Debate Continues: Small High Schools vs. Comprehensive High Schools

The debate about high school size is back in the news.  Are adolescents better off in small high schools or are there advantages to comprehensive high schools?   Even though back in 2009, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave up its nationwide philanthropic experiment in the establishment of small high schools when it acknowledged that small schools had not significantly raised test scores, in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg continued to expand school choice.  Bloomberg opened 656 smaller schools including charters and at the same time closed 157 schools, many of them comprehensive high schools.  In New York City many smaller schools are currently co-located in the buildings that used to be enormous comprehensive high schools.

In October, the research organization MDRC released Headed to College, another in the series of studies it has been publishing since 2010 to justify former New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s small high schools.  MDRC reports that New York City’s small high schools of choice (SSC), “have markedly increased graduation rates for disadvantaged students of color, many of whom start high school below grade level.”  The schools, says MDRC, provide “academically rigorous curricula and personalized learning environments….” “On average…. attending an SSC increased the probability of graduating from high school in four years and attending a postsecondary education program the following year by 8.4 percentage points.”

There is considerable evidence, however, that the picture is not as bright as what MDRC portrays.  A study by The New School Center for New York City Affairs (2009) documents there was massive collateral damage when large high schools were phased out and closed.  Their students—many of them low-performing—who did not participate in the school choice process were relocated to other large high schools, which were immediately destabilized by the number of struggling students who arrived at their doors.  Many of the receiving schools were subsequently closed. “An analysis of 34 large high schools in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx (defined as those with more than 1,400 students in 2007-2008) found that 26 saw their enrollments jump significantly as other high schools were closed… While the DOE (Department of Education) has trumpeted the success of the new small schools for at-risk students, the net gain for all high school students is much smaller because the majority of high schoolers still attend large schools… Many students who might once have been assigned to the closed schools were diverted to other remaining large schools.  Those schools saw steep increases in enrollment followed by declines in attendance…. Many were themselves then soon shut down….”

Advocates for Children and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (2009) studied the impact on English Language Learners of the closure of large high schools as small high schools were launched.  “The DOE moved forward with its plans to phase-out these schools and replace them with schools that did not sufficiently take into account the needs of Brooklyn’s ELL student population.  As predicted, these actions have effectively segregated ELLS into large, overburdened schools or the relatively few small schools that are designed to serve them, and have denied many ELL students equal access to the educational opportunities offered by the wide variety of new small schools.”  Another report from the Urban Youth Collaborative and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University (2011) criticized the devastating effect of the school district’s favoring small high schools of choice over the comprehensive high schools: “High schools targeted for closure were set up to fail by being assigned high percentages of students who were overage for grade and whose skills were significantly below proficiency levels.  High schools targeted for closure were also assigned large percentages of Special Education and English Language Learner students as well as ‘over the counter’ students… These large high schools were also consistently starved, by the  DOE, of the resources necessary to meet the needs of their challenged students.”

In 2013, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform followed up with its devastating report, Over the Counter, Under the Radar. The Annenberg researchers explain precisely which students the New York City school district defines as “over the counter” (OTC)—the students who show up to register for school but who do not participate in the school choice application process: “OTC designees are among the school system’s highest needs students—new immigrants, special needs students, teens who have been incarcerated or have come from correctional facilities or juvenile detention, students living in poverty or from transient families, homeless youth, students over age for grade, or with skill levels significantly below grade, as well as students with histories of behavioral incidents in their previous schools.  Because many OTC students show up at their assigned schools without previous academic records, and because they often arrive after the school year has begun, these late-enrolling students often pose considerable instructional and operational challenges.”  “Large and medium-sized struggling high schools had, on average, a more than 50 percent higher rate of OTC student assignment than the rest of the high schools.”

Despite what MDRC describes as the success of New York City’s small school of choice for increasing the number of high school students’ graduating on time and matriculating at institutions of higher education, the reports cited here document that the New York City school district’s chosen policy of opening small high schools has not helped an enormous group of students who remain in its large comprehensive high schools.  School choice, after all, is a strategy designed to serve the students and parents who are active choosers.  I am encouraged to read Elizabeth Harris’s  NY Times story about Santiago Taveras, who, as deputy schools chancellor, helped implement Mayor Bloomberg’s strategy of opening small schools of choice and closing comprehensive high schools.  Taveras has now accepted the challenge of serving as principal of the 2,200 student, DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx: “When I heard de Blasio say he wasn’t going to close schools, I thought, ‘That’s interesting. What are we doing to do instead? I want to be part of that.'”

Harris summarizes the history of dumping high-needs students in the city’s comprehensive high schools: “But as hundreds of small schools opened, principals and teachers at the remaining large schools like Clinton often complained—and statistics often corroborated—that they were getting disproportionately high numbers of the most challenging students.  ‘It was like a light switch going off—like, oh, my gosh, where did these kids come from?’ said Ann Neary, an Advanced Placement literature teacher who has been at Clinton for 10 years.  ‘We have some fabulous students, and that’s why I teach here every day, but we got a lot of kids who couldn’t possibly have graduated in four years, and were totally happy to teach them and to help them. But then we got slapped on the wrist for students not graduating on time.'”

Norman Wechsler, the principal of DeWitt Clinton High School in the 1990s, reflects upon the challenge Santiago Taveras has undertaken by agreeing to turn around the large school after all the years of New York’s assigning students with high needs to its comprehensive high schools: “It’s much more difficult now than when I did it.  The school now has a very, very high percentage of students who are very highly at risk.”

With Mayor de Blasio and his chancellor Carmen Farina committing to provide far more support for schools like DeWitt Clinton, Mr. Tavaras faces an enormous challenge and an urgently important opportunity.  The school leadership in New York City is acknowledging a reality that was denied for too long as small high schools were New York’s latest flavor of the day. Comprehensive high schools can be made to turn their very size into an asset for their students.  Harris explains in her NY Times story: “as a large school, Clinton does have some advantages, like a wider variety of classes, teams and extracurricular activities than small schools can generally manage.”  Harris quotes DeWitt Clinton’s music teacher and coordinator of student activities: “We have beginning  band, intermediate band and marching band; we have beginning chorus, intermediate chorus and advanced chorus; and we have those three levels in guitar.  The reason we have all that is the number of students substantiates a large number of staff.”


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