They are the nation's 100 largest districts, and one can learn a lot about our nation's education system by studying them. Sifting through statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Census, one can begin to sketch an interesting portrait of the diverse school systems that serve America's youth.

The districts on the list range from systems in growing suburban pockets, to countywide districts that cover huge expanses of territory with wide disparities in income and resources, to crowded urban districts that have to cope with both the deterioration of aging facilities and the construction of new schools to accommodate growth.

Whether it's a district with more than a million students, such as New York, or one with 45,000 students, such as St. Paul, Minn., the school systems on this list all have a substantial investment in educational facilities and a fundamental obligation to their communities to maintain those facilities so that students can learn.

Making the List

Appearing on the list may be considered a mixed blessing. On the one hand, district administrators usually prefer growth to decline. Opening new facilities is more fun than shutting down schools. Shrinking enrollment also may cause a district to receive less in state aid.

But as more educators and constituents are advocating smaller schools and smaller classes, the advantages of being one of the biggest school systems may be outweighed by the downside — headaches and crises caused by more layers of bureaucracy and a more impersonal culture.

Whether a district is large enough to make this list often depends on boundary decisions made long ago. When a large city and school district share the same boundaries, the result is a large district like those in New York City or Chicago. In other parts of the country, a city's population is chopped up among several districts. For instance, 15 different school districts overlap the boundaries of Kansas City, Mo.