New York Small High Schools Initiative

Last month, the Alliance for Excellent Education held a Webinar about the lessons learned from the New York City (NYC) “small schools of choice” (SSCs) initiative.  As part of this initiative, New York City closed more than 20 underperforming public high schools and in their place opened new small nonselective schools of choice. The new schools served on average 100 students per grade level and were personalized not only in size, but also in terms of relationships among students and teachers.

Gordon Berlin, President of MDRC, the organization that evaluated the initiative, reported that 68% of the students graduated within four years, compared to 60% of the students who were randomly assigned to other high schools in the city. The evaluation found that placement in a small school did not make any difference in terms of college readiness in math, but it did make a significant difference in English language arts. Additionally, a statistically significant larger number of students who did not meet or only partially met standards in eighth grade graduated within four years in the new small high schools compared to students enrolled in control high schools in NYC.

According to Robert Hughes, president of New Visions for Public Schools, the intermediary that worked with the NYC department of education on this initiative, the NYC experience is transportable to other districts. Other districts can also work with intermediaries to use insider/outsider strategy to identify resources to leverage in the school (e.g., strong teachers), in the community (e.g., strong committed civic groups), and in the district (e.g., understanding Title I policies).

Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University, noted that the MDRC study is consistent with previous evaluation studies of similar small school initiatives. There are long-standing findings that show that small size is associated with higher graduation rates and safer environments. Generally, the scientific literature suggests that schools serving over 1,500 students are less likely to show positive outcome unless they have personalized structures within. High schools serving 300-400 students may be generally more effective, especially for low-income families. In some, areas (e.g., suburban districts) serving 600-800 students may be just as effective.

Adam Tucker, Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the funder of the initiative, identified two major strengths of the initiative. First, the involvement of an intermediary that had the insider/outsider perspective of the system, and second, indication that the system is evolving, building capacity, and has a strong accountability base.

James H. Shelton III, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education, commented that the MDRC study provides research-based evidence of what works. Although the small high school strategy may not work for all schools in every community, it is worth examination.

For more information on New York City’s Small High Schools Initiative, check out today’s Education Week’s Webinar, “Lessons from New York City’s Small High Schools.”

Guest Author: Dr. Yael Kidron is the Research Team Leader for the National High School Center and a Senior Research Analyst at the American Institutes for Research (AIR).

Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.

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