On my summer reading list this year have been numerous articles about schools, particularly New York City Schools. I was not surprised when reports came out in June about a study showing that small, themed high schools in New York were outperforming larger, traditional high schools—a boon for Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein.
The study was conducted by MDRC, a nonpartisan research group, and paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on small-school projects across the country). The study examined the graduation rates of 21,000 students at both small and large schools and found that, at an average of 69 percent, graduation rates among the students who attended small schools were 7 percent higher than graduation rates for students at large schools. For Bloomberg and Klein, who began breaking up large schools with thousands of students into schools with a maximum of 500 students in 2002, the news was validation that their program was succeeding. New York’s failing high schools had been graduating students at a dismal rate of less than 50 percent for years.
I taught in a small, media-themed high school that had been carved out of a large high school in the Bronx. I must say, when I went into teaching five years ago, I found the idea of small schools appealing. With no more than 500 students, teachers and students got to know each other better. In the early days (my school had not yet graduated its first class of seniors in 2005), there was a sense that everyone was chipping in to achieve a single goal, kind of like a start-up in the corporate world. I was thrilled that I, a journalist, would be teaching in a media-themed school.
But after two years (I left teaching in 2007), it became evident there were some downsides to small schools. The first had to do with lack of space. Smaller schools did not necessarily mean smaller classes. I remember having class rosters that at the beginning of the semester exceeded 34 students —the limit agreed upon in the teachers’ union contract with the city (see the United Federation of Teachers’ FAQ on class size limits). Students were literally sitting on top of one another. Usually it would take several weeks for the numbers to be reduced through reassignment and chronic student absences.
Also lacking at the school where I taught—and other schools in the building, or “campus”—were the kinds of classes and extracurricular activities that are considered dispensable these days, the activities that round out a young person’s education and foster school spirit, such as foreign languages (other than Spanish), band or orchestra, or a regularly published school newspaper. Enterprising teachers did the best that they could—one year an English teacher taught music at my school. However, there did not seem to be enough funds in these small school budgets to offer much outside of the core courses and the “electives” (not chosen by the students, but the schools’ administrators) related to the schools’ themes.
It was a bit surprising—and disappointing—to learn that not all the students at a “themed” school were at that school because of any particular interest in the theme, whether it be law, health, theater, or media. Many of the students at my school told me they had no interest at all in media or journalism, but were there because they did not get accepted to any of their preferred schools or because they were sent there by the regional office.
Whatever the promise of small schools may be, it is clear that the program is suffering growing pains, and I think it is way too early for Bloomberg and Klein to declare victory. One gnawing problem with small high schools is that they have not adequately served the needs of English Language Learners (ELLs). A June, 2009 report by Advocates for Children of New York and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund cited the fact that initially, new small schools were allowed to exclude ELLs, and many smalls school still do not provide the programs they need. As large schools close, there are fewer and fewer options for ELLs. Although small schools are no longer exempt from admitting ELLs, with new immigrants continually pouring into the public school system, this is a challenge small schools will be facing for years to come.
As with charter schools, the small school initiative has taken off in school districts across the nation, and as with charter schools, the results have been mixed. Check out a study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, published this year. It concluded that graduation rates among the first cohort of students to attend Chicago’s new small schools for four years were better than the graduation rates of similar students at traditional schools. “However, … academic achievement, as measured by test scores was consistently low,” no better or worse than that of similar students at traditional public schools.