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benefits of small schools
11th-graders at the Urban Assembly Gateway for Technology prepare for an experiment in chemistry class. Credit: Meredith Kolodner

NEW YORK — Federico Leyva remembers fights in the halls or lunchroom almost every day at his 2,000-student middle school in Queens. Sometimes the adults in the building would hear them and intervene, sometimes they wouldn’t. When it came time to apply to high school, he chose a small one.

“There’s personal attention — that’s the biggest difference for me,” said Federico, 17, who graduated from Urban Assembly Gateway for Technology in June with a near-full scholarship to Babson College, near Boston. “I think the fights occurred because there wasn’t the personal attention.”

In 2011, Federico joined the first class of ninth-graders at Gateway, one of four schools that replaced the High School for Graphic Communication Arts. That chaotic school was closed in 2013 after more than a decade of graduating barely half of its students. It was the last of more than 35 big-city high schools to be closed as part of a profound reorganization of New York City’s educational landscape begun in 2002 by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his long-time schools chancellor, Joel Klein, with help from $150 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The reorganization completely revamped the high school system: about 70 percent of the city’s more than 400 high schools now have fewer than 500 students (although small schools enroll just over one-third of all city high school students).

In some cases, that has meant improved outcomes for students. In others, it has reinforced the belief that small size alone is not enough to give disadvantaged students the education and support they need to succeed. As the country embarks on a quest to increase its number of college graduates, a majority of students graduating from its high schools are still not prepared for university-level work.

Now a new national high school redesign effort has been launched, this one backed by $50 million from the Emerson Collective, whose president is Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the late Apple titan, Steve Jobs. The newest philanthropic effort is staffed by some of the same experts who participated in the Gates experiment. “Small” is no longer the watchword at the Super School Project; there’s an emphasis on raising academic expectations, recruiting teams of educators who support one another and crafting a school culture where kids are known.

“School size is a way of talking about how you get to trusting relationships between adults and kids; size is an enabling condition,” said Michele Cahill, who, as senior counselor to former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, was in charge of the redesign of the city’s high schools from 2002 to 2007, and is now an advisor to the Super School Project. “The exciting thing about this is we have evidence that shows the real impact of high school redesign, and we can apply those lessons.”

But what are those lessons?

In New York City, a study found that graduation rates averaged 72 percent in small high schools, compared with 62 percent for students who applied to those schools but were randomly assigned to large ones.

The first four years at Gateway, whose staff deeply believe that size matters, marked a significant improvement over what had come before and in some ways embodied the highest hopes of small-school advocates. It has no academic requirements to get in, and all of the kids come from low-income families. Close to 90 percent of its initial class graduated this year, and almost all have enrolled in college. The school clearly moves the needle: while 80 percent of students who enter are performing below grade level, 65 percent leave at or above it, according to a school official.

April McKoy, the founding principal, says that the first year of the school, which occupies one and a half floors of a seven-story behemoth of a building, was focused on developing what she calls school culture, which she believes can make or break a school. In addition to pounding the “UAG way” into everyone (core values include grit, collaboration and empathy), she makes sure that teachers visit every incoming ninth-grader at home before school starts — to meet family members, get a sense of the student’s home environment and begin to build relationships.

Each class has its own guidance counselor, which means caseloads of fewer than 125. There is also a school-wide social worker and every teacher “adopts” two or three seniors, according to McKoy, to make sure they make it to graduation. As part of the Urban Assembly network of schools, Gateway gets some added funding to support enhanced college counseling and teacher training. Gateway features hands-on learning in many of its classes, along with ample technology offerings (such as animation) to keep students engaged, and internships to prepare for life after high school.

Related: A low-income Brooklyn high school where 100 percent of black male students graduate

McKoy observes every teacher every week, and teachers perform peer observations, with a best practice email fired off each week to help instruction.

benefits of small schools
Urban Assembly Gateway for Technology graduates Venetia Boyce and Federico Leyva, who are headed to college with near-full scholarships, say they chose the small school after feeling lost in a big middle school. Credit: Meredith Kolodner

“In a small school, you can diagnose things a lot quicker and address them a lot quicker,” said McKoy, who was a teacher for nine years at a small Brooklyn school and an assistant principal at another before opening Gateway.

That’s what small-school advocates like to hear. But the big picture is murkier.

