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Sobering Findings About Small High Schools in New York

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A really interesting new study is out about the small high schools that have opened by the score in New York City under the Bloomberg/Klein administration. It finds that while the small schools have benefited many students, their opening caused "collateral damage" to the remaining large high schools.

The team at the New School's Center for New York City Affairs found that in closing 21 big, underperforming high schools since 2002, the city's education department diverted many students into 180 or so new small schools, which quickly produced graduation and attendance rates higher than the big schools they replaced. But not all of the kids from the big schools could be absorbed into the smaller ones, and they were funneled instead into other large high schools, pushing up enrollments, and pushing down attendance and graduation rates.

Some of the big high schools proved to be better at absorbing these stressors than others, and the report suggests that strong leadership had much to do with how they weathered the storm. Some, though, staggered under the influx and demands of hundreds of new students, many with special needs, and were ultimately closed.

The study yields a couple of sobering notes on the small schools themselves. It finds that many had better graduation rates initially, but in nearly half, those rates declined sharply in the second cohort of students. Also, in graduating students, the small schools have relied more heavily on the "local" diploma, which students earn by scoring 55 on five state Regents tests. The trouble is, the state is phasing out that diploma. This coming fall's sophomores will have to graduate with a standard diploma, which requires passing scores of 65 on the Regents.

These few things only scratch the surface of the scads of interesting, nuanced findings in this study. It is riveting reading, and of great value to anyone trying to sort out the role small schools should play in providing options to high school students.

UPDATE: My story on the report is posted here.

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The Battle amongst Small and Large Schools in NYC

In 2002/ 2003, the collaborative efforts of Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg resulted in an educational reform initiative to close several large, low performing schools in New York City and open smaller schools to cater to the city’s diverse youth. The approach seems to have the best intentions of seeking to foster a safer, communal, and rigorous academic environment. The smaller schools have met the standards set forth to better the quality of education; however, larger high schools in the city have thus suffered in many aspects as the success of smaller schools is seemingly on the rise. The major issue remains as to how to support the large and small schools equitably to provide city-wide support of our students.

The ideal surrounding a smaller school environment involves interest in increasing student achievement, improving grades and test scores, decreasing violence, and encouraging community involvement. The first benefit is the reduced class sizes from approximately 34 students to numbers in the low or mid twenties. Success in the classroom relies largely on classroom management, offering engaging lessons, catering to a variety of learning styles, adequate materials, etc. In a much smaller setting, these criteria are met with much more ease as it is easier to attend to a smaller mass. The decrease in class size also allows for greater rapport between students, teachers, and guardians as natural human instinct seeks comfort in a more intimate setting. Students attending small schools may feel more involved and less distracted rather than seeing themselves as just another student in the mix of thousands more. Several others present the argument that many of the small schools are based on themes such as careers in sports, law, health etc. which appeal to students’ interests and provide a real world application. However, many are failing to acknowledge how the successes of these smaller schools are affecting the large schools which enroll a majority of the city’s students.

The glamour of the small schools has had a tendency to overshadow the injustice several of the city’s larger schools are facing as a result of the progressive establishment of smaller learning environments. One of the major issues pertains to the rather selective nature of the small schools. Much of the success of the smaller schools correlates to their ability to accept higher performing students with a prospect future academic success. The nature of the school-choice system usually results in a majority of students being filtered to larger schools. These students are often low performing, special education, and usually require attention to English language learning skills. Therefore, the larger schools are being plagued with initial overcrowding, safety issues, and low graduation and attendance rates as there is a greater tendency to fall through the cracks unnoticed in a large population. Even dating back to the historical era of Horace Mann, educational reforms involved the culture and physical environment of schools which larger settings are in greater need of change. Amidst a budget crisis, these larger schools lack a great deal of support whether it is man power, appropriate educational opportunities, and educational supplies which foster the downward spiral as attention is skewed towards maintaining the achievement of smaller schools. The lack of support is a major issue as these schools are clearly characterized by larger, higher needs populations.

We must also take into consideration whether or not the small schools will experience long term success. This raises issues surrounding micromanagement, adherence to missions, and enthusiasm of these small schools. Reports show there is rapid turnover of administration and teachers in these schools; only time will exhibit the consequences of this instability. Also, the city is phasing out local diplomas which once required students to pass the Regents with a 55; new standards will require a minimum of a 65. How will the small schools prevail? Will this impact graduation and attendance in small schools a few years down the line? How will the rapid turnover of educators impact student success?

Although the achievements of the small schools are capturing the limelight, we must be cautious in our efforts to not put all our apples in one basket. The inequality which the educational system is supporting, whether intentional or not, does not serve solely as an injustice but rather fuels a potential crisis. All public schools throughout the United States should be characterized by diverse student populations and the means to cater to those students fairly and equally. It is an extreme educational disservice to have large schools with high concentrations of students suffering from poverty, language and/or cultural boundaries, and special needs. In light of Mark Van Doren’s educational philosophy of developing the intellect and individual qualities of persons in society we must equally support both our large and small schools to best serve the children in our educational system. Focusing on addressing the imbalance now will ultimately better serve our children who hold the future of our society in their hands.


Tozer et al. School and Society. McGraw Hill. New York, NY. 2009.

Hernandez, Javier. “Success at Small Schools Has a Price, a Report Says”

Date Accessed: June 17, 2009.

Gewertz, Catherine. N.Y.C. Small-Schools Push Found to Hurt Big High Schools http://www.edweek.org/login.html?source=http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/06/18/36highschools.html&destination=http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/06/18/36highschools.html&levelId=2100

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