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Making High Schools Smaller

by Gail Robinson, Nov 15, 2004
 
 

For years, despite its prime location near Lincoln Center, Martin Luther King Jr. High School symbolized much of what ails New York City high schools. Under 50 percent of students graduated, and a lawsuit charged the school illegally turned away students because of their poor academic performance. The worst moment came in 2002 when a former King student slipped through school metal detectors and shot two students.

"I was scared at first by the name Martin Luther King," a freshman said at a recent information session for prospective students. "Don't get scared by that." The girl is not frightened because, even though she goes to school in the Martin Luther King building, she actually attends the High School of the Arts and Technology.

Today three separate schools -- and the final graduating class of the old Martin Luther King -- occupy the large building on Amsterdam Avenue. After the class of 2005 graduates, King will essentially cease to exist as a big public high school.

Other large high schools - Julia Richman on Manhattan's East Side, Erasmus Hall in Flatbush - have met similar fates. More will follow.

To replace these schools, the city opened 42 small schools in 2003 and about 55 this September. The new schools are designed for several hundred students; the old ones had thousands.

"Small schools are more likely to create the sense of connectedness among students and teachers, the sense of being known and valued, that motivates people to work hard. They encourage stronger bonds between students and teachers and generate a level of genuine and mutual obligation," wrote Thomas Toch, of the National Center on Education and the Economy. "Small schools, in other words, are likely to create the conditions that make learning possible."

Some research (see end of article) - along with $58 million for New York from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- supports the trend. But critics question whether small schools are just the latest educational gimmick.

"You really have to ask yourself whether these big districts would be doing this without the Gates money coming in," Jon Schroeder of Education Evolving, which promotes new forms of schooling, told Education Week earlier this year. "It remains to be seen how genuine this is...or whether it's funder driven and just sort of the 'in' thing to do."

Already failures, as well as successes, have emerged. And in the city's haste to embrace small schools, some charge that the city has neglected the large high schools that still educate most of New York's 300,000-plus public high school students. Can a program that, at best, might educate a quarter of those students rescue a system that fails thousands of youngsters every year?

PROBLEM SCHOOLS

New York City has many fine high schools - some of them with thousands of students. But overall New York's graduation rate barely tops 50 percent, and problems at some schools have been particularly acute.

At William H. Taft High School in the Bronx, for example, less than 20 percent of students pass their state-mandated math and English Regents tests, and less than two-thirds of students bother to show up on an average day. George Washington High School had been on the state's list of failing high schools for 12 years.

George Washington High School no longer exists. Instead it is an "educational campus" housing four separate schools. Taft is being phased out as well.

For much of the 20th century, New York relied on large comprehensive high schools that educated some students for a job and others for college. In the 1920s, this made sense, Toch wrote in the Washington Monthly last year: "Future lawyers, accountants and other professionals studied academics, while those headed into mills and assembly lines learned valuable practical skills. High schools essentially served as great sorting machines."

But as more jobs came to require advanced training or education, the one size fits all high school outlived its usefulness, critics say.

Some large schools remain successful. But others have become chaotic and sometimes dangerous places, where youngsters arrive as freshmen poorly prepared and never catch up, failing Regents tests and dropping out in large numbers. These schools cannot be saved with one or two new programs, or an energetic principal or some enthusiastic teachers. Instead, the reasoning goes, they must be re-created almost from scratch. Various funders, educators and city officials have come to believe that the best method to do that is to replace the big schools with small ones.

The problems are mirrored across the country. According to figures compiled by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, about 30 percent of all U.S. high school students - and 45 percent of black and Hispanic students - drop out before graduating. Another third, a report by the foundation says, "will graduate but without the skills they need to do well in college or hold a family-wage job." In response many systems, including Los Angeles in Chicago, have also started to break up their big high schools.

THE SMALL SCHOOL SOLUTION

"The magnitude of the problem requires bold action" New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has said.

About 25 years ago, educators such as Theodore Sizer and Deborah Meier began offering alternatives, proposing smaller schools. In 1985, Meier founded Central Park East for grades 7 through 12, limiting class size to 20 students and total enrollment to 450. Seven years later, Meier and the Coalition of Essential Schools won support from the then Board of Education to restructure Julia Richman, a troubled school on Manhattan's East Side that is now the Julian Richman Educational Complex with six schools. And in 1989, New Visions for Public Schools was formed and began helping launch innovative small schools throughout the city.

But the movement for smaller schools really accelerated in the last four years, due in part to the Gates Foundation, which since 2000, has given about $650 million to establish small schools throughout the country. The largest chunk has gone to New York City.

HOW IT WORKS

The changes underway are not just cosmetic. Although in some cases, the new schools share facilities such as labs, gymnasiums and cafeterias - and at Martin Luther King, all the schools share the sports teams - each has separate faculty, administrative personnel and curriculum.

The 100 or so new small schools in New York differ widely. Some require uniforms, others do not. Some are educationally traditional, others more free wheeling. Just within Evander Childs High School in the Bronx one can see the range. The building houses the Bronx Aerospace Academy, where students wear uniforms and line up to travel between classes. But Evander Childs also has the High School for Contemporary Arts, where students take classes in graphic arts and digitalized music production and work with a hip-hop dance troupe.

