New Findings in the Effectiveness and Operation of Small Public High Schools of Choice in New York City

More than 200 small high schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students have opened in New York City since 2002. They replaced more than 23 large high schools identified as failing. MDRC and the Alliance for Excellent Education discussed those schools at a recent Webinar, which built on an MDRC report, Sustained Progress: New Findings About the Effectiveness and Operation of Small Public High Schools of Choice in New York City.  Compared with their district school counterparts, the report found “large, positive, and statistically significant effects” on student achievement and high school graduation rates for those students who entered ninth grade at a small school of choice in the fall of 2007.  

Webinar facilitator Bob Wise, President of the Alliance for Excellent Education, was joined by Rebecca Unterman, Research Associate in the K-12 Education Policy Area at MDRC; Robert L. Hughes, President of New Visions for Public Schools; Mark Ossenheimer, Principal at Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx; and James (Jim) H. Shelton III, Acting Deputy Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education.


Small schools of choice make up approximately 123 of the 200 small schools created under Mayor Bloomberg. These schools are non-selective, lottery-based and developed through a competitive proposal process that engaged parents, administrators, students, and community organizers to reimagine the relationship among students, curricula, community, and school. In their inception:

  • Winning proposal teams received $100,000 awards for a planning year.
  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave an additional $100,000 for all of the next four years of implementation.  
  • Leadership emerged organically. Often community leaders and teachers on the planning team became school administrators.
  • Schools were permitted to phase in grades and exclude English Language Learners and special needs students in the start up years. Since 2008, these two subgroups are now represented in these schools at near district levels.

MDRC’s analysis sample was approximately 15,000 students, 84 percent of whom qualified for the federal free-or-reduced-price lunch program, and two thirds of whom entered below proficiency in both reading and math.

How successful are these schools and why?

The data in this report tells a promising story: students across subgroups who attended New York City’s small schools of choice demonstrated a significantly higher rate of on-track indicators for success and were more likely to graduate than their peers at larger high schools. As a result, these schools saw a 50 percent decrease in the minority/white graduation gap when compared to the district-wide gap. The influence on college readiness as measured by scores on the Regent exam (75+ in English Language Arts and 80+ in math) showed a more modest effect, with a statistically significant effect found only in reading. “This study shows an intervention that has benefits for students across the board in every subgroup,” said Deputy Secretary Shelton. “Not much else besides small schools of choice has had this kind of impact.”

Interviews with principals and teachers flesh out the schools’ success and elucidate challenges. Both groups consider the quality of teachers and the interpersonal relationships within their building as the most important factors for their success. The biggest challenges: high staff turnover, building and maintaining teacher capacity over time, and preserving high academic standards despite a constant influx of students performing below grade level. Principals also identified decreasing financial resources and limited physical space as significant obstacles. “It’s kind of like building the plane while you’re flying it,” said Ossenheimer.


 “What we were able to do in New York,” explains New Visions President Hughes, “New Visions didn’t invent this, the intermediaries didn’t invent this. We found pockets of excellence and used it to provide systematic reform.” Deputy Secretary Shelton agreed saying that the lessons from this study are easily applied to other large cities across the country.

Lessons learned:

  • Quickly bring ninth grade students up to key academic standards
  • Identify student needs in math and reading early on
  • Build collaboration between teachers within networks of small schools
  • Minimize the amount of time principals spend on bureaucratic compliance

Key questions remain:

  • How do you support the mission-driven nature of these schools over time?
  • How do you get kids to take ownership of their learning and carry that into college?
  • How can we export lessons learned to other schools?

Anne Mishkind is a research associate with the College and Career Readiness and Success Center.


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