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New Small Schools in N.Y.C. Post Higher Graduation Rate

By Catherine Gewertz — October 26, 2007 6 min read
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Small high schools that opened in New York City in 2002 as part of a closely watched secondary school improvement effort there are graduating far more of their students on time than other city high schools, researchers have found.

At schools that are part of the city’s New Century High Schools initiative, 78 percent of students graduate in four years, compared with 58 percent at New York City high schools on average, according to the final report of an evaluation by Policy Studies Associates Inc., a Washington-based research group that has been studying the 10-year initiative since it began.

The New Century schools enroll unusually high portions of poor and minority students and students with weaker academic skills. Yet in addition to outpacing the citywide graduation rate by 20 percentage points, they also produce a graduation rate nearly 18 percentage points higher than 10 schools with demographically similar students that were chosen by researchers as a comparison group. (See chart below.)

The graduation-rate findings were the most striking in the Oct. 16 report. The study also found that only 3 percent of the New Century high school class of 2006 had dropped out over a four-year period, compared with nearly 15 percent citywide in 2005. The New Century students also come to school more; average daily attendance was 84 percent in the 2005- 06 school year, compared with 81 percent citywide.

But the study also showed higher-than-average suspension rates (7.8 percent, compared with 6.5 percent citywide in 2005-06), and far more students earning the less rigorous “local” diploma—rather than the two types endorsed by New York state, the Regents and advanced diplomas—than at other high schools. (See chart below.)

The 88 high schools that opened since 2002 as part of the New Century High Schools initiative are among more than 240 new, small schools that have taken root in New York during that time as part of the city’s major campaign to create more choice and higher-quality options for students there.

Work to Be Done

Garth Harries, the chief executive officer of the New York City Department of Education’s office of new schools, said the report confirms the value of the city’s strategy in opening scores of small schools. Many of the large high schools they are replacing, he said, graduated fewer than 40 percent of their students.

But the findings on the types of diplomas students are earning show that more work must be done to fortify high school curricula, Mr. Harries said. As part of its stepped-up accountability system, the city is intensifying efforts to provide schools with data to help them keep students on track, and it is also working with the City University of New York system to make high school a stronger preparation for college, he said.

Making It Through

An evaluation of the New Century High Schools initiative in New York City found that new small schools created by the effort graduated larger portions of students in four years than did a group of demographically similar schools, or high schools citywide. But more of the New Century students earned less-rigorous “local” diplomas.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Policy Studies Associates, Inc.

Robert L. Hughes, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, the nonprofit organization that led the New Century High Schools initiative, said the low dropout rate is directly related to the large portion of students earning the lowest-rung diploma. “It’s really the fact that we’re holding on to the kids” who might otherwise leave school, he said.

“First we had to reverse the belief that you couldn’t graduate kids from high school,” he said. “Now we have to ensure that rigorous instruction is occurring in the classroom.We also know that college readiness is a much higher standard, and we need to focus on that.”

New Visions provided technical assistance to the schools, in partnership with the city department of education, the local teachers’ and principals’ unions, and local community organizations, using grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Open Society Institute.

New Visions also commissioned the evaluations. (The Gates and Carnegie foundations also provide funding, respectively, for Education Week’s annual report on graduation rates and its coverage of district-level reform efforts.)

Instructional Index

Policy Studies Associates examined data and survey responses from 75 of the 88 New Century schools over four years.

The researchers created an index to measure instructional quality, including factors such as alignment of instruction with state standards, educational focus, and effective leadership, and found that students at schools scoring high on that index earned an average of 1.4 credits per year more than students at schools scoring lower.

Jessica B. Heppen, the deputy director of the National High School Center at the Washington- based American Institutes for Research, which has evaluated high school reform models but was not involved in the Policy Studies Associates evaluation, said the finding bolsters the hypothesis that attention to instruction is a “key ingredient” in a successful small school.

“Perhaps a void this [study] helps fill is the understanding that making structural changes alone isn’t sufficient,” she said.

But Valerie E. Lee, an education professor at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, who has studied the effects of creating small schools, said that a difference of 1.4 credits “isn’t much” of a return for the massive investment of resources the New Century initiative represents.

She also questioned the validity of the graduation-rate data, saying the fact that students elect to attend New Century high schools might suggest added motivation or engagement that affects the schools’ outcomes.

Elizabeth R. Reisner, the director of the Policy Studies Associates evaluation, said the team does not have data addressing the motivation of New Century students, but she noted that their 8th grade achievement levels were below those of city students on average and those in the comparison group.

Michael Klonsky, the director of the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago and a longtime adviser to small school start-ups nationally, said he sees it as no surprise that schools with major political and financial support would be able to outperform those with less. And that gap worries him.

“The new schools don’t want to recruit the toughest kids, so they get dumped back in the big, traditional, overcrowded, underfunded high schools,” he said. “So the new schools are getting better at the expense of the traditional schools. It’s creating a two-tiered system of education in New York.”

Latest Data Stir Concern

The study noted that New Century schools produced higher graduation rates with a largely inexperienced corps of teachers and principals. Fewer than a third of its teachers, on average, were certified.

The researchers also tracked each group of freshmen who entered after the class of 2006, excluding transfer students, and found that while more students passed the state Regents exams required for graduation, the trend lines worsened in attendance, suspension rates, and credit accumulation. Teachers told researchers that over time, they were teaching more students, student discipline declined, and they had less influence on curriculum and school policy.

Dan French, the executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education, in Boston, which has evaluated the experience of small, quasi-independent “pilot” schools there, said the teachers’ declining influence on curriculum and policy suggests a stronger push to align instruction with a standards-based curriculum. That could explain the increasing graduation rate, he said. The New York study found that curriculum was growing more aligned with state Regents standards over time.

The school staffs’ relative inexperience, however, could explain the worsening indicators, Mr. French said. A rookie team can manage when start-up schools are new, adding one grade at a time, he said. But when such schools reach their full complement, the challenges can overwhelm novices. The pilot schools saw the same dynamic, Mr. French said, and began adding more veteran teachers to offset it.

“It’s one of the difficulties of scaling up,” he said. “It suggests as you increase the size of the school, it’s harder to build and maintain the personalized culture that is attentive to academic challenges for all kids. It’s something to pay attention to as schools are rolling out.”

Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as New Small Schools in N.Y.C. Post Higher Graduation Rate

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