College & Workforce Readiness

Sobering Findings About Small High Schools in New York

By Catherine Gewertz — June 18, 2009 1 min read

A really interesting new study is out about the small high schools that have opened by the score in New York City under the Bloomberg/Klein administration. It finds that while the small schools have benefited many students, their opening caused “collateral damage” to the remaining large high schools.

The team at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs found that in closing 21 big, underperforming high schools since 2002, the city’s education department diverted many students into 180 or so new small schools, which quickly produced graduation and attendance rates higher than the big schools they replaced. But not all of the kids from the big schools could be absorbed into the smaller ones, and they were funneled instead into other large high schools, pushing up enrollments, and pushing down attendance and graduation rates.

Some of the big high schools proved to be better at absorbing these stressors than others, and the report suggests that strong leadership had much to do with how they weathered the storm. Some, though, staggered under the influx and demands of hundreds of new students, many with special needs, and were ultimately closed.

The study yields a couple of sobering notes on the small schools themselves. It finds that many had better graduation rates initially, but in nearly half, those rates declined sharply in the second cohort of students. Also, in graduating students, the small schools have relied more heavily on the “local” diploma, which students earn by scoring 55 on five state Regents tests. The trouble is, the state is phasing out that diploma. This coming fall’s sophomores will have to graduate with a standard diploma, which requires passing scores of 65 on the Regents.

These few things only scratch the surface of the scads of interesting, nuanced findings in this study. It is riveting reading, and of great value to anyone trying to sort out the role small schools should play in providing options to high school students.

UPDATE: My story on the report is posted here.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School Connections blog.