September 23, 2009
The study, by Aaron Pallas, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and Jennifer Jennings, an assistant professor at New York University, confirms Jennings’ earlier analysis of student enrollment patterns on the Evander Childs High School campus. But it also suggests that when it comes to who enrolls, not all new small schools are alike.
“New small schools don’t look that different overall. But the ones that replaced large schools do,” Pallas said last night at a presentation sponsored by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. (Pallas is a regular contributor to the GothamSchools community section.)
Pallas and Jennings analyzed the 27 large high schools that have been closed since 2000 and the many small schools that have sprouted since then. They found that students who attend small schools that replaced some of the local large high schools “are much better off academically” than the students who went to behemoths like Theodore Roosevelt High School or Evander Childs, the study found. As incoming ninth graders, they have higher math and reading scores and fewer arrive with special education or English Language Learner designations.
That pattern does not hold true for students who attend small schools that did not open inside a large school that was being closed. Pallas and Jennings found that ninth graders at these schools were similar to their peers at schools throughout the city. More of them have low math scores and qualify for free lunches, and slightly fewer require special education services, but there is no significant difference in reading ability.
One possible reason could be the replacement schools’ size, Pallas said. “As these larger schools closed, did the low achieving students go to other schools?” he asked.
Melody Meyer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, disputed this hypothesis. “The report’s conclusion that small schools are just sending the challenge somewhere else is inconsistent with the overall increase in the City’s graduation rate-up 10 points in just the past four years by the State’s calculation,” she wrote in an email.
The study, which Pallas and Jennings are still finalizing, also compares small schools that were founded in the first part of this decade to those that opened more recently. Again, their findings were split based on whether the small schools replaced large ones.
Small schools opened on the campuses of large closed schools showed no differences based on when they were founded. But small schools that sprouted up independent of closing large schools were affected by their opening date, in part of because of the city rules they worked under.
Initially, for the first two years of a small school’s life, it did not have to enroll special education and ELL students. School administrators had access to more information about students in the admissions process, potentially allowing them to be discerning about whom they chose to admit. These regulations were later tightened, and small schools that have opened more recently enroll more students lagging in math and English than their early counterparts schools did.
Pallas and Jennings closed their presentation by noting that more research is needed into the effects the closure of large high schools has had on surrounding schools. A recent report about the city’s small schools initiative by the Center for New York City Affairs tried to answer that question.
Taking issue with the report, the DOE dismissed the report’s authors as “long-time critics of this Administration’s education policy.” Meyer’s statement said Pallas and Jennings, “completely misunderstand the small schools initiative, which has been heralded as a success by President Obama, Education Secretary Duncan, and Bill Gates. Despite serving a student population that is disproportionately high-need, the new small schools have consistently graduated 75% of students, which vastly outpaces the citywide rate of 61% according to the State and City calculation.”