They make up less than 1 percent of the school districts in the United States, but account for 16 percent of the schools, 21 percent of the teachers and 23 percent of the nation's students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

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.

States such as Florida that have countywide school systems tend to have more districts on the list. Florida, with 2.4 million students in just 67 districts, has 13 school systems among the 100 largest, while Illinois, with 896 districts and about 2 million students, has only one district (Chicago) on the list.

Among the 2000-01 list of the 100 largest districts, two were not included the year before — Elk Grove, Calif., and Omaha, Neb. Dropping off the list were districts in St. Louis and Escambia County, Fla.

Here are other highlights gleaned from the data:

  • The largest school district, New York City, has an enrollment nearly 24 times as big as the 100th-largest district, St. Paul, Minn.

  • According to the U.S. Census, the average per-pupil expenditure for public schools in 1999-2000 was $6,835. Among the 100 largest districts, expenditures range from $3,935 per student in the Alpine (Utah) School District, based in American Fork, Utah, to $11,128 per student in the Boston school district.

  • Average school size varies widely among the 100 largest districts. Gwinnett County, Ga., in the suburbs of Atlanta, has an average enrollment of nearly 1,315 students in its schools. That's three times as large as the Washington, D.C., school system, which has an average of 435 students per school.

    On average, student enrollment in the nation's top 100 districts makes up about 15 percent of a district's population. But those demographics vary widely among individual districts.

  • The San Francisco School District, with 776,733 residents, is the 21st-most-populous school district, but only 59,979 — 7.7 percent of the population — are students enrolled in the district, which makes it the 61st-largest district in the nation.

  • At the other extreme, the Alpine (Utah) School District is the 92nd-largest district with 47,117 students, even though its overall population of 182,658 doesn't even rank it among the 200 most populous districts. Nearly 26 percent of the district's population is enrolled in the public schools.

To see the entire list of the 100 largest school districts and assorted statistics, click here.

To see a list of the 20 college and university campuses with the largest enrollments, click here.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at mkennedy@primediabusiness.com.


SIDEBAR: One step away: Los Angeles

Keeping up with facilities needs in the nation's second-largest school system is demanding and expensive. The Los Angeles district grew from 710,000 students in 1999-2000 to 721,000 in 2000-01 and now estimates its enrollment at 737,000.

The district needs to find classrooms for those additional students, as well as more space for those crammed into existing classrooms. For most districts, that means going to the voters with a bond issue, and Los Angeles is no different.

Well, there is at least one difference: A big district needs a big bond issue — $3.35 billion, to be exact. What will that buy?

The district wants $1.6 billion to complete school construction and expansion projects already underway, $980 million to build about 40 more new schools, $526 million for repairs at existing schools, and $244 million for other improvements.

The bond request comes five years after the district passed a $2.4 billion bond package. School officials have acknowledged the 1997 bond plan had a $600 million shortfall because of higher costs and inadequate oversight. They say that those problems have been rectified under the current administration of Superintendent Roy Romer and Chief Facilities Executive James McConnell.

To ensure that the proposed construction stays on track, ballot language for the bond will include oversight requirements, such as an independent oversight consultant.


SIDEBAR: Keeping students on campus: Michigan State University

With the nation's eighth-largest college enrollment , Michigan State University, East Lansing, has to house thousands of students in residence halls. And to make sure that campus housing provides the amenities that students want, the school has been upgrading its housing.

Various residence halls offer different features — some have air conditioning, some have larger rooms, some have nearby parking and some have kitchenettes on each floor.

“Whatever your situation, you can find something on this campus to suit your needs,” says Fred Kayne, associate director of university housing.

For the renovated Shaw Hall, which reopened this summer, the features students are sure to notice are the televisions in the community bathrooms and the therapeutic bubble-jet bath available in each wing of the facility.

“The bathrooms are extremely nice,” says Kayne, “like what you might see in a country club. The other attractive thing about community bathrooms is that we clean them every day.”

The $12 million upgrade kept Shaw Hall closed for 16 months. The residence hall was built in 1949 and over the years has been home to 75,000 students.


SIDEBAR: Rising in the rankings: Cypress-Fairbanks

Like a hit song by a hot group, the Cypress-Fairbanks school district, based in Houston, is climbing the charts. Like many school systems around the nation, Cypress-Fairbanks has evolved from a smaller district that served a mostly agricultural community to a large, sprawling district in a predominantly suburban setting.

The district rose to the 53rd-largest district in 2000-01, up from 59th in 1999-2000. From 11,758 students in 1975, enrollment rocketed to 30,386 10 years later. In 2000-01, it had 63,497 students, and this fall, after opening a new high school and a new elementary school, it expects to surpass 71,000 students.

Administrators project that by 2006-07, Cypress-Fairbanks will have 82,000 students, which would place it somewhere around 35th on the list of the largest school districts.

“We are pleased that people have enough confidence in our school district that they continue to move here,” says Roy Sprague, senior director of facilities planning and construction. “I believe our excellent reputation helps precipitate more growth in the district.”

The district put itself in a good position to handle the rapid growth last year when an 85 percent majority of voters approved a $470.5 million bond issue. District voters had passed a $264 million bond issue in 1998 that was supposed to cover building needs for five years, but Sprague says the pace of growth forced Cypress-Fairbanks to accelerate its construction and come back to voters two years early.

“I wouldn't be surprised if in 2004 we had to go out for a bond again,” says Sprague.

The latest plan calls for $196 million to build six elementary schools, two middle schools and a high school. The district builds high schools with a 3,000-student capacity; middle schools accommodate 1,350 students; and elementary buildings hold 920 children.

Sprague acknowledges that Cypress-Fairbanks buildings are larger than the average school, but says their size has not been a problem in terms of student performance.

“The formula we have is working very effectively,” say Sprague. “We're going to try to continue to excel.”

In addition to new schools, Cypress-Fairbanks will use the bond proceeds to build a multipurpose educational support center, a second athletic stadium, a fourth transportation center and a farm. Nearly all of the district's campuses will be renovated or expanded, and nearly $40 million will be spent on upgrading instructional technology.