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SUSTAINED PROGRESS: New York City’s Small Schools of Choice Continue to Graduate Students at Higher Rates, New MDRC Report Finds

On average, small public high schools of choice in New York City graduate students at a rate 9.5 percentage points higher than other New York City high schools, according to Sustained Progress: New Findings About the Effectiveness and Operation of Small Public High Schools of Choice in New York City, a new report from MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research firm. The schools, which primarily serve disadvantaged students of color, also produce graduates who are more likely to be college-ready and graduate low-income and students of color at higher rates.

“With the nation’s attention focused on turning around failing urban high schools, this study provides convincing evidence that large-scale transformation is possible in an urban public school system,” said Gordon Berlin, president of MDRC. “While more certainly needs to be done if all students are to be prepared for college and careers, the small school strategy as implemented in New York provides a blueprint for future reforms across the nation.”

Sustained Progress is the third in MDRC’s series of reports examining the role of small schools of choice (SSCs) in improving outcomes for New York City students. Named by MDRC researchers because they are small, academically nonselective, and were created to provide a realistic choice for students with widely varying academic backgrounds, SSCs were created in 2002 when New York City instituted a districtwide high school choice process for all rising ninth graders. At the same time, it closed thirty-one large, failing high schools with an average graduation rate of 40 percent, and opened more than 200 new small schools.

Released in June 2010, the first MDRC report focused on the effectiveness of 105 of the 123 new SSCs and followed a cohort of freshmen who entered high school in 2005 through four years of high school. In January 2012, MDRC added graduation findings for a cohort that began in 2006. Its newest report, released earlier this summer, adds cohort that began in 2007.

As shown in the table below, SSCs experienced an average four-year high school graduation rate of 70.4 percent, compared to 60.9 percent for other New York City high schools. In the most recent year of the study, SSCs posted a graduation rate of nearly 75 percent. (Click on the image below for a larger version).

Estimated Effects of SSCs on Four-Year High School Graduation Rates by Student Cohort

Estimated Effects of SSCs on Four-Year High School Graduation Rates by Student Cohort

The higher graduation rates produced by SSCs held for low-income students and students of color. According to the report, low-income students in SSCs graduated at a rate of 11.2 percentage points higher than their counterparts in other New York City high schools. The same is true for black and Hispanic students, especially black males, who posted a graduation rate of 65.5 percent in SSCs, compared to 52 percent in other high schools. Additionally, special education students and English language learners had graduation rates from SSCs that were 13.7 percentage points and 4.9 percentage points higher, respectively, than their counterparts in other high schools.

“Principals and teachers at the 25 SSCs with the strongest evidence of effectiveness believe that academic rigor and personal relationships with students contribute to the effectiveness of their schools,” the report notes. “They also believe that these attributes derive from their schools’ small organizational structures and from the commitment, knowledge, dedication, and adaptability of their teachers.”

Students attending SSCs were also more likely to earn a New York State Regents diploma, which is generally considered to be the standard graduation credential, rather than a local diploma, which has the least stringent requirements. On average, 45.9 percent of students in SSCs received a Regents diploma, compared to 39.9 percent who did not. Additionally, 40.2 percent of SSC graduates were considered “college ready” in English compared to 33.4 percent of graduates from other New York City high schools.

Sustained Progress is available at

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.