School & District Management

Small Schools’ Ripple Effects Debated

May 02, 2006 9 min read
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Major initiatives in New York City and Chicago to close unsuccessful schools and create small schools in their wake are stirring criticism from some community activists, local politicians, and others.

Beyond the resistance that school closures often generate, some critics charge that the growing scale of the efforts is producing negative ripple effects on other schools in the cities.

In Chicago, the chief concerns appear to be whether the policies are leading to a rise in school violence, as well as causing academic disruption for students shifted to other schools. In New York, two of the biggest complaints are that the move to small high schools has caused an influx of special-needs students to other city high schools and has exacerbated overcrowding in some schools.

District officials in both cities counter at least some of those charges. For instance, New York officials insist that the small-schools effort is now easing overcrowding, not increasing it.

Also, while achievement data on many of the new schools are still in short supply, advocates are quick to note one powerful indicator: The schools are getting more applicants than they can handle.

“Every new school we’ve opened has a waiting list,” said Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the 426,000-student Chicago school system. “[Families] are desperately looking for better options.”

Still, the reactions to the rapid pace of change in New York, the nation’s largest school district, and Chicago, the third-largest, present reformers with the challenge of building public support for the closures, observers say.

“To the foundation leaders and maybe district leadership, it looks like they’re saving people by shutting down their schools and replacing them with a privately managed charter school,” said Michael Klonsky, the director of the Chicago-based Small Schools Workshop. “To the people on the ground, it seems like something [is] being done to them. … But it’s not just a school they’re losing. The school is often the anchor in the community.”

James H. Shelton, an education program director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is supporting the small-schools efforts in both cities, said he is mindful of the central role schools serve, especially in low-income communities.

“If the institution is no longer preparing kids for life, then you’re contributing to the degradation of the community by leaving it in place,” he said. “When you change it, you have to do it respectfully, but you have to change it.”

Concerns About Violence

Earlier this year, a member of the Chicago City Council put forward a resolution—discussed at a hearing but never acted upon by the council—calling for a moratorium on further school closings in Chicago until the academic progress of all students whose schools were closed or reconstituted could be evaluated.

Some state legislators representing Chicago have challenged closings, and the Illinois House of Representatives passed a bill in March that would impose new requirements for public review before the district could close a school.

The city’s Renaissance 2010 initiative, unveiled in 2004 by Mayor Richard M. Daley, aims to create 100 small schools—both elementary and secondary—by the end of the decade. About two-thirds of the schools are to be operated by outside entities, either as charter schools or “contract” schools; the others will be district schools that receive some freedom from district rules.

Part of the effort involves converting the district’s underenrolled and low-performing elementary and secondary schools into new schools. Typically, such schools are closed for a year, so students must attend other schools, at least temporarily.

“We know transfers set children back academically,” said Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of the Chicago-based advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education. “The problem is the payoff is not necessarily going to be a better school. Chicago Public Schools has just thrown the net out and pulled in every fish in the sea.”

The Chicago Teachers Union and other critics of the initiative cite a recent Chicago Sun-Times article noting increases in incidents of violence at some schools that had taken in students from schools closed under Renaissance 2010. Since they began admitting those students in the fall of 2004, all eight schools studied have posted an increase in reported violence that is at least twice the average for similar city high schools, the newspaper said.

“There is growing violence in the schools, particularly the high schools, that are receiving new students,” said Rosemaria Genova, a spokeswoman for the Chicago union. “Chicago Public Schools needs to quit experimenting” and focus its resources on improving existing schools, she argued.

But Mr. Duncan questioned the Sun-Times analysis, noting that overall incidents of school violence have declined by 5 percent this academic year.

Asked whether he saw any connection between the school transfers and violent incidents, he said: “On a balanced look, in some cases there was, and in others it’s gone down. … The issues are very, very complex.”

Spec. Ed. at Issue

In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a Republican, has been pushing an aggressive small-schools program for the 1.1 million-student district since 2003. Already, nearly 200 small schools have been opened, and another 100 such schools are expected over the next few years.

