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Success for Students in Small N.Y.C. High Schools Continues

Teachers and principals at the most effective public high schools in New York City attribute the success of their schools to the closer connections between teachers and students, high academic expectations, and smaller size.

A new study by the social-policy nonprofit MDRC shows that the Small Schools Approach (SSC) in New York City is not only working for disadvantaged students of color, but students with disabilities and English-language learners are also thriving in this environment.

More than a decade ago, New York City closed 31 large failing high schools and replaced them with more than 200 new small high schools in an effort to better serve students. The bold move is paying off, as chronicled in previous MDRC studies that show higher graduation rates for students in these types of schools.

Today, another report by MDRC's Howard S. Bloom and Rebecca Unterman shows sustained student success, as well as expanded evidence that smaller schools are helping ELL students and those with special needs. It analyzes a third cohort of students who entered 9th grade in the fall of 2007, demonstrating continued success of the model.

"The nation's attention is focused on turning around failing urban high schools, and this study provides convincing evidence that large-scale transformation is possible in a large, urban public school system," the report says. "Serving low-income students of color, two-thirds of whom were far behind grade level when they started the ninth grade, SSCs are improving the lives and life prospects of many young people."

The SSCs were designed to help students in the city's most disadvantaged communities where the graduation rates had been around 40 percent. They are not academically selective and were intended to serve students with widely varying academic backgrounds.

The schools were created through a competitive proposal process, and most focused at least a portion of their school missions and curricula toward a specific academic, artistic, social justice, or professional theme. Most included a partnership with a nonprofit organization or business that provided students relevant learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom, along with additional staff support and resources.

Other organizations, such as the National Association of Secondary School Principals, have advocated high school redesign that emphasizes personalizing the school environment.

In the new MDRC report, which includes focus-group discussions with school personnel, administrators cited financial resources as the biggest challenge facing SSCs, while teachers were most concerned with adequate staffing.


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