Nationwide, the impact of the small-school initiatives has been decidedly mixed. A network of schools launched in Rhode Island posted impressive results, as did another that began in Minnesota and one in San Diego. But in many places, including Los Angeles, Oakland, North Carolina, Oregon and Boston, the more than $2 billion spent by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation over the course of a decade didn’t move those cities close enough to Gates’s goal of 80 percent graduation. Certainly, some individual schools improved, but as a whole, cities and states didn’t see significant increases in their high school graduation rates during that time. Although some criticize the Gates Foundation for giving up too soon, it stopped funding its national small-school initiative in 2010. (The Gates Foundation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)

In New York City, however, several studies have concluded that the small schools did improve education — but even here, some unintended negative effects cropped up.

One study, released in 2010, revealed what researchers at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs termed “collateral damage.” The small schools were rolled out so quickly that, in some parts of the city, there was no system in place for the thousands of students who would have enrolled at the big high schools. As a result, some big high schools that remained open became “dumping grounds,” with enrollment increases as large as 1,000 additional students. Of the big high schools studied, 26 of 34 saw enrollment increases between 2002 and 2007; 19 also saw their attendance rates drop; and 15 saw their graduation rates decline.

On the plus side, a study by MDRC, an education policy research group, looked at students who enrolled in 102 of the 123 “academically nonselective” high schools created after 2002, and found that graduation rates averaged 72 percent, compared with 62 percent for students who had applied to the small schools but were randomly assigned to large ones. The vast majority of the 21,000 students studied were low-income and black or Latino.

And the latest study — released in April by researchers at New York University who had been skeptical of the reforms — showed that the rising tide of graduation rates eventually lifted all boats. Graduation rates increased most for the new small schools, but they also rose for the schools that pre-dated the small-schools tsunami and remained open. The educators who steered New York City’s small-school growth say that the city’s depth of knowledge and past experiments with small schools led to requirements for the new schools that other cities didn’t put in place; those requirements helped New York’s small schools achieve better results.

“Generally I’m satisfied with it,” said Klein, now chief executive of Amplify, an education technology company. Asked if he would have done anything differently, Klein said, “I think the dislocation process is something that we could have handled better.”

Indeed, many criticized the school closings for being done too rapidly. The resulting public outcry, some believe, partially obscured the achievements of the small-school effort. The backlash reached a crescendo during Bloomberg’s third term, from parents who felt they hadn’t had a say in the process and from the teachers union, which began as a partner in the big-school closures and ended up as an opponent.

“In a small school, you can diagnose things a lot quicker and address them a lot quicker.”

Oddly enough, the movement for small schools didn’t begin with Bloomberg, but with self-proclaimed progressives. It started on the edges of East Harlem in the 1980s, posted impressive results and gained passionate adherents. At the turn of this century, it seemed that the original small-school creators and the Bloomberg-era reform-minded business leaders had found common ground.

“I was feeling kind of like we’re on a wave, and small schools are going to conquer the world,” said Deborah Meier, who helped found the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s as well as several successful small schools in Harlem. “It was about a different kind of pedagogy and power on the part of parents and communities and families. Small made a faculty democracy possible, it made it possible to collaboratively run a school.”

But Meier eventually became disillusioned with the Bloomberg administration’s mission for small schools, believing that, while there was surface agreement on size, her vision of education was being marginalized by a focus on test scores and a top-down approach to accountability.

Even now, the variety of approaches within the small schools is remarkable. Some use portfolio work to assess knowledge, instead of standardized tests; others have kept the testing regimes, but use hands-on learning in some courses, like science. Many dropped Advanced Placement and honors classes to focus on the neediest students —because the schools weren’t big enough to afford such “extras.” All the new schools had themes, such as criminal justice or math and science, but the themes were central to some schools and peripheral to others.

Related: Does anyone have the answers on school turnarounds?

As the number of schools grew, so did staffing problems. Critics say the pipeline of experienced educators ready to lead the new schools couldn’t keep up with the frenzied speed at which the 200 new high schools were created. Bloomberg and Klein were not always impressed by educational experience, and instead often relied on those who had proved themselves in the business world.

benefits of small schools
Urban Assembly Gateway for Technology’s founding principal, April McKoy, gave up her office last year for a desk in the hallway. Credit: Meredith Kolodner

In 2003, Klein launched the NYC Leadership Academy, hoping to fast-track a new generation of principals, some of whom had never taught before. Former GE executive Jack Welch chaired the board, and Robert Knowling, Jr., who had been an executive at Hewlett-Packard, ran the Academy.