Given extreme limits on available real estate, the city’s department of education has opted to locate many of the new schools within existing ones, whether in large high schools that are being phased out or in separate schools that will remain open.

In March, the Citywide Council on High Schools, a parent-advisory board to New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, unanimously passed a resolution urging the district to “substantially delay” implementation of new small high schools.

“The main concern really has to do with how the small schools are impacting the general school system, and the students who aren’t in the small schools,” said David Bloomfield, a member of the council and vocal critic of the small-schools movement.

“That seems to be an area that the Gates Foundation and the New York City public school system didn’t think about when they were starting to scale up the small schools,” said Mr. Bloomfield, who heads the educational leadership program at the Brooklyn College campus of the City University of New York.

Specifically, critics say many high schools have seen their enrollments swell substantially as 16 large high schools are being phased out and replaced with smaller schools housed in those facilities and elsewhere. They suggest that, if one large school is replaced by several smaller schools in the same facility, it usually won’t accommodate as many students. Many existing schools also are feeling squeezed, they say, as small schools are added to their campuses.

But Garth Harries, the head of the city’s office of new schools, said the new small schools are actually easing overcrowding by adding 5,000 seats to the system.

“It’s an unfortunate conflation of separate factors to say that small schools have crowded existing schools,” he said. “If you look at the data, … the creation of small schools has added capacity, added seats to the school system.”

One development sure to help is the $11.2 billion in school construction aid approved last month by the state for New York City.

Critics also blame the small-schools initiative for what they say is an increase in the number of students with disabilities and those who are English-language learners enrolled in some regular high schools. The district grants the new, small schools a temporary waiver from having to accept students who require self-contained classrooms for the schools’ first two years of existence.

Jill S. Levy, the president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, which represents principals and other administrators in New York City, said the influx is a real problem. “They get clustered into the larger schools, and that has a huge effect [under] No Child Left Behind,” she said of special-needs students, “and on the kinds of services that the school has to gear up.”

The district agrees that the new, small schools are serving fewer students with disabilities and limited English skills than average, although they note those schools took in a higher proportion of such students this school year than the year before.

For this school year, 10.7 percent of high school students citywide were special education students, compared with 7.5 percent in the new, small schools. For English-language learners, the citywide average was 11.5 percent, compared with 10 percent at the new, small schools.

“Part of the problem we’re combating is the warehousing of those students in some of those large high schools,” Mr. Harries said. He argues that over time, the new, small schools will serve comparable proportions of special-needs students, and deliver them a far better education.

Mr. Shelton of the Gates Foundation said that while he’s found Gates-backed small schools are serving a proportionate number of low-income and minority students, the concern about special education students in New York was consistent with some of what he’s been hearing in other places.

“We’re disturbed by the fact that our special education representation is not as high as we would like it,” he said. “But over time, that’s going to normalize.”

Mr. Shelton noted that the foundation has begun making grants to help local groups raise awareness about new schools, including among parents of students with disabilities.

‘Getting Better’

Norm Fruchter, the director of the community-involvement program at New York University’s school of education, called the small-schools effort in New York “extraordinary, just in terms of its scale, scope, and timing.” But while applauding its goals, Mr. Fruchter sees reasons for concern, given the zeal for opening so many school so rapidly. One is finding enough skilled leaders to run them. Another is space.

“They’re sometimes forced into makeshift solutions,” he said, “which oftentimes don’t play out in a way that maximizes meeting kids’ needs.”

“You saw them put small schools into high schools that couldn’t handle them,” agreed Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “Things are getting much better, but you still have a lot of schools saying, unless you have space, don’t create schools within schools.”

“I think that there’s been legitimate concerns expressed, but I don’t think there’s been a massive pushback,” said Robert L. Hughes, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, which has helped develop small schools in New York. “I think we’ve learned a lot. … We’re a lot more effective with community engagement. We can show people what the change is about.”

Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2006 edition of Education Week as Small Schools’ Ripple Effects Debated


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