N.Y.C. Study Weighs Cost of Small Schools

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Despite their higher costs, New York City's small high schools provide as much education value for the dollar as their larger, more traditional counterparts, a study has found.

The analysis by a team of researchers at New York University suggests that smaller schools are worth the extra investment because they graduate more of their students on time.

"A lot of the literature says small is good--particularly for poor and minority students," said Leanna Stiefel, the study's primary author and an economics professor at NYU's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. "So it's good to put costs alongside of schools and find that, even when you do that, the costs relative to performance are good."

The study released last week is among the first to apply a cost-benefit analysis to small schools. It addresses one of the most common criticisms of smaller, more autonomous schools: that they're too expensive to replicate on a large-scale basis.

Although a handful of urban school systems have hit on small schools or schools-within-schools as a strategy for improving edu-cation, New York's experiment with the concept is among the largest and most established to date. The city has some 200 small elementary, middle, and high schools, serving 50,000 of the district's 1.1 million students.

Encouraging Results

The NYU study, however, excluded some newer small schools, concentrating on those that had been around long enough to have four years of data on a group of entering freshmen. In all, the study sample included 128 high schools, 21 of which were considered small because they had fewer than 600 students.

Using 1996 figures, the researchers found that the small schools spent $7,628 a year per pupil--about $1,410 more than schools with 2,000 or more students. But, in terms of cost per graduate, small schools spent only $25 more than larger schools.

The study also looked at different types of small high schools. Those classified as "regular academic schools" got better results than "transfer alternative schools," which are often considered to offer a last chance for students who've had problems at other schools.

The small academic schools graduated 63.2 percent of students in the class of 1996 within four years. In comparison, only 55.9 percent of students at large, traditional schools graduated on time. Academically oriented schools with enrollments in the middle range--600 to 1,200 students--graduated only half their students on time.

Heather Lewis, a co-director of the Center for Collaborative Education, an independent reform group, said the findings were "extremely timely."

She predicted the results would be even more favorable for small schools in three years, when the researchers plan to repeat their study. By that time, she said, data will be available on as many as 50 more small schools that are just starting up now.

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