Three 'Secret' Ingredients for a Successful Small School

Thursday, July 17, 2014 - 04:00 AM

(Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

City officials have boasted for years about their success in creating hundreds of small high schools that have higher graduation rates than many of the large schools they replaced. Now, a new report has singled out what makes the best of these small schools so exceptional.

The Research Alliance for New York City Schools picked out 25 effective small schools (whose names were kept confidential), by using attendance data, graduation rates and other indicators collected from the research firm MDRC. After extensive interviews with more than 100 teachers and principals in 2011, they found three key ingredients:

  • Personalized learning environments. The schools hired key support staff, such as social workers, and created student advisory groups that typically consisted of one teacher and 10-20 students who would meet regularly.
  • High academic expectations, along with support for students to succeed. The schools would offer Saturday classes and stayed on top of students with attendance issues through regular phone calls and contact with families.
  • Experienced and highly effective teachers. Because of their size, the schools needed teachers who could assume a various leadership roles. They also created committees during the hiring process that included students and teachers.

Adriana Villavicencio, a research associate at the New York University-based Research Alliance, acknowledged a lot of this sounds like common sense. But she said the study got inside the “black box” of vague-sounding practices like personalized learning.

“Here we have examples of them creating specific structures like advisories with these grade-level team meetings, or small groups of ninth and 10th graders,” she explained.

One thing that apparently wasn’t a factor in success: the theme of the school. Many small schools now have themes such as law, the environment or even sports careers. While that may attract some kids, it can be a turnoff to others who wind up in the school because of the whims of the high school placement process.

Researchers also noted how little credit the schools gave to their outside partners or Department of Education networks, which exist to support them. But Villavicencio suggested the schools might not have been leaning on them as much as they did in the beginning, when they were new.

One of those outside partners is New Visions for Public Schools, which helped many small schools get off the ground. Spokesman Tim Farrell said the group wasn't surprised that the schools rated internal factors more highly than any assistance provided by intermediaries since the schools in the study were often in their sixth or seventh year of operation.

He also said called the new report validating, “since it demonstrates that the city’s most effective small schools have fully adopted the design principles New Visions has long advocated.”

The report’s authors concluded that many of these success strategies can be used in schools of any size.

Devora Kaye, a spokeswoman for Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, said the chancellor agreed with the report's conclusions.

"Structures that promote strong relationships with students, families and educators are essential,” said Kaye.


Comments [4]

Experienced Teacher from NYC

Please excuse the misspelled words, responded in a rush! No reflection of me as a past educator!

Jul. 21 2014 01:21 PM
Experienced Teacher from NYC

Other issues I observed in these new small schools included lack of
teachers of specific subjects, courses and special education resources.
While working at another small high school many incoming freshman
had already completed required courses and regents mandates, with
passing scores but were made to repeat the same course and regents
exam to obtain higher grades. This allows the new school to look good
with high passing scores. This practice is ok for the school but holding
students back from moving on to more challenging studies is not fair to
the students or their families (who I’m sure weren’t aware of this new practice).
Students often showed resistance to this practice but failed to persist or
succeed with their complaints. In most situations there was no teacher on
staff certified to teach these students the next leveled class.

Also when it came to servicing special education students and their IEP
mandates school schedules were unable to meet the demands, resulting
in many non-compliance issues and students failing.

Jul. 19 2014 10:51 AM
Experienced Teacher from NYC

I can see the goal behind the initiative of creating small high schools, with the intention of providing more control of behavior and reaching struggling students with more individualized instruction. Unfortunately, when presented with something new much in the way of integrity can easily be lost to prove something is working when in actuality it really isn’t. What I’m talking about is manipulation of facts to give the perception of success.
While I worked at a new small school I witnessed not experienced effective teachers but the opposite, all new young and inexperienced. I witnessed their lack of classroom management, which seriously interfered with fascilitating daily lessons. No connections were established between students and teachers only combative relationships. There were many behavior issues because the students the school was receiving were coming from special education environments/ 12:1:1 classroom. The new teachers had no experience with balligerrant students. They didn’t understand the behavior they witnessed and showed no empathy towards problematic teens. The teachers and administrators were repulsed by the student’s behavior. The learning enviorments were not condusive to the nurturing learning enviroments I was so used to at my last school of employment. The school culture was hostile with teachers against teachers to gain close ties and favors from administrators. The administrators created a work environment of intimidation and fear, which to this day I will never understand because everyone was working extremely hard, giving up preps, and working late many times even without being compensated. High suspension, detention along with other punitive means were the foundation of this school. Many African American and Hispanic young men were transferred out as trouble makers with no intervention of behavior modifications, thus leading to an expansion of the achievement gap not narrowing it. The principal’s habit of firing teachers “at will” by stating that an educator was not “a good fit”, was accompanied by threats of teachers loosing their license if they stayed. Yearend resulted in many teachers being asked to leave with other teachers knowing who was in and who was out. I had never witnessed such a "high school mentality". Many adults and children got hurt and are still being hurt at this small school and for the life of me can’t understand why no one has intervened. When servicing special education students teacher churn is not good for the school because year to year progress of the student will only take place with educators that are familiar with their deficits, not a new teacher with a new diagnostic that may need six months observing what the teacher that left already knew and was already working on.

Manipulating data for attendance, test scores, students and teachers responses about the school, to make a school look good is wrong and will only increase the achievement gap.

Jul. 18 2014 03:22 PM

The problem is that people often jump to the conclusion that, because of this, small schools are great. Small schools can be great, but they can also be terrible. This is proven in math with De Moivre's equation. Basically, with smaller sample sizes, there is wider variance. So, yes small schools are overrepresented in the best schools, but people often fail to realize that they are overrepresented in the worst schools.

The Gates Foundation walked away from small high schools in 2005. Why are we still talking about making small high schools work? Largely, they are worse for high school students.

Howard Wainer from Princeton details this in his article "The Most Dangerous Equation" - - See page 11

Jul. 18 2014 12:03 PM

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