Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Do Small Schools Undermine Diversity?

By Bruce Fuller — January 22, 2014 7 min read

Soft-spoken Claudia Huerta loudly trumpets her small high school in New York City. She loves “its intensive focus on history” and says she is “leaning much more toward liberal arts colleges” after graduating next spring.

Covetous parents already eye Claudia’s precious seat at the High School of American Studies, housed at Lehman College in the Bronx. There are 73,000 8th graders in New York City, and many flocked to open houses and school fairs this fall, scurrying about the city’s education marketplace like desperate miners panning for gold. These students can apply for admission at up to 12 public high schools.

Small high schools enjoy surging demand, rising from the remnants of once huge and often dreary campuses. Almost half of New York City’s 8th graders will enter one of 378 human-scale schools (some with total enrollments of only 120 to 200 students), a centerpiece of outgoing mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s reforms. These warm and personalized places have spurred modest gains in graduation rates and rekindled faith in public education.

Yet halting the spread of scaled-down high schools is one signal of new Mayor Bill de Blasio’s sharp reversal of his predecessor’s agenda. In presenting his new schools chief in late December—veteran educator Carmen Fariña—Mr. de Blasio said he would stop breaking up huge high schools and recasting them as small academies.

In fact, a spate of recent findings reveals a dark side to Mr. Bloomberg’s faith in pint-size schools: Many serve to calcify the segregation of students along lines of race and class. It’s a painful dilemma, an allegory of cosmopolitan parenting—the earnest push to maximize my child’s growth at times erodes the common good.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Still, small can be beautiful.

New York’s Morris High School graduated less than 1 in 3 entering students a decade ago. “You’d walk through those classrooms, [and see] students sitting there, but not really there,” Shael Polakow-Suransky told me. Polakow-Suransky, who serves as New York’s chief academic officer and was appointed by Mr. Bloomberg, was previously an inventive principal who helped to demolish Morris, erected in 1897, and to replace it with four small offspring, which now graduate more than two of every three students, most from immigrant families.

“Getting to know kids really well” is key, said Mr. Polakow-Suransky, who watches over small schools and the city’s 130 charter schools.

Teachers report keen interest in getting to know and challenging students, according to an August 2013 survey by the nonprofit research organization MDRC. For Claudia Huerta, the finding is obvious: “I’ve had teachers who have never taught me call me by my name in the hallway” at the High School of American Studies, she said.

Citywide, students who attend small high schools are 9 percent more likely to graduate within four years, relative to matched peers who enter a conventional campus. The tiny schools also place competitive pressure on their large counterparts, which in turn up their game. The city’s graduation rate has climbed from 51 percent in 2000 to 71 percent in 2012, according to New York University researcher James J. Kemple and his Research Alliance for New York City Schools.

But the dramatic shift to small schools and Mr. Bloomberg’s wider efforts did little to narrow achievement gaps. Disparities have failed to budge for 8th graders citywide over the past 12 years, whether defined by pupils’ race or class, according to federal data released last month.

A spate of recent findings reveals a dark side to Mr. Bloomberg’s faith in pint-size schools: Many serve to calcify the segregation of students along lines of race and class.”

Small schools also exacerbate segregation. Three-fifths of all black and Latino teens in New York City now enter small campuses, many situated in depressed neighborhoods, where these tiny units arose from the ashes of dysfunctional high schools like Morris. In contrast, less than one-fourth of all white and Asian-American 9th graders enter a small school. Their families press for and win seats in competitive public schools, destinations to which just 6 percent of low-achieving 8th graders even apply.

It’s not dastardly discrimination, but stratified routes of market demand, that act to reinforce segregation. Black and Latino parents rationally bid for schools displaying stronger results than the campuses closest to home. Yet their first-choice schools still perform far below the top picks of their white and Asian-American counterparts, as detailed by scholars Sean Corcoran and Henry Levin in a 2010 study.

Proximity and familiarity work against equitable demand for robust schools. Almost a third of poor parents bid for high schools receiving a C, D, or F on the city’s quality ruler, compared with one-sixth of better-off parents.

Persisting segregation then undercuts progress in closing achievement gaps. One-half of the city’s lowest-achieving youths attend a racially isolated high school, where more than 90 percent of enrollees are black or Latino. Just one-fourth of all other students do, according to Mr. Kemple of the Research Alliance.

White and Asian-American youths remain one-third more likely to earn a Regents diploma, compared with their black and brown peers. So, while small schools lift the achievement ladder a few inches, racially isolated youths remain at the bottom rung.

The segregating effects of local school markets beset other cities as well. My research in Los Angeles found middle-class enclaves, whether white or Latino, that convert their regular campuses into charter schools, now free to rebuff any incursion by low-income families. And it’s the social class of parents, not their race, that stratifies enrollment demand. White students migrating to small charter schools generally have higher reading scores and better-off parents, compared with their poorer white peers left behind, segregating effects observed across four cities in a 2009 RAND study.

The Obama administration turns a deaf ear to the isolating effects of unchecked markets. The president has told the nation’s governors to lift caps on charter schools, whether they boost achievement or not.

“Integration must be voluntary,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said last year in a radio interview. “You can’t force these kinds of things.”

So, how can local leaders build from the success of small schools, while inculcating poor youths with the rigorous expectations that teachers press on middle-class students? Otherwise, the isolation of low achievers from stronger peers—no matter how shiny or inventive their small or charter high school—will continue to produce wide disparities, a quarter-century of research shows.

One possible solution comes from Cambridge, Mass., which requires that all parents bid for favored high schools. The small city, however, balances individual student placements against the common good, as the school board actively considers each school’s enrollment along lines of race and class. This also ensures that the fulcrum balancing the private versus civic aims of education is weighed in the public square, not hidden behind market choices.

Mayor de Blasio in New York could expand the city’s Educational Options Program, or Ed. Opt., which diversifies student enrollment in large high schools, mixing young people with varying middle school records.

“Our students of color do better because they see more diverse faces and highly motivated students,” said Ed Rubinchuk, who runs the revered science Ed. Opt. at Broolyn’s Lincoln High School.

The number of schools or programs that sift applicants through tightly woven screens has climbed by 34 percent since 2005 to 390 in total, as shown by Mr. Corcoran, a professor at New York University. In contrast, Ed. Opt. programs, which purposefully integrate schools, shrank in number by a fourth, to just 190 offerings. The first pick among half of all white 8th graders in the city is a school with competitive admissions.

We can also learn from Boston and Los Angeles, where superintendents continue to expand seats in mission-driven magnet schools, along with small pilot schools, where principals control their budgets and can fire mediocre teachers thanks to flexible labor contracts. This balances the vitality of market competition, while nudging greater integration of students under one roof.

Small schools let loose in unfettered markets reveal the benefits of less bureaucracy, emboldened principals, and close-knit ties among students and teachers. But markets also favor proximity and familiarity over new possibilities for poor families. This leads civic leaders to ignore the soft segregation that results when deepening inequality seems to grow simply from parents’ own choices.

A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2014 edition of Education Week as Is Small Beautiful?

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