After years spent rebutting skepticism and criticism, proponents
of the small-schools movement have reason to rejoice (at least in the Big Apple).
This MDRC policy brief—an update of its larger 2010
report on small high schools of choice (SSCs) in New York City
—finds continued
evidence that attending an SSC boosts one’s odds of graduating. Some
background: Between 2002 and 2008, New York City replaced twenty-three large, failing
district schools (graduation rates under 45 percent) with 216 new smaller
schools—including 123 academically non-selective “small schools of choice.” These
are brand-new schools with hand-picked staff, close student/faculty
relationships, and strong community partnerships. Starting them entailed a
stringent application process (which needed specifically to address how the
schools would serve disadvantaged youth) before opening. The brief adds to the
original report with an additional year of data (tracking over 21,000 Gotham students)
and finds that the average four-year graduation rate was 8.6 percentage points
higher for students enrolled at oversubscribed SSCs than for students in
traditional public schools who had applied—but not gotten into—their small high
school of choice. What’s more, these findings hold true across all achievement,
income, and racial subgroups. While this brief (and its precursor) offer great
fodder for aficionados of small-schools of choice, it is important to remember:
In New York City, at least, SSCs are not just mini-versions of traditional public
high schools, but instead new models of schooling. How much of these schools’
success is due to size and how much to design is still unclear. Expect some insights
from MDRC on this front over the next couple years. The organization promises a
series of reports designed to identify exactly why and how these schools have
succeeded and how
their success can—perhaps—be replicated

Howard S. Bloom and Rebecca Unterman, “Sustained Positive
Effects on Graduation Rates Produced by New York City’s Small Public High
Schools of Choice
” (New York, NY: MDRC, January 2012).

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