With 3,200 students, Wayzata High School is already Minnesota’s largest. Now, it’s about to get even bigger.

After the latest addition, it will have nine gyms, almost twice the square footage of the State Capitol — and enough space to house and teach 3,900 students.

It’s also a sign of the times. Across the Twin Cities, suburban school districts are showing new interest in expanding high schools into sprawling campuses teeming with thousands of students. There are five metro-area high schools with 2,500 students or more. By 2018, there could be at least 10, depending on voter approval.

“It’s the Mall of America mind-set,” said Steve Correia, education department chair at St. Catherine University. “And that means bigger is better.”

But the push is also renewing fierce debate on what kind of environment helps students learn best — and just how big is too big.

Administrators at large high schools say they can provide more opportunities for students, including Advanced Placement classes, beautiful buildings and powerhouse athletic programs.

“We’re going to be able to offer more opportunities, more courses and electives,” said Scott Swanson, a Shakopee school board member who backs that district’s effort to expand its high school. “Academics, arts, athletics — it’s the full package.”

Yet the prospect of students being overwhelmed at such a large school drove another Shakopee school board member to tears.

Researchers call high schools with thousands of students “megaschools.” Some studies have shown that low-income students and students of color — groups that already trail their white, middle-class peers in test scores and graduation rates — may not fare as well in a megaschool setting. But that hasn’t slowed down the growth of schools, said Karen Seashore, a University of Minnesota education professor who studies school organization.

“Once they started building big high schools, then communities started getting used to having a pool available and a winning football team,” she said. “That’s what we have come to expect.”

Nearly 50 percent of American students attend high schools with more than 1,500 students, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In some states, including New York, high school capacities exceed 4,000 students.

Joe Nathan, director of the St. Paul-based Center for School Change and a longtime charter school advocate, is troubled by the trend toward megaschools. He points to 2009 University of Toronto research on schools in the U.S. and abroad that concluded to be most effective, high schools should be limited to 1,000 students or fewer.

“We’re not going to knock down Wayzata High School or knock down Eden Prairie High School, but … if we want to make progress on the achievement gap, we have to start creating smaller schools,” he said.

Expand or build two?

Some districts, such as Wayzata, are expanding to accommodate increasing enrollment. Others, including Burnsville, say they need bigger buildings to shift ninth-graders from junior high to high school.

“Our community has come to believe that our ninth-graders belong in high school,” Joe Gothard, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage’s superintendent said, noting that it’s become the standard across the state. “It’s [the size of] a small city, day-in day-out. We’re prepared to take on that challenge.”

The debate over a large high school vs. two smaller schools has long raged in the growing Shakopee district. Last year, a referendum to build a second 1,600-student high school failed almost 2-1. In surveys, residents gave several reasons they preferred one big school, from not wanting to divide the community to the belief that two schools would cost more to run.

School Board Member Mary Romansky said other residents worried Shakopee would “never win a game all year” if forced to field two separate high school teams in each sport.

The district is returning to voters in May, this time requesting money for an addition that would bring the high school’s capacity to 3,200 students. The district plans to divide students into specialized academies in an attempt to maintain a small-school feel.

Burnsville-Eagan-Savage voters approved a referendum to create a megaschool in February. Edina and Stillwater will put the question to residents in May.

Shakopee resident Robert Hillman supports the megaschool idea, even if it means there’s more competition for a starting position on the varsity team or the lead role in the spring musical.

“Let the cream rise to the top,” said Hillman, whose five kids attended Eden Prairie High School when the family lived there. “If you’re a student who is going to get lost, you can get lost in a class of 10.”

Some residents and school administrators contend that it’s also more economical to run one large school than two smaller ones.

But the savings may not be as great as some believe. In Wayzata, officials said operating a second high school would cost $12 million more over 20 years than running one large school. Shakopee officials found the operating costs were basically the same over time.

Rather than building megaschools, the Lakeville and Eastern Carver County districts chose to build new schools when faced with growing enrollment. Two smaller schools, they said, give more students a chance at everything from academics to yearbook to band.

There was “a lot of teeth gnashing” before Eastern Carver County opened Chanhassen High School in 2009, said Dick Ungar, assistant principal at Chanhassen. But, he said, the arrangement has “exceeded my expectations.”

Each school has its own sports and extracurricular activities. If a specialized class is offered at only one school, students from both schools can enroll.

Making big feel small

Administrators at Wayzata and Minnetonka acknowledge that more students can be challenging. But they also tout their school’s reputations — U.S. News and World Report ranks both among the best 15 high schools in Minnesota.

The key, they said, is to make a big school feel smaller with activities and opportunities for kids to get to know classmates and teachers.

“You know what [students] want to know? They want to know that adults in the building know their name,” said Scott Gengler, Wayzata’s principal overseeing the addition.

At Minnetonka High School, Principal Jeff Erickson said creating and fostering an inclusive culture is a big part of what makes the 3,000-student school work.

Students “find their passion and they find their group of friends they connect with,” he said.

To accommodate the students’ varied interests, extracurricular offerings range from drama to athletics to the Duct Tape Club. In the end, though, students and other residents can identify with Minnetonka High School.

“There’s a real strong sense of unity and identity in the community for their high school,” he said.

Students also said they like the benefits of being big.

“After a month, it felt like home,” said Jacob Siegel, a Minnetonka High School senior who transferred from a 500-student private school. “My dad always tells me, you can make a big school small, but you can’t make a small school big.”