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TRANSFORMING THE HIGH SCHOOL EXPERIENCE: New MDRC Report Examines How New York City’s Small Schools Are Boosting Student Achievement and Raising Graduation Rates

“When the nation’s attention is focused squarely on turning around failing urban high schools, this study provides the first reliable evidence that transformation at scale within a large, urban public school system is possible.”

A new report from MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research firm in New York City, finds that “small high schools of choice” in New York City increase students’ likelihood of earning credits, progressing through school, and graduating in four years with Regents diplomas.1 According to the report, Transforming the High School Experience: How New York City’s New Small Schools Are Boosting Student Achievement and Graduation Rates, students attending these schools had a 68.7 percent on-time graduation rate, compared to 61.9 percent of students who did not.

“When the nation’s attention is focused squarely on turning around failing urban high schools, this study provides the first reliable evidence that transformation at scale within a large, urban public school system is possible,” said Gordon Berlin, MDRC president. “Serving low-income students of color, two-thirds of whom were far behind grade level as entering ninth graders, these small schools of choice are having important effects on student engagement, grade-to-grade progression, and graduation rates, nearly all of which was driven by an increase in Regents diplomas, and with scores that demonstrate evidence of college readiness—something we haven’t seen elsewhere. These results underscore the historic nature of the small schools work undertaken in New York City and its implications for reforming failing high schools in other communities.”

Beginning in 2002, New York City has closed more than twenty failing high schools and opened more than two hundred new secondary schools while implementing a centralized high school admission process in which approximately 80,000 students a year indicate their school preference from a wide-ranging choice of programs. By 2008, twenty-three high schools with graduation rates below 45 percent were closed while 216 new small schools had opened.

Of the new schools, thirty-eight were “general” high schools that were small and academically selective, twenty-one were small, personalized, full-time schools designed to help over-age and undercredited students overcome obstacles to graduation, one was a “specialized” high school that serves students who are high-performing academically and/or artistically, and 123 were “small schools of choice,” or SSCs.

The report focuses its attention on SSCs. It is careful to point out that SSCs are small not only in size but also in function. “Structures such as reduced teacher load and common planning time—in which teachers meet together to discuss their students’ progress and problems—were recommended to ensure that all students were known well and to promote strong, sustained relationships between students and teachers,” the report reads.

There are four other essential features the report identifies in each of the SSCs. First, they serve predominately disadvantaged communities whose neighborhood high schools were closing. Second, they are established via a “demanding and competitive proposal process” that emphasizes the common design principles of academic rigor, personalization, and community partnerships. Third, SSCs enjoy an infusion of outside resources in the form of new principals and teachers, partnerships with intermediary organizations with experience in starting new schools, and start-up funding from the district and its philanthropic partners. Finally, SSCs have certain policy protections during their start-up period, including opening with only one founding grade of students (ninth grade) and having access to “supports to facilitate procurement and hiring” such as special training for school principals and teachers; an amendment to the collective bargaining agreement, which gives principals more hiring discretion; and the conversion from a management system of regional offices to one in which schools have greater control over their budgets and educational programs.

According to the report, New York City introduced a centralized choice process in the spring of 2004 that governs the placement of all entering ninth-grade students called the High School Application Processing System (HSAPS). Annually HSAPS uses an objective, computer-based process to assign about 72,500 entering ninth graders to about four hundred public schools. Specifically, eighth graders who participate in HSAPS indicate, in order of preference, up to twelve high schools they would like to attend. Each year, some schools have more applicants than seats available. When an SSC is oversubscribed, a lottery is created within HSAPS that randomly determines which students are assigned to that school. The MDRC report uses data from this process to identify a sample of students who choose SSCs, but were assigned via lottery to that school or to a subsequent choice on their list. Its analysis includes four groups of students—those who entered high school in the fall of 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008—for a total of 21,085 students who applied to the 105 SSCs that were oversubscribed, and for which lotteries were held.

At the end of  ninth-grade year, 73.1 percent of students, on average, who enrolled in SSCs had earned ten or more credits, compared to 62.3 percent of students who enrolled in other schools. They were also 7.8 percentage points less likely to fail more than one core subject and 10 percentage points more likely to be on track to graduate in four years.

The report notes that these positive effects on the transition into high school were seen among nearly all subgroups as defined by students’ academic proficiency, socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, and gender. The positive effects continued into the second year of high school, during which 69.4 percent of second-year SSC enrollees had earned twenty or more credits toward graduation compared to 58.3 percent of nonenrollees. SSCs also increased students’ engagement, as evidenced by the increase in the percentage of tenth-grade students who attended school “regularly,” defined as 90 percent of the time (55.2 percent for SSC students versus 49.0 percent for non-SSC students). That progress carried through into the eleventh grade where SSC students were 8.1 percentage points more likely to attend school regularly.

According to the report, these improvements in students’ academic progress and school engagement in grades nine through eleven translate into higher rates of on-time graduation. It finds that 68.7 percent of SSC enrollees graduate from high school, compared to 61.9 percent for students who attend schools other than SSCs. SSCs also increase the proportion of students (by 5.3 percentage points) who passed the English Regents exam with a score of 75 or higher—the point at which incoming students at the City University of New York are exempted from remedial courses.

When at full capacity, the 105 SSCs in the study sample will serve over 45,000 students, which, the report notes, is roughly equivalent to the entire high school population of Houston, the nation’s seventh largest school district. “Readers should understand the magnitude of the present report’s findings in that context,” the report reads. “Imagine, for a school district the size of Houston, increasing the percentage of ninth graders who are eligible for on-time promotion by 10.8 percentage points, the percentage of black males in ninth grade who are on track to graduate by 8.5 percentage points, or the percentage of high school graduates by 6.8 percentage points.”

The report is careful to point out that the schools included in its analysis are not the best or most popular of the SSCs in New York City, but 105 schools on average. It also notes that students enrolled in SSC did not just attend schools that were small. “SSC enrollees attended schools that were purposefully organized around smaller, personalized units of adults and students, where students had a better chance of being known and noticed, and where teachers knew enough about their charges to provide appropriate academic and socioemotional supports,” the report reads. SSCs are not only new but are mission-driven and benefit from the four essential features noted earlier in this article.

Policymakers or educators looking to duplicate New York City’s reforms should consider them as a package of integrated reinforcing strategies, the report cautions. It notes the effects are not simply the result of closing low-performing schools or of creating SSCs, but rather a “purposeful marriage of the two strategies supported by the implementation of several enabling reforms.” The report urges that as much attention be paid to how these reforms were operationalized as to what was conceptualized.

“Closing the failing schools would likely not have been singularly effective without the intentional creation of a range of viable alternative options to educate the displaced students,” the report reads. “Similarly, the creation of new schools would likely not have gained the traction it did without the introduction of a districtwide choice process that motivated previously underserved students and their families to explore their high school options and exercise choice. Thus, while this study provides compelling evidence in support of a particular small school model, that model cannot be understood as existing in isolation but rather as one integral component of a comprehensive and coordinated set of district reforms.”

The report cautions that the results it found are “uniformly encouraging,” but still early. Only one of the student subgroups has been followed through high school and up to graduation. As a result, the full effects of New York City’s high school reform initiative will not begin to be revealed until the remaining three classes of students graduate from high school and go into postsecondary education and the labor market.

The complete report is available at

1 The report defines small high schools of choice as small, academically nonselective, public high schools that are accessible to students of all academic levels.

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