Opinion
Education Letter to the Editor

The Impact of Small Schools

February 14, 2006 5 min read
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To the Editor:

Your Jan. 25, 2006, Commentary by David C. Bloomfield (“Come Clean on Small Schools”) contains errors about findings from an interim report of the evaluation of New Century High Schools. The goal of the evaluation is to provide ongoing feedback to the New York City Department of Education and supporters of the New Century High Schools.

Professor Bloomfield writes that “New York City public schools in the first two years of the New Century High Schools initiative were generally found ... ”:

“To be cherry-picking students and teachers.” False. Although students in the first group of New Century schools in the Bronx had slightly higher test scores than a Bronx comparison group, New Century High Schools students across the city, including those in the Bronx, entered high school with very serious academic needs, “with the great majority of students ... scoring in the lowest two (of four) achievement levels.”

Nor did the evaluation find evidence of the “cherry picking” of teachers. New Century teachers differed from other New York City public school teachers mainly in their lack of teaching experience.

“To have failed to innovate instructionally.” Misleading. The new schools were and are expected to deliver instruction that supports student success, not necessarily instruction that is innovative. The report described instruction as largely traditional, but appropriate for the material presented and the needs of the students served. Instruction was described as challenging and aligned with the Regents standards. In addition, instruction incorporated high levels of attention to the learning needs of individual students.

“To lack promised community partnerships.” False. The evaluation found community partners to be playing important roles in New Century schools, “providing a bridge from the school to resources and opportunities existing outside the traditional school context.” The partner roles noted in the report include mentoring, tutoring, providing internships, brokering new relationships with other organizations and businesses, and connecting schools to parents.

“To have declining levels of discipline.” False. Across all students in the New Century schools that had been open for at least two years, “average suspension rates remained fairly stable at 2 percent,” compared with a citywide average of 5 percent in the first year and 6 percent in the second.

“To show no improvement in student achievement.” False. The report stated that it was too early for Regents-test data to be available on students who were then 9th and 10th graders. However, the report provides compelling evidence of students’ commitment to achievement, as shown through high attendance, low suspensions, and low school attrition. It finds that early indicators of success suggest that New Century high schools are “creating positive educational settings for their students, and that these early successes are likely to be borne out later in high graduation rates among NCHS students and high rates of successful preparation for college and careers.”

Elizabeth R. Reisner

Policy Studies Associates Inc.

Washington, D.C.

The writer is the principal investigator of the New Century High Schools evaluation.

To the Editor:

I am the principal of a small, diverse, urban Roman Catholic high school in New Jersey. We enroll only 177 students, and our methods have been very successful.

When I inquired about the possibility of receiving funding from the Gates Foundation, I was told that the foundation does not fund existing small schools, only those just being opened. It would appear, from David C. Bloomfield’s Commentary, that it is willing to let successful small schools struggle, and possibly close, while opening poorly planned new structures based on little evidence of success.

I agree with Mr. Bloomfield that restructuring existing large schools to accommodate smaller learning communities does not make the grade. The children still are all in the same building, just artificially separated from each other. I also agree that opening charter schools is often just a ruse for taking the best and brightest out of the public schools.

And yes, all research, whether it comes from the public or the private domain, should be made available to the public. Where I disagree with Mr. Bloomfield, however, is when he says that the small-school model is “untested.” My own small school is producing a clearly tested “product” that the public sector is failing to: a well-rounded, well-educated, and morally aware young person.

Kathy Joyce

Principal

St. Peter the Apostle High School

New Brunswick, N.J.

To the Editor:

David C. Bloomfield’s examples in his Commentary “Come Clean on Small Schools” reflect what he perceives to be happening in New York City.

But small schools have been created in many regions of the country, with promising results. Four good examples are Boston, Minneapolis, Baltimore, and Wilmington, Del. A recent report on Boston’s 19 “pilot” schools, for example, shows that they have outperformed their public school counterparts on various indicators. The same can be said for small schools in Minneapolis. Early results from Baltimore also show small schools’ potential. And in Wilmington, special education students are being integrated into small learning communities with the extensive use of inclusion strategies.

Mr. Bloomfield makes the point that, as he puts it, “foundations’ history ... is littered with failure.” He does not mention that the Carnegie Corporation of New York has successfully launched a promising small-schools initiative, Schools for a New Society, in seven cities, or that the Panasonic Foundation is providing implementation support to districts advancing such improvement strategies.

The practitioners and students benefiting from the support of the Gates, Carnegie, Panasonic, and other foundations would have stories to tell that are different from Mr. Bloomfield’s.

That the implementation of small schools has been uneven is a reflection of human-capacity issues faced by districts brave enough to recognize that they cannot continue to fail thousands of students in large, underperforming schools. Foundations must continue the work, focusing on building the capacity of administrators and teachers, so they have the skills to implement research-based small-learning-communities practices.

Mr. Bloomfield’s concerns with New Century High Schools ignore the many examples of successful small schools in New York City since 1992 that have withstood the test of time and are exemplary. The Julia Richman Education Complex and the High School for Economics and Finance are outstanding examples.

Mr. Bloomfield could better serve students in this country by taking a broader, balanced approach to small schools, instead of painting high school reform with a brush clearly dipped in his own discontent over local New York City issues.

Carmen V. Russo

Boca Raton, Fla.

The writer served as the chief executive officer of the Baltimore public schools in Maryland from 2000 to 2003, and was formerly an administrator of New York City’s high schools.

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