It is already five months into the school year, and Isabel Echavarria, a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland, hasn’t utilized her locker even once. In fact, she’s not even certain if she has one. Sean Radley, a sophomore at Tesoro High in southern California, believes there might be one book in his locker, but he hardly 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 individual knows where theirs are located.
Lockers, once the focal point of the high school day, have undoubtedly lost their appeal. They now seem like artifacts from a bygone era of education. While movies and television shows about high school may still portray students decorating lockers or getting shoved into them, the reality is that lockers have become all but obsolete. The trend has spread so rapidly and widely that schools are now removing individual student lockers from their hallways. Furthermore, many new high schools don’t even include lockers in their plans.
“There has been a significant change in recent years,” says Sean Connor, a principal with Pfluger Architects, a prominent Texas firm specializing in school construction. “It used to be customary to provide individual lockers for every student. Now, the standard is either no lockers at all or just a few.”
So, what has caused this shift? Anyone with a high school student knows that nowadays, students want to have all their belongings with them at all times. Books, phones, water bottles, headphones, laptops, tablets, snacks, coats, extra shoes—you name it. Instead of swapping out textbooks between classes like they used to, students now navigate the halls burdened by heavy backpacks resembling those carried by Himalayan Sherpas. This approach not only contributes to a steady flow of patients for chiropractors but also confounds parents who can’t comprehend why their kids won’t simply use an assigned locker to store their belongings.
For most students, it all comes down to time and convenience.
“My school is quite large,” says Echavarria. “It has four floors and a basement, so stopping at one specific location between each class would be impractical. It’s also more difficult to keep track of your belongings if they’re kept elsewhere.”
Acxel Escobar, a junior at Cardozo, quickly realized during his freshman year that he had no need for a separate space to store belongings at school. “Initially, I kept a few books in my locker and used it,” he recalls. “But I stopped using it because I had all my resources in my backpack.”
Lockers are also falling out of favor because schools are now offering more classes that use online textbooks or keeping textbooks in the classroom to be shared among students. Furthermore, the nature of education itself is evolving.
“The high school experience has transformed into a situation where learning can happen anytime, anywhere,” explains Ann Bonitatibus, principal at Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County, Virginia. During a recent renovation, the school removed most of the individual lockers, opting instead to install shared cubbies in convenient locations throughout the campus where students can temporarily store their belongings. This shift towards a shared and mobile ownership model aligns with the generation that grew up with bike-sharing and Uber. As Bonitatibus puts it, “We’re responding to student patterns and creating an environment where students can learn at all times and in all places, whether it’s during lunch or between classes.”
Although today’s students may not fully appreciate the role of lockers in high school folklore, the news of their impending disappearance evokes nostalgia among previous generations.
Lockers were an integral part of growing up—a place where students learned to take responsibility for themselves and their belongings. It was where they mastered the art of opening combination locks from left-right-left or right-left-right. It was where love notes were covertly deposited (and not-so-covertly read). It was where unsuccessful attempts at hiding contraband were made, and where boys would ask girls to prom. Lockers were an extension of one’s identity.
Claire Libert, a junior at York Community High in Elmhurst, Illinois, still uses her locker but feels no sentimental attachment to it. “It’s not like we gather there and share secrets like they do in the movies,” she comments. And as for decorating lockers for birthdays? “No, that’s something my little sister does in middle school.”
Today’s high school students have no desire to claim a slim metal box that stands five feet tall, one foot wide, and one foot deep as a second home. Lockers are as useful to them as telephone books. In fact, at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, Virginia, students weren’t even assigned lockers until they turned in their emergency contact forms. However, so few students cared about having a locker that they didn’t bother turning in the forms. The school quickly realized they needed an incentive and changed the conditions: turn in the forms or no WiFi access. Unsurprisingly, the missing forms were promptly submitted.
At Rock Ridge High, also in Ashburn, 90 percent of sophomores, juniors, and seniors don’t use their lockers, according to Principal John Duellman. Freshmen are slightly more likely to continue the habit from middle school of using lockers to store their belongings. Duellman believes this shift is a consequence of the changing landscape of public education in America and suggests that new high schools carefully consider whether lockers are needed and what space and cost savings could be achieved by doing away with or reducing their number.
This change has also been observed by locker manufacturers. DeBourgh Manufacturing, one of the major locker manufacturers in the country, has experienced a decline in school locker sales, which now account for 56 percent of their total sales, down from 66 percent just eight years ago. To adapt to this downward trend, the company is introducing new products, such as smart lockers that can be shared, open with the swipe of an ID, and come equipped with charging capabilities for electronic devices. Athletic lockers for high school sports facilities, however, remain in demand.
Even as students abandon lockers in favor of a more mobile lifestyle, there is a sense of loss.
“We’re losing some of the classic high school culture and experience,” laments Lee Schwartz, a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase. “It’s not something I usually think about, but I would like to see more locker decorating or socializing at lockers.”
Schwartz did find a creative use for her locker during her sophomore year. At the start of the school year, she decided to turn her locker into a time capsule. Schwartz and her friends wrote letters to their future selves and deposited them in the locker, to be opened at the end of the year. Reflecting on the experience, she shares, “It was really enjoyable to go back and read those letters. It was a nice way to look back and turn something that wasn’t very useful into something meaningful.”