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Report on small schools finds more choice, but modest interest

A new report on the rapid proliferation of small schools in New York City finds that while the schools have expanded students’ options, most students choose to attend larger schools.

Commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the report is one of four that will eventually be released in order to study how the schools have multiplied, who is attending them, who is teaching in them, and whether they’re succeeding. The Gates Foundation popularized and funded the small schools movement in New York, fueling the growth of nearly 200 small schools with a $150 million investment.

A New York-based research group, MDRC, conducted the report, which does not look at the schools’ academic record — that analysis will come out in spring — but focuses on the schools’ enrollment and demographics.

One of the report’s key findings is that the small schools are seeing modest demand from students.

Looking at data from 2004 to 2007, the report found that about 10 percent of eighth graders listed a small nonselective school as their first choice for high school. About double that amount listed a large nonselective high school. Twenty-two percent listed a small nonselective school in their top three and about 35 percent prioritized a large nonselective school.

Because the small schools do not fill their seats through the high school selection process, nearly one sixth of their students are placed in the school, meaning they missed the high school choice process and are assigned to a school. About one fifth of students in large nonselective high schools are also placed there. At the very end of the report, the researchers write:

One of the questions raised by the data is whether more should be done to get the small-schools message out to the low-income, low-performing students that these schools were created to serve and to their parents.

The report also founds that students attending small unscreened high schools are more disadvantaged than their peers in other schools. This conclusion challenges those who have defended the large high schools against closure by claiming that the small high schools will not enroll special education students and students who are not fluent in English.

In a statement sent to reporters, Chancellor Joel Klein used the report’s findings to support his plans to close more large high schools and replace them with small schools and charter schools.

“The independent MDRC report shows that our new small schools are succeeding, even while serving a more disadvantaged population of students than the schools they replaced, and compared to other schools citywide,” he said.

“It should highlight for anyone concerned with the future of our students and our City the recklessness of those who advocate against change and for the status quo,” he said.

Here are some of the report’s findings:

  • The majority of small schools have opened in the Bronx and Brooklyn, leaving Staten Island and Queens with more of the large high schools. Because white and Asian students now make up a greater percentage of students in large high schools than they once did, these schools serve a smaller percentage of disadvantaged students than the small schools in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The report states:
    “The large, academically nonselective schools that had not closed by the 2007-2008 school year no longer served students at exceptionally high risk of educational failure.”
  • This finding was reached by taking an average of remaining large high schools’ demographics. On an individual basis, many large high schools don’t reflect this conclusion. Schools such as Beach Channel and Columbus High Schools serve extremely high percentages of disadvantaged students.
  • More than a third of teachers working in small unselective small schools have fewer than three years of teaching experience. The report hypothesizes that one of the reasons for this could be that principals at these schools are more willing to hire “bright and enthusiastic but inexperienced” teachers. Another reason could be the higher teacher turnover rates at the new small schools.
    “Whatever the cause, the newness of these teachers to the profession may have put their students at something of an educational disadvantage,” the report states.
  • Unscreened small schools that opened less than four years ago have fewer Special Education students, but more English Language Learners, than their older, more established peers. The old and new small schools have roughly equal percentages of low-scoring incoming students.
  • MDRC’s report does not differentiate between schools that opened in new locations and those that opened to replace closing schools. A study by Columbia Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas and NYU assistant professor Jennifer Jennings found that overall, new small schools serve a similar population as larger, more established schools. However,  the small schools that replaced large schools enrolled fewer disadvantaged students than the schools they replaced. However, students who attend small schools that replaced some of the local large high schools “are much better off academically” than the students who went to behemoths. The report also does not consider the effect that closing large high schools has had on other nearby high schools.