Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Does Size Matter?

New York NY/ REPORT: Transforming the High School Experience with Small Schools
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Report
June 2010

Over the last decade, New York City has been the site of a system-wide high school reform effort. Since 2002, 
  • the school district has closed more than 20 failing high schools, 
  • opened more than 200 new secondary schools, and 
  • implemented a centralized admission process for their 80,000 high school students.

At the heart of these reforms lie the new "small schools of choice" (SSCs) — small, academically nonselective, public high schools that were opened between 2002 and 2008. Serving approximately 100 students per grade in grades 9 through 12 and open to students at all levels of academic achievement, the SSCs in this study were created to serve the district’s most disadvantaged and historically underserved students.

This report presents encouraging findings from an unusually large and rigorous study, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, of the effects of SSCs on students’ academic achievement in high school. 

Key findings include:
  • Higher on-track to graduation rates in small schools than non-small-schools after only one year
  • Increased graduation rates in small schools over non-small-schools
  • Positive effects for all demographic groups, including males of color
My Thoughts:
Let me start by saying that I work in a small school - about 75 students per grade level 9-12.  That said, I have a hard time with "small schools" as a solution to low test scores, high drop out rates, etc.  It's really only because I went to a big high school of 500 kids per grade and then a big college.  I thrived in both places and think that many kids can and do thrive in big schools that have the resources to provide AP classes, lots of different electives, and varied after school activities.  I feel very fortunate to have gotten to participate in debate, to have played lacrosse, to have taken a number of AP courses, and to have been in a school play.  Not that every kid in my school took advantage of those things and not that I was a particularly at-risk kid.  On the downside, I didn't graduate with any close relationships to school staff. 
I do see many immediate benefits to small schools - first of which is the staff's ability to build relationships with students.  In many cases, those relationships with caring adults are way more important than the chance to be on a dance team or to take a fashion design elective.  (I just wish there was an easier way to do both!) I also think that the staff of a small school has more chance to build relationships with one another and to collaborate on curriculum and other school-wide issues.  
I think that both small and large schools have benefits.  Maybe the benefits of small schools outweigh the problems for at-risk kids.  It's possible.  Schools in poverty-ridden areas have a whole host of problems to deal with beyond making sure kids get to take AP classes... although I think that all kids should have access to AP classes! My hunch, though, is that any school where staff are empowered to be teacher-leaders and are encouraged and trained to really work together to solve a school's problems is more likely to succeed, whereas any school where staff are ordered around, demeaned, and disrespected is more likely to fail. 

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