Some restructuring starts from scratch. The city shut down Julia Richman in the early 1990s so it could launch six new schools. Other schools find completely new locations. But more commonly, the schools start with a freshman class within the building, while the older school is phased out until its last class graduates.

The new schools, which are expected to have about 600 students, try to limit the size of each individual class to less than 25. Although small classes can exist in large schools, the average class size in large high schools in New York City is 34 students.

Each of the small schools must have at least one community partner, and most have a theme. Often the idea comes from a community group or collection of individuals who have an idea and apply to New Visions or a funder for support.

While many themes are fairly standard - technology, art, science - some raise eyebrows: Examples include the Academy for Careers in Sports in the Bronx, the FDNY High School for Fire and Life Safety in Brooklyn or the High School of Hospitality Management in Manhattan. But the schools hasten to say they train students to meet general academic requirements and for college, not for specific careers. The theme is a way to engage and reach youngsters.

"My school is a college preparatory school in disguise," Margaret Salvante-McCann, principal of the new Manhattan Theater Lab School told the New York Times. "Theater is not the end, theater is the vehicle for their learning."

Most of the schools must adhere to the city high school curriculum. While proponents say this ensures that students will be able to pass the Regents tests required for a high school diploma, others see it as an impediment. Mark Rush, a teacher at the Bushwick Schools for Social Justice, said teachers had devised what he considers a great humanities program, but have not been able to implement it, because the city requires rigorous English and math instruction that consumes much of the day.

Students must apply to these schools, just as they must to all other high schools in the city. (New York no longer has neighborhood high schools to which students are automatically assigned.) The small schools then select their students by lottery, on the basis of test scores or grades, an audition or other criteria, depending on the school.

DOES IT SUCCEED?

Adherents of small schools cite a litany of studies and anecdotal evidence in support of the movement.

"Smaller schools work," Nicholas Politis, principal of the High School for Law and Public Service at George Washington, told a recent meeting. He offered figures showing that about 90 percent of students at the new George Washington schools meet standards in various subjects and that, for the first graduating class, the graduation rate was 86 percent - as opposed to less than 50 percent when George Washington was one big school. And, Politis noted, the schools have essentially the same population - youngsters from the surrounding community - as they did before the breakup.

A number of studies buttress the arguments. For example, a 1994 Philadelphia study concluded that students in small high schools are more likely to pass subjects than their larger school counterparts. A 1998 New York study (in pdf format) found that schools with fewer than 600 students are particularly beneficial for poor students, boosting their attendance, test scores and graduation rates. Reviewing the literature, Michael Klonsky co-director the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote, there is "a compelling body of research showing that . . . when students are part of smaller, more intimate learning communities, they are more successful." This, he continued, is particularly true for "inner-city kids, especially African-American and Latino students and youngsters from low-income families."

At least one study (in pdf format) calls some of this into question. Conducted for the U.S. Department of Education, it found that the smaller class size found at many small schools - rather than the overall size of the school - may be what accounts for the success of small schools.

KEYS TO SUCCESS

In large schools, small-school proponents say, many kids are neglected, while in smaller ones they form bonds with teachers and administrators who make sure the students work and stay out of trouble. Also, small schools provide more academic focus than large schools with their sometimes bewildering laundry lists of classes.

But a small school alone provides no guarantee of success. Some have failed. Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn had low graduation rates and a reputation for violence in the 1990s. The city divided the one school into three, but the problems remained. Now the school has been reorganized once again. And a City Council report last year singled out Vanguard High School, housed at Julia Richman, for poor test scores and low graduation rates.

In her review of small schools, Clara Hemphill of Inside Schools found about one quarter "seem to have replicated many of the problems of the large schools they replaced: low levels of academic achievement, an overwhelmed teaching staff and an alienated student body."

A number of theories exist about what can account for success. Rush thinks Bushwick School for Social Justice has been successful for its students, who have seen their scores on standardized tests rise considerably. One factor, he said, is a class that all students must take where no more than 15 youngsters meet with an adult to discuss issues that do not normally arise in the classroom. This helps youngster make a connection with an adult, Rush said. "That adult is looking out for the kid as well and socially you see the kids becoming more and more confident in a group."

Catherine Man of Inside Schools said the principal is key. "If they have a vision and a plan, that's usually a really good sign," she said. Among her recommendations, Hemphill suggests the schools have a vision but not get carried away by its theme, and that it have a defined space.

THE SPACE ISSUE

Not surprisingly, the space issue poses particularly thorny problems in New York. (See related story, "Walton and Celia Cruz High Schools: Unhappy Neighbors" in the Community Gazette for Bedford Park, Norwood, Riverdale, etc.)

Many of the new schools find themselves in the same buildings side by side with the old school. There the small school's students and staff may encounter resentment from students in the old school, who see the new school as having more resources and smaller classes. And students and faculty at the old schools find it hard to see the institutions where they worked or studied slated for extinction. "I don't think it's ever a smooth transition," said Man.

