It is a full five months into the school year, and Isabel Echavarria, a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland, hasn’t used her locker once. She’s not even sure she has one. Sean Radley, a sophomore at Tesoro High in Southern California, thinks there may be one book in his locker, but he rarely visits it. Nekko Jones and Dwayne Burrell, freshmen at Cardozo Education Campus in Washington, were assigned lockers at the beginning of the year, but neither knows where his is.
Once the gravitational center of the high school day, lockers long ago lost their allure, and their usefulness seems a relic of an epoch of education that has slipped away. Movies and television shows about high schools may still feature students decorating lockers — or being shoved into them — but in the real world, lockers have all but been abandoned. The trend has expanded so rapidly and widely that schools are now removing individual student lockers from their hallways, and builders and designers for many new high schools don’t even include them in their plans.
“It’s a pretty big change that has taken place over the last few years,” said Sean Connor, a principal with Pfluger Architects, a large Texas firm that focuses on school construction. “It used to be the standard to provide individual lockers for every student. Now, the standard is no lockers or, at most, just a few.”
So, why the change? Anyone with a high schooler in their orbit knows that students now want everything they own with them all of the time. Books, phones, water bottles, headphones, laptops, tablets, snacks, coats, extra shoes. Where students used to swap out textbooks between classes, they now navigate the halls bent over by jam-packed backpacks like Himalayan Sherpas shuffling along without a base camp. This carryall approach probably ensures a steady stream of patients for chiropractors, and it bewilders parents who don’t understand why their kids can’t just use an assigned locker to store their stuff.
For most students, the issue is time and convenience.
“My school is really big,” Echavarria said. “It has four floors and a basement, and stopping in one specific location between each class would be ridiculous. And it’s harder to keep track of your stuff if it’s in another location.”
Acxel Escobar, a junior at Cardozo, realized early on that he simply had no need for a separate place to keep everything at school. “My freshman year, I kept a few books in my locker and used it,” he said. “But I stopped using it because I had all of my resources in my book bag.”
Lockers are also being left in the dust because schools offer more classes that use online textbooks, or they keep textbooks in the classroom to be shared by students. And the very nature of school is changing.
“The high school experience has evolved where learning is anytime, anyplace,” said Ann Bonitatibus, principal at Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County, where most of the school’s individual lockers were removed during a renovation last year. “The more that our campuses are like that, the more inclined our students are to have their materials with them at all times and all places so that way they’re learning at lunch, at 20-minute break periods or between classes.”
As part of its renovation, Thomas Jefferson installed shared cubbies in convenient locations throughout the school where students can temporarily store their gear. For a generation raised on bike-sharing and Uber, the fluid ownership model makes sense. The changes, Bonitatibus said, “have been student-led more than anything. And what we’re doing now is responding to student patterns. We’re not trying to make students fit our pattern.”
Today’s students may be unaware of the role of the locker in high school lore, but for earlier generations, the news of its impending disappearance is cause for nostalgia.
The locker, after all, was an integral part of growing up, a place to show you were responsible for yourself and for your things. It was where students learned that combination locks opened in sequence of left-right-left (or was it right-left-right?). It was where love notes were surreptitiously deposited (and less surreptitiously pored over). It was where drug dealers hid their stash (seldom successfully) and boys asked girls to the prom (before that became a full-scale production). It was an extension of yourself.
Claire Libert, a junior at York Community High in Elmhurst, Ill., still uses her locker but has no sentimental attachment to it. “It’s not like we meet there and share secrets like in the movies,” Libert said. And decorating them for birthdays? “No, that’s something my little sister does in middle school.”
What today’s high school students make clear is they have no interest in claiming a thin box of metal that is 5 feet high, 1 foot wide and 1 foot deep as a home away from home. Lockers are as necessary for them as a telephone book.
Katie Schroder, a junior at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, Va., says it used to be that students there weren’t assigned a locker until they turned in their emergency contact forms. But so few students cared about having a locker, they didn’t bother turning in the forms. The school quickly got wise and changed the conditions: Turn in the forms or no WiFi access. The missing forms were soon submitted.
At Rock Ridge High, also in Ashburn and home to 2,100 students, Principal John Duellman estimates that 90 percent of sophomores, juniors and seniors don’t use their lockers. Freshmen are a little more likely to hang on to their middle school habit of using their lockers to store their belongings.
The shift, Duellman said, is part of the structural change in the way high schools operate, a byproduct “of the changing face of public education in America.” He says new high schools should look hard at whether lockers are needed and see what savings can be made in space and money by doing without them or with fewer of them.
Manufacturers have felt the change. At DeBourgh Manufacturing, producer of “All American Lockers,” school lockers account for 56 percent of its school sales. That’s down 10 percentage points from just eight years ago for the family-owned Colorado company that is one of a half-dozen major locker manufacturers in the country.
“We have seen this come around before over the last two decades, the discussion of lockers going away, but this time around it has more teeth,” said Jorgen Salo, DeBourgh’s president. “This time, we think that hallway lockers, the way they are used, how many are going to be bought, the long term is going to be less lockers and different kinds of lockers in the hallway.”
Now, the company is introducing new products — including smart lockers that are shareable, open with the swipe of an ID and are wired to charge electronic devices — to respond to the downward trend. And, the company notes, lockers for high school athletic facilities remain in demand.
Even as students abandon their lockers for an ever more mobile lifestyle, there are regrets.
“We’re losing some of the classic culture high school experience,” said Lee Schwartz, a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase. “I don’t usually give it a second thought, but I would like to see more locker decorating or socializing at lockers.”
Schwartz did find a higher calling for lockers during her sophomore year. At the beginning of the school year, she decided to turn hers into a time capsule. Schwartz and her friends wrote letters to their future selves and deposited them in the locker to be read when they next opened it at the end of the year.
“It was really fun to go back and pull them out,” she said. “It was nice to look back, and it was a good way to turn something not very useful into something pretty beneficial.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.