At a time when reformers and philanthropists have largely turned their back on the “small schools” movement, a study of New York City high schools has found that students are more academically successful in smaller, more personal high schools that they choose for themselves than they are in larger, more traditional schools.
The report released last month by MDRC, a New York-based research group, focuses on the 1.1-million-student school system’s effort to shut down 20 large, failing high schools and replace them with smaller schools where students might be more likely to receive the attention they need.
It zeroes in on 123 small schools that opened in New York City after 2002. Dubbed “small schools of choice” by the researchers, those nonselective public schools all enrolled 550 or fewer students in grades 9-12 and drew mainly from disadvantaged student populations.
The researchers compared students who were assigned by lottery to one of those schools with those placed elsewhere or in regular city high schools.
By the end of 9th grade, the researchers found, 58.5 percent of students in the small schools had passed enough courses to be on track to graduate, compared with 48.5 percent of the students in the control group. The actual graduation rate for small-schools enrollees was 68.7 percent, compared with 61.9 percent for the control-group students. A larger proportion of the small-schools graduates also earned the state’s regents diploma, which requires students to earn a higher passing score on state exams.
The study was financed by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which was an enthusiastic early supporter of New York City’s small-schools initiative and others around the country.
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. Study: Big Gains Found in Small Schools