Klein was famous for telling principals that they must be the CEOs of their schools. His watchword to his team was to “be bold”; that to slow down would mean to lose momentum. After decades of putting up with dropout factories, his team believed that a mild-mannered approach would fail. And they say they were always aware of the other elements needed for small schools to succeed.

Shael Polakow-Suransky, the president of Bank Street College of Education and a former senior deputy chancellor under Klein, says that shrinking a school’s size was never seen as the solution in and of itself.

“I think a lot of people make the mistake of just emphasizing the size as the thing,” he said. “The size is an opportunity to reinvent the structure and the instructional practice of the school, and to change the relationships between the adults.”

In fact, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has proposed merging some struggling schools with more successful ones, to create larger high schools. Officials on his education team say they believe an individualized approach to students — a central component of the small-schools movement — is key to a school’s success, but that those relationships can be built within a variety of school configurations.

“Small schools, with some noteworthy exceptions, seem to be successful at getting kids over a low bar for graduation.”

Despite some consternation about merging schools, the thinking about what size really means does seem to be evolving. So says Robert Hughes, who has been at the center of creating and supervising more than 100 small high schools since he became president of New Visions for Public Schools in 2000.

“I used to believe that small schools were the only way to go, and I still believe that they’re very powerful,” said Hughes. “But what’s interesting is that, with some work, you can really build structures that enable kids to be known and to get the kind of support they need to be successful [even] in larger schools.”

He points to small learning communities at big high schools such as New Dorp in Staten Island and Hillcrest in Queens that have achieved improvements comparable to those at small schools. He also notes that the bigger schools allow for a wider variety of academic and extracurricular activities, which may in fact be a better way to inspire certain students while still giving them a sense of belonging.

Related: How do you fix America’s high schools? We’re going to find out.

And while small schools did bump up graduation rates, in some neighborhoods the needs were so immense, and the schools so dysfunctional, that reformers hit a wall. About a dozen of the original small schools that replaced big ones have themselves been closed for poor performance. Others remain open, but their results have been inadequate.

One of the most dysfunctional big schools, Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York, became infamous in 1992 when a 15-year-old student there shot two other students dead in the hallway an hour before then-Mayor David Dinkins was set to tour the Brooklyn school. In 2007, Jefferson was closed and replaced by four new schools that are clearly safer and more functional.

“I think a lot of people make the mistake of just emphasizing the size as the thing. The size is an opportunity to reinvent the structure and the instructional practice of the school, and to change the relationships between the adults.”

Two of those schools are now graduating about 70 percent of their students, but the other two have graduation rates in the 50s. On average, under 6 percent of graduates from these schools are able to enter the City University of New York without taking remedial courses.

Indeed the low “college-ready” rate of some of the new schools has created an irksome question: Do the small schools provide less challenging classes? A study released in July showed that 39 percent of the city’s high schools do not provide Algebra II, chemistry or physics classes, all considered part of a college-prep curriculum. More than half of the schools don’t offer an Advanced Placement course in math. Many of those not offering such classes are the new small schools, the study found.

“Small schools, with some noteworthy exceptions, seem to be successful at getting kids over a low bar for graduation,” said Clara Hemphill, co-author of the study and founder of at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “It’s better to graduate with a 10th-grade education than to drop out with a sixth-grade education, but we’re still missing something.”

Some would protest that notion of the low bar, or argue that small schools are well positioned to raise it. Gateway does in fact have several Advanced Placement courses, including physics and calculus.

And it’s difficult to quantify what students like Federico say they found at schools like Gateway, the tight-knit school of 471 students in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan.

“There’s a kind of ethics that’s embedded into the curriculum,” said Federico, who will be the first in his family to go to college. “It kind of comes to you subconsciously, how you are as a person. It’s how the core values are instilled into you. It’s a community.”

Regardless of size, Gateway staff has put in place many of the elements that are now seen as key to the new Super Schools effort.

McKoy says the relationships she builds with her students are as crucial as the academics. Last year, in order to be closer to the action, she gave up her office to create a meeting space, and now sits at a desk parked in the school’s main hallway.

“During a game, the coach isn’t back in the locker room, he’s on the field,” she said. “While school is in session, the game is on, so I need to be out here.”

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