Why Some Small Schools Succeed -- and Some Fail

January 1, 2003

The Department of Education is moving quickly to open small theme-based public high schools that administrators hope will be safer and more successful than the large factory-like schools that dominated New York City for most of the 20th century. Twenty-nine small schools opened in New York City this year, and the Gates Foundation pledged $51 million last month to create another 67. In all, Chancellor Joel Klein plans to open 200 small public high schools in the next two years.

There's an understandable excitement about the ambitious plans to close giant, sometimes dangerous schools and replace them with small programs in which every teacher knows every student.

But there are pitfalls, as well. Without careful planning, there is a risk that the big, bad schools will be replaced with small bad schools. The history of school reform in the past two decades has shown many successes in the creation of small schools -- but many failures as well. Small size - by itself - doesn't make a good school.

The staff of Insideschools.org, a website offered by the non-profit organization Advocates for Children, visited 234 of New York City's 245 high schools in the three years between 2000 and 2003, including 145 with enrollments of fewer than 1,000 and 89 with enrollments of more than 1,000 students. (We didn't include the 29 schools that opened in the fall of 2003, and 11 schools refused to let us visit). We spent a day at each school, sitting in on classes and interviewing parents, students, and staff. We sifted through Department of Education data on graduation rates and test scores, and talked to administrators and academics who study school reform. We wrote 400-600 word reviews of each school, and posted them on the website. Although our reviews are subjective, we believe they reflect what parents and students most want to know about a school: Are the students happy and engaged in their work? Is the building safe? Do the teachers have well-defined goals for their students, and do most of those students reach whatever those goals may be - admission to college, helping new immigrants adapt to life in the United States, or preparing students for satisfying work?

The failure of big schools

We discovered some big schools work well most of the time for most of their students - such as Edward R. Murrow in Brooklyn and Benjamin Cardozo in Queens. Others, such as Madison in Brooklyn and Lehman in the Bronx, are successful with many of their students, despite an appalling degree of overcrowding that forces double or even triple sessions and human gridlock in the halls.

But a large number of the big schools we visited - perhaps one-third - are relentlessly grim places where the students are so demoralized and the staff so overwhelmed that little education is possible. Many of these large schools have the atmosphere of a minimum-security prison, with metal detectors and security guards "wanding" students at the entrance, and more security guards patrolling the halls, their walkie-talkies squawking as they bark orders at students and struggle to break up fights. Few of students at these struggling schools enter 9th grade prepared to do high school work. Many read at a 3rd or 4th grade level, and their knowledge of math is limited to basic arithmetic. Both the teachers and the students seem unhappy and resigned to failure. "I don't want to be here," we overheard a student say to his guidance counselor at Adlai Stevenson High School in the Bronx. "I don't want to be here either," we heard the guidance counselor reply. These struggling schools typically have an entering 9th grade of 1,200 or more students, but graduate 300 or fewer each year.

Small schools as an antidote

Most of the 145 smaller schools that we visited have been created in the past 15 years as an antidote to the failures of the large schools. In small schools, their supporters say, the students and teachers get to know one another well. The principal knows every student by name, and students are less likely to get lost. Small schools are safer, partly because the grown-ups are able to offer more individual attention to students and to mediate problems before they escalate into violence. Freed of the burden of crowd control, administrators and staff can concentrate on teaching. "Small high schools are a concept that have been proven to work," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a ceremony in the Bronx announcing the Gates grant. "Students at these small high schools have lower drop out rates…more of them graduate and more of them go on to college."

Many of the new small schools have lived up to their promise. Wings Academy in the Bronx, located in one of the poorest Congressional districts in the nation, sends most of its graduates to four-year colleges -- even some who entered 9th grade reading at a 4th or 5th grade level. Landmark Academy in Manhattan has a cozy, family feel and a good record of preparing for college kids who might otherwise drop out of school. FLAGS and Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science have developed demanding college preparatory curriculums for their students - most of whom come from poor families where the parents don't speak English. Each of these schools had an enrollment of fewer than 550 students when we visited. In each, the students were attentive and engaged, the teachers were creative and imaginative, and the principals worked closely with the staff to develop the best teaching techniques -- rather than holing up in the office doing paperwork. The schools are small enough that the principal has a manageable 20 or 25 teachers to supervise - rather than 200 teachers a large school might have.

