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Smaller is better for New York City high schools

Photo by Rebecca Jacobson

When it comes to student achievement, school size can matter. A newly released study conducted by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke University has found that students who attend small high schools in New York City are 9% more likely to receive high school diplomas and 7% more likely to attend college than their counterparts in larger high schools.

The study shines a spotlight on the triumphs of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education reform efforts, the centerpiece of which was his plan to phase in more small high schools throughout New York City. Since first taking office in 2002, Bloomberg has created 654 such schools while cutting out 164 city schools that were underperforming. The new schools, which cap enrollment at about 100 students per grade, have produced some big results in terms of student achievement.

The overall graduation rate has increased from 37.9 percent to 67.7 percent – this means about 2,056 more graduates per year. The schools are also having a particularly apparent impact on disadvantaged neighborhoods: by the end of their first year of high school, 58.5% of students at small high schools in underprivileged areas are on track to graduate in four years. In comparison, only 48.5% of students who attend larger, older schools are on track.

While these small schools are bolstering New York City’s education system, the practice of removing older schools and co-locating the new schools on old campuses has not gone without controversy. New York’s Republican mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio has vowed to suspend the practice if elected. Even school personnel are concerned that having schools share a campus can take away from a school’s identity and prevent programs from flourishing.

“We have a legacy here, we have a history here,” says David Personette, a social studies teacher at John Dewey High School. “And every little time you chip something away, you’re taking away from what should be Dewey and you’re taking it away from the kids that go there.”

But despite the contentious practice, many maintain that the smaller schools are overwhelmingly a positive change in the city’s education system. Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott believes the long-term impact that the schools have on students is what matters most: “The city’s new small high schools have helped tens of thousands of students across all five boroughs not only graduate high school, but also enroll and succeed in college.”

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