselors is being installed for next school year.
Enrollment for the district doubled from 1999 to 2009 but has topped out in recent years at 11,000 students. Enrollment is expected to eventually decline since the 25-square-mile district is nearly built out.
Mason benefits from both relatively high residential property values and a large commercial tax base. The total property tax per pupil is $5,506, compared to a statewide average of $4,853. But the district spends less – $10,125 – than the Ohio per-pupil average of $10,696.
And the schools draw from a community where more than 50 percent of adults, according to a recent national survey, have a college or advanced degree, compared to the national average of 22 percent.
Brooke says once students adjust to the high school’s 202 classrooms spread over 620,000 square feet – including a three-story, $30 million addition in 2009 – they’ll find themselves surrounded by opportunities.
“There are a lot more things to be involved in,” the gymnastics team member and football cheerleader says, referring to the 80 student clubs, far more than most high schools offer.
For years, school officials have devised programs to minimize the difficulties of large enrollment, including team teaching, where students are tracked by instructors and guidance counselors for more than one academic year. In addition, incoming freshman are mentored by older students.
Lynn Baehre is poolside in the Mason Community Center, which is attached to the high school.
She is watching her daughter’s Advanced Placement physics class compete in paddling homemade mini-boats constructed of cardboard and duct tape through a large pool.
Swimming pools at high schools are rare in this region. Baehre, who 14 years ago moved her family from Butler County for Mason schools, appreciates the facilities: “There are a lot more resources for every student here, from the Advanced Placement student to the kids that need extra academic resources.”
Mason High School parent Virginia Rumford’s family moved to Mason in 2007 and “initially we were a little overwhelmed by the size.”
“But now I couldn’t be happier,” says the mother of two high school students. “And this school gives you more opportunity to find people that click with you. Because if it doesn’t work out with one group of classmates, then there’s another group right over there.”