Small schools that don't work: "Big schools in drag"

Unfortunately, the small schools movement hasn't been an unalloyed success. While most of the small schools we visited show promise, a significant number -- perhaps one-quarter -- seem to have replicated many of the problems of the large schools they replaced: low levels of academic achievement, an overwhelmed teaching staff and an alienated student body. As the chancellor moves forward with his ambitious plan to create 200 new, small high schools in the next two years, he should take note of these failures -- as well as the successes.

Erasmus Hall High School in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, once a sought after-school with a long tradition of achievement, had fallen on hard times in the late 1980s, with low graduation rates and a reputation for violence. The grand Gothic-collegiate style building was divided into three semi-autonomous, smaller schools in the 1990s in an attempt to boost academic achievement and foster a sense of community. But the division into smaller schools (called Science & Math, Humanities, and Business & Finance) seemed to be a paper exercise, and the toxic culture of the old school remained. Students were still forced to go through metal detectors to enter the building, security guards still snapped at them, and, once inside, students saw nothing to distinguish one school from another. With enrollments ranging from 750 to 900 each, the schools were too large for every teacher to know every student - one of the hallmarks of a small school. One administrator said there was friction among the three principals, and that troublemakers would slip from one school to another in the building. The atmosphere was oppressive during our visits, and a climate of mistrust between the students and the staff prevailed. Administrators, teachers and students all felt powerless: decisions about the schools' future, it seemed, were made by distant bureaucrats without any consultation with the people expected to carry those decisions out. (The school is being reorganized once again in the fall of 2003.)

The former Andrew Jackson High School in the Cambria Heights section of Queens fared a little better. The building was divided into four mini-schools with impossibly long names: Business Computer Applications & Entrepeneurship Magnet High School, Humanities and the Arts Magnet High School, Law, Government & Community Service Magnet High School, and Mathematics, Science Research & Technology Magnet High School. Each has 600 students - somewhat smaller than those at Erasmus, but somewhat bigger than what many experts consider the ideal size of 400 to 500 students. Teachers say the break-up did improve safety -- but security is still far from perfect. During one of our visits, we saw two fights. The schools have the same starting times and schedules, and students must go through metal detectors to enter school, so the lines in the morning are impossibly long. Promising innovations in the curriculum instituted early on were abandoned because of scheduling problems and a lack of "buy in" by some teachers. Instruction is heavy on chalk-and-talk, and, with some notable exceptions, many teachers don't seem to be engaging the students.

These schools may be smaller than the huge schools they replace, but they have retained much of the structure and bureaucracy common to large schools. They remain "big schools in drag," as small schools' expert Michelle Fine, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York, has written. Just as some teachers will continue to teach lecture-style even when they have a class small enough to have a seminar, some principals will continue to run their school like big bureaucracies, with a hierarchical chain of command, even when their enrollments are manageable. The style of teaching may remain the same, as do the relationships between students and teachers -- and between teachers and administrators. The reorganization in schools such as these is too often presented to the staff as a fait accompli, and, as a result, teachers are likely to resist change.

"Hugging Isn't Algebra"

Small schools are successful partly because they allow relationships to flourish between students and teachers. In a large school, a teacher might have five classes of 34 students - far too many for the teacher to get to know any one student. Many staffers are assigned to out-of-classroom jobs in guidance, or the dean's office. In a small school, the teachers are more likely to take on the role of student advisor and, with creative scheduling, a teacher might have just two classes of 30 students - each for two or three periods a day. With only 400 or 500 students in the school, it's likely that the principal will know each student. However, warm relationships between the students and teachers -- in and of themselves – don't ensure that students will do well academically. Some schools with kind-hearted, dedicated teachers, such as the High School of Redirection in Brooklyn, build warm relationships between students and staff but have been unable to translate that warmth into academic success. Schools must not only create a strong rapport between kids and staff, they must also focus on academics and relentlessly keep after kids to do their work. "You can't let up," said Jacqueline Ancess, a researcher at the National Center for Restructuring Education, School and Teaching (NCREST) at Teachers College. Columbia University. "They resist all the way."

