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City’s small high schools lift graduation rates, report concludes

The city’s small, non-selective high schools significantly boost disadvantaged students’ chances of graduating, a new report concludes.

The report (available in full below) is the latest in a series of studies from New York-based research firm MDRC and funded by the Gates Foundation, which put $150 million into the growth of small schools in the city. Replacing large, struggling high schools with small ones has been one of the centerpieces of Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s reform efforts.

For the group of students researchers followed, the small schools had a nearly 69 percent graduation rate, compared to a roughly 62 percent rate for students in the study’s control group. Researchers reported that the positive impact of enrolling in a small school began during students’ freshman year and was sustained over the next three years. And, the study found, the benefits applied to a wide variety of students, including low-income students of color.

The study looked at the academic records of a subset of the small schools launched under Klein — about a hundred “small schools of choice.” The schools were chosen because more students applied to them than the school had room for, and thus admissions were determined by random lottery. Researchers could thus compare students who applied and enrolled in the small schools to those who applied but were assigned elsewhere.

Researchers defined the “small schools of choice,” or SSCs, as the 123 small schools opened between 2002 and 2008 that do not select students based on their academic performance. Of those, 105 met the random lottery criterion. (The city opened an additional 93 small schools between 2002 and 2008, but those were either academically selective, transfer schools for the most struggling students, or combined middle and high schools, which the study did not examine.)

Students who weren’t admitted to the small schools tended instead to enroll in schools that had more students and had been open for longer, the report found. Even so, 12 percent of the students in the control group attended large schools broken down into “small learning communities” that mimic the small school environment. And a quarter of the students in the control group attended schools that were launched under Klein. Because of those variations, the report notes:

First, this report does not provide a straightforward comparison of small schools to large schools or new schools to old ones, but rather a comparison of SSCs to a range of contemporaneous alternatives. Second, the comparison is drawn at a point when the system was undergoing a wholesale transformation. Neither the SSC treatment nor the counterfactual experience had yet reached a steady state.