Each year Hawken’s Upper School undergoes various changes ranging from new teachers and students to the introduction of new courses or activities. But what about changes in school size? A noticeable increase in student body size has been one of the areas of concern frequently mentioned by students this year. Many have complained about overcrowding in the school buildings interfering with actions such as studying, socializing, and even eating lunch. Hawken’s student body today is 80 students larger than the student body in 2015, according to Mr. Looney, Hawken’s Head of School. This growth is mostly due to the 30 million dollar project of Stirn Hall, which has a greater capacity for students than the previous building did. However, it is not the 532 total students, nor the 135 freshmen, that have stirred up controversy among the student body; rather it is the increasing perception that this student body upsize has changed the feel of the school.
Hawken has been known as a small and tight knit community throughout its many years as a school, but recently, the noticed increase in student body size has left many students feeling overwhelmed. To investigate this phenomenon, we decided to survey the student body and interview important figures in school admissions to gain more insight into what lies at the root of the increase, and if there is truly as drastic of a change as there is perceived to be.
The AffNo conducted a poll of over 150 Hawken sophomores, juniors, and seniors, approximately ⅕ of the school. So while the data does represent a substantial section of the school, there is no guarantee that it is representative of the school as a whole. In that survey, 75 percent of students who responded felt they mostly had quiet places to study in previous years, compared to only 44.1 percent this year. Similarly, students have felt the influx in students through decreased lunch time; whereas 60.6 percent of students have felt they didn’t have enough time to eat in previous years, 75 percent feel that way this year. One student noted that “the number of people in third lunch is a problem.”
Another concern about a larger student body is scarcer social spaces. The percentage of students who feel they have enough room to socialize in Hawken’s social spaces has dropped from 63 to 47 over the years. Other students talked about overcrowding in common spaces. One student mentioned that “school meeting feels especially congested… the seating we have is very tightly packed (particularly the AC), making the spaces with lots of seating feel claustrophobic.” Thus, the tangible effects of the student body increase such as less study space, less lunch time, less social space, and feelings of claustrophobia have made many students upset.
It is true that many students have felt the impacts of a significant rise in student population, but has there actually been as great of an increase as they perceived? After looking into statistics of student body size at the Upper School throughout the past few years, we saw that there has indeed been an increase in numbers, although not as large as one may expect. From the 2018-2019 school year to the 2019-2020 year, the student count has only risen by 24, which does not appear to be a great increase.
The issue, however, is not just of size, but also of the opportunities a larger student body affords. There are many, slightly less obvious benefits to a larger student body. Mr. Looney noted that “74 percent of the cost of running Hawken is [paying] people.” Thus, because a large portion of tuition money goes to paying faculty, cutting the amount of students admitted and therefore the amount of tuition money would have several impacts on the Hawken community. First, it would mean losing indispensable faculty members. Assuming we want to maintain the student to faculty ratio of 1 to 8, reducing the amount of students “by 32 [could cause us to] lose 4 teachers,” Mr. Looney explained. He also noted one of the resulting academic harms of cutting faculty: without as many faculty members, the course offerings would shrink, leaving students with fewer choices. Furthermore, a decrease in student body would inevitably decrease the amount of faculty who can lead co-curricular activities.
In addition to staving off some of these harms, a larger student body also proactively benefits itself. Ms. Jackson in the admissions office talked about the alignment between Hawken’s increase in student body and its goal to increase the diversity of the student body. Ms. Jackson said that a larger student body lends itself to “diversity [which] is a good goal. [Hawken] benefits [from] different kinds of diversity.” Ms. O'Neill, also in the admissions office, talked about the wishes of students transitioning from middle school as reasoning for a larger student body. She mentioned that, often times, “students moving from middle school to high school want a larger class size.” Therefore, the upsize seems intentional and well meant from a diversity perspective and because it tailors to middle schoolers’ perceived desires.
Hawken’s status as a tight knit community is essential to its identity as a school. However, the student body growth over the last few years, particularly in the current freshman and sophomore classes, has many students feeling like school expansion is reaching the limits of their toleration. Our survey found that the percentage of students who found the school to be too big rose from 4.6% in 2018-2019 to 53.3% in 2019-2020, now making up over half of the students who responded to the survey. Many students attribute the feelings of overcrowding to the increase in student numbers.
On the other hand, we believe that a potential major cause behind these feelings is not due to just a rise in students, but due to unbalanced scheduling or overall differences in student routine instead. Although the increase of 24 students may be enough to produce somewhat of a noticeable effect, it alone could not have had as much of an impact as we observed in our surveys. It is feasible that the increase in student numbers alone could have had an impact on the amount of space for socializing, as the presence of 24 extra students in common spaces would not go unnoticed.
Another potential factor impacting this sentiment of overcrowding could be that a greater proportion of students are socializing in one location (e.g. the AC Lobby), as opposed to other areas in the school than last year. In the case of overcrowding at lunch, though, many students note that there is a significantly greater amount of students present at 3rd lunch than 1st and 2nd, revealing an imbalance in student distribution between blocks that would lead to perception of overcrowding at 3rd lunch.
Nevertheless, this does not change the fact that many students are dissatisfied with the feelings of overcrowding in the school - whether it is caused by perception or not. But, let’s take a minute to weigh the benefits of upsizing against these petty gripes. Imagine a Hawken without sports teams, Humanities seminars, or your favorite teachers. A Hawken without those things isn’t Hawken. Sure, it may be pesky to have a four minute lunch line, but a Hawken with a four minute lunch line is still Hawken. So, enjoy your day, and say thank you to those extra 24 students when you see them in the AC.