Or, as Professor Fine told Education Week, "hugging is not the same as algebra."

Problems with space, identity & divided authority

Other problems stem from the buildings in which the new small schools are housed. With capital dollars scarce, it's the rare new school that has the luxury of its own building. Most must share space - often with chaotic schools that are emblematic of all that's wrong with urban education. The teachers and students of the large school sometimes ooze resentment at the small schools starting up inside their walls - a problem at Walton and Roosevelt high schools in the Bronx and Wingate in Brooklyn. Successful small schools have managed to create their own defined space and identity within the larger building. Bronx International in the former Morris High School, for example, has its own wing and is physically isolated from the rest of the building. The new Hunter school inside Martin Luther King on Manhattan's West Side manages to create a welcoming environment, even though the building as a whole has an unpleasant atmosphere, with metal detectors in the entrance and security guards patrolling the corridors.

Some schools start small, then get swamped with students - assigned by the district office. Bronx Leadership Academy, which received more than 100 extra students in the fall of 2003, is at risk of losing its small schools culture. Manhattan Center, created inside the former Benjamin Franklin High School in the early 1980s, started as a small school serving the East Harlem community. Now serving 1,500 students from across the borough of Manhattan, the school is still successful but has lost its small school feel and intimate sense of community.

Some schools have a particular theme -- history, the arts, law or medicine -- but are assigned students, at random, who have no interest in the school's theme. The School of American Studies in Cobble Hill and the ACORN School for Social Justice, both in Brooklyn, were undermined by having students who had not applied and had no particular affinity for the school's mission.

What works

An effective school has a dynamic, even charismatic principal who is able to assemble a staff that shares his or her philosophy and vision. An effective principal is able to marshal the resources in the community - extra money, volunteers, or the support of neighborhood organizations - to help the school. For example, Francesca Pena, principal of the High School of International Business & Finance, one of the four small schools created out of the former George Washington High School in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, is aggressive in getting resources for her school. She has the support of several non-profit organizations. She has tapped into several banks, which offer internships to her students. She has arranged for her top students to take college courses at Baruch College. She has been able to use a group called "Dominicans on Wall Street" to help inspire her students, many of whose families are from the Dominican Republic. She has attracted a top-notch faculty - smart enthusiastic, creative teachers - and seems to have a good relationship with both teachers and students.

Effective principals know where and how to focus their energy. While aware of all the many problems their students face, these principals are able to discern the core issues and choose first to zero in on one challenge to tackle head on. When we visited Pacific High School in Brooklyn, then Principal Helen Lehrer was relentlessly vigilant about attendance and truancy and spent half of her day calling the homes of missing students. If they came in late, she trapped them on their way in and interrogated them. She got through the idea that coming to school is critical to this "second chance" and most of her kids seemed to get it.

Effective schools have a well-defined mission and serve a well-defined community. It may be a geographic community, such as East Side Community School, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, or a community of shared interests, such as Young Women's Leadership Academy, an all-girls school in East Harlem. International High School in Queens and its sister schools Manhattan International and Bronx International, are clear in their mission and in the type of students they serve: they are successful in helping new immigrants learn English and adjust to life in the United States.

Attracting good teachers

Although New York City suffers from a chronic shortage of qualified teachers, inspired leadership can attract inspired teachers. Principals who set up a school with a collegial atmosphere in which creative teaching is prized - such as Urban Academy in Manhattan and Bronx International -- attract excellent teachers. Wings Academy in the Bronx and the Institute for Collaborative Education in Manhattan attract recent Brown University graduates. "We are attracting people from way outside the Bronx," said deputy regional superintendent for the eastern Bronx, Eric Nadelstern. "Word has gotten out that you can be creative in our schools."