David Mendez, a freshman at the West Bronx Academy for the Future at Theodore Roosevelt High School, likes going to a small school. "There's less of the bad things and more of the good," he said. But, he said, conflicts between students at the seven different schools - and particularly with students at the old Roosevelt -- pose a problem.

And it isn't only students and teachers in the schools facing elimination who feel threatened by the small schools movement. As the Department of Education carves up and reduces enrollment at some big schools, thousands of students have to attend school somewhere - usually at another large high school. And so, for example, as the Department of Education reconfigured Seward Park and Martin Luther King, it sent many students (the number is in dispute), to already crowded Washington Irving. Enrollment at William H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education High School in East New York soared by 30 percent as the city divided nearby Thomas Jefferson and Bushwick High Schools into new schools. In September, the New York Times reported that overcrowding was particularly severe at large high-performing high schools, such as Benjamin Cardozo in Queens and James Madison in Brooklyn.

THE BIG SCHOOLS

Deputy Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina has said that, despite the push for small schools, big high schools will remain an essential part of education in New York. By one estimate, those schools will continue to serve perhaps three-quarters of the city's secondary students.

But many observers see the larger schools as being shortchanged in money, other resources and attention. Last week, members of a citywide parents council of high schools, created under the auspices of the Department of Education, wrote a letter to Klein complaining that the drive to create smaller high schools has overcrowded large high schools while the department has cut resources for the bigger schools.

The first days of school this year at many large city high school were chaotic, as students found that courses for which they had registered - largely advanced placement classes and electives - were not offered. Midwood High School in Brooklyn saw its budget cut by seven percent last year and four percent this year, according to the New York Times, forcing the elimination of classes and programs. Although Farina said funding and classes were restored after the city got its budget allocation from the state, some cuts reportedly remain.

Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters says she supports smaller schools because they provide more options for students. But the way the program is being implemented, she said, "seems to be harming other students" who are being forced into larger classes and losing elective classes. She fears that this could create a backlash.

"The movement is unsustainable unless you have a comprehensive plan to show where all these [small] schools are going to be put and a comprehensive plan to provide these benefits to all kids regardless of where they go to school," Haimson said.

FAD OR LASTING CHANGE?

Clearly small schools have the buzz these days. Earlier this month, an insert in the New York Post, produced in conjunction with New Visions and other organizations, touted small schools. The sell was anything but subtle: At small schools, the supplement promised "you will be safe…everybody will know your name…your work will be exciting and demanding."

But, while small schools seem to be riding high, proponents worry about their future as well. They fear, for example, that the city will decide small does not have to be quite that small. Anne Geiger, the principal of Art and Technology, told parents that, while she wanted to admit 100 students to this year's freshman class, she had to admit 150. Next fall, she hopes to keep it to 125.

"We'd like to be even smaller, but children have to go somewhere," she said. Principals of the schools in George Washington expressed similar concerns.

The movement has been fueled by grants, which are designed to help schools deal with start-up costs. What happens when the funders shift money to other schools or decide another program poses the solution to the problems plaguing urban education?

Looking back on the history of educational innovation, there is reason to question the staying power of trends. While comprehensive high schools have hung on for almost a century, other innovations - remember open classrooms? - largely vanished after a decade.

In New York, said Stephen Phillips, a professor at Brooklyn College, the fate of the program lies in the hands of the chancellor. Joseph Fernandez, chancellor from 1990 to 1993, supported small schools but the idea lost steam when Rudy Crew came in in 1995. Now small schools have the enthusiastic support of Joel Klein. Once he leaves -- whenever that may be — will small schools be an essential part of the educational fiber of the city? Or will some other, new idea have come along to replace it?

For more information

Organizations
• Class Size Matters
• Coalition for Essential Schools
• Inside Schools
• New York City Department of Education School Directory
• New Yorkers for Smaller Class Size
• Small Schools Workshop

Groups Supporting Small Schools
• Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Transforming High School project
• New Visions for Public Schools New Century High Schools Initiative

Articles
• "Bronx Captures Lion's Share of Theme-Based High Schools" (Bronx Times Reporter)
• Divide and Conquer: How Breaking Up Big High Schools Can Be the Key to Successful Educational Reform (Washington Monthly)
• "High Schools Nationwide Paring Down" (Education Week)
• In N.Y.C., Fast-Paced Drive for Small Schools(Education Week)
• "Marginal Impact" (A review of books on the small schools movement) (Education Next)
• "Small Schools, Big Ideas" (Education Week)
• "Some Schools Grow and Suffer as System Favors the Small" (New York Times)
• "Too Many Schools Too Soon?" (Catalyst-Chicago)
• "Why Some Small Schools Succeed and Others Fail" (Inside Schools)

Research
• "The Case for Small High Schools" (Educational Leadership)
• "School-level Correlates of Academic Achievement" (in pdf format) (National Center For Education Statistics)
• "Small Schools Get Thumbs Up From Parents" (Public Agenda)
• "Small schools: Great strides: A study of new small schools in Chicago" (in pdf format) (Bank Street College of Education)
• "Synthesis of Research / Small Schools: A Reform That Works" (Educational Leadership)


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