The former District 2, serving Manhattan's East Side, has become known nationally for the nurturing and stimulating atmosphere it creates for its teachers; new small schools such as Eleanor Roosevelt High School and Millennium High School, benefit from that reputation and are able recruit teachers from a large geographical area.

Unfortunately, the new emphases on standardized tests, particularly the state Regents exams, now required for graduation, have alienated some of the system's best teachers and hampered efforts to invigorate old, tired curriculums. Teachers we interviewed complained that the standardized tests require too much breadth of knowledge and not enough depth - so, for example, Central Park East Secondary School in Manhattan was forced to abandon its six-week lesson on the Vietnam War to make way for briefer lessons on numerous minor events in U.S. history. "Testing is the undoing of instructional reforms, depleting the system of good teachers and good principals," said Ms. Ancess at Teachers College. She fears that new directives on curriculum from the state and the city departments of education amount to a system of "coercive compliance," that punishes teachers who don't conform.

Others fear the uniform curriculum that the chancellor has imposed on the city schools may scare away some of the system's best teachers. The chancellor has proscribed 90-minute "literacy blocks" and 90-minute "math blocks" in an attempt to ensure that high school student receive basic skills, but Ann Cook, co-principal of the Urban Academy, says: "Nobody is going to want to be told what to teach all the time."

The chancellor deserves great praise for his ambitious plans to transform the large city high schools that have served so many students so poorly for so many decades. The small schools initiative holds the best hope of providing an adequate education for New York City's high school students. Properly implemented, the small schools may offer what the big schools have not. But without careful planning, the schools may merely replicate the problems of the past.


Create a defined space. The small schools that work have a well-defined physical space. Best of all is to have a free-standing building. If several schools share a building, it's useful for each to have a wing or a floor, with walls painted or decorated in a distinctive style. It's useful for schools sharing a building to stagger starting times and to have class changes at different times. Principals sharing a building need to be able to work together in a collegial way. A "building management council" or a "building manager" can sometimes work out issues such as how to share a gym.

Encourage collegiality and creativity. There's more than one way to make a good school. Some good schools have a traditional curriculum, uniforms, and desks in rows. Others have hands-on projects, kids with hats on backwards, and teachers all called by their first names. Let these differences flourish: different approaches work for different kids. Don't proscribe every minute of the school day. The chancellor's standard curriculum should be a set of broad guidelines - not a strait jacket. A school system that has a reputation of rewarding creativity will attract master teachers from across the country - as Manhattan's District 2 has done.

Keep enrollment small. Don't be tempted to swamp a successful school with more students. Small schools are successful precisely because the principal knows every student and has a reasonable number of teachers to supervise. Build a school too big, and that advantage is lost, and the school may also lose its sense of community.

Have a vision and a mission, but don't get carried away with themes. Successful schools have a clear mission and a principal with the vision to carry out that mission. Missions may vary: Schools that deal with the most alienated kids with the poorest academic record may consider it a success just to keep students in school – rather than dropping out. Other schools are determined to get all their graduates into college. Vocational schools may consider it their mission to train students for a particular trade; while schools for new immigrants may consider English language acquisition their primary goal. But don't confuse the mission with a "theme." Too many small schools have gimmicky themes such as "law" or "international business" or "sports" that don't translate into meaningful education.

Engage the teachers in the planning process. Too many "redesigns" of big schools into small schools have excluded the teachers - and have been imposed by afar. Teachers need to feel they are part of the process. Some alienated and burned out teachers are rejuvenated by switching from one building to another in which the philosophy more closely matches their own.

Improve K-8 instruction. One of the biggest challenges to New York City high schools is the fact that only 34 % of students enter ninth grade ready to do high school work. Improving instruction in the elementary and middle schools is, of course, critical to the ultimate success of the public school system. In the meantime, administrators must realize that even successful high schools may need more than the standard four years to graduate their students.



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