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Smaller High Schools Achieve Big Results

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Jacqueline Ancess, Co-Director of the National Center for Restructuring Education (NCREST).

Jacqueline Ancess, Co-Director of the National Center for Restructuring Education (NCREST).

New, smaller high schools, created as part of a network of reform, achieve better academic performance and higher graduation rates among disadvantaged urban youth, according to a recent seven-year, longitudinal study in New York City. The analysis, published by the American Educational Research Association in the fall issue of the American Educational Research Journal, also considers factors for improving schools by design instead of reliance on charismatic leadership.

Researchers Linda Darling-Hammond, of Stanford University, and Jacqueline Ancess and Susanna Wichterle Ort, of Teachers College, describe the Coalition Campus Schools Project, an effort that replaces troubled high schools with smaller, more communal schools. Working with a student body that included a high proportion of youth who were low-income, low-achieving and limited in English proficiency, the new schools developed structures such as smaller pupil loads, advisory groups, and interdisciplinary curriculum to build strong student-teacher relationships and to support student learning.

Despite initial difficulties with school facilities and student motivation, "the study found that five new schools that were created to replace a failing comprehensive high school produced, as a group, substantially better attendance, lower incident rates, better performance on reading and writing assessments, higher graduation rates, and higher college-going rates, despite serving a more educationally disadvantaged population of students."

The new schools, primarily modeled on Deborah Meier's Central Park East philosophy, emphasize "habits of mind" that foster commitment to achievement and to school. The researchers identify specific characteristics that contribute to the success of the smaller high schools:

  • Small size resulting in schools where students felt safe.

  • Structures designed for personalization and strong relationships, where students perceived their teachers' commitment to student success.

  • Carefully constructed curriculum with extensive reading and writing requirements and an explicit goal to send all graduates to college.

  • Teachers' explicit teaching of academic skills, an ability to adapt instruction to students' needs (e.g., how to approach academic tasks, how to evaluate their own work), and incorporation of internship experiences and community service.

  • School-wide performance assessment system, requiring seven or more portfolios for graduation that cover science and social studies, literature, art and mathematics, and an internship experience.

  • Creation of flexible supports, such as before- and after-school assistance and peer tutoring, to ensure student learning.

  • Strong teachers, supported by collaboration in planning and problem-solving; and professional development opportunities, often in partnership with local schools of education.

    Even though the new schools approach demonstrates potential to help youth achieve academically, educational philosophies change with time and administrations. The current requirements for testing-based standards leaves educators wondering if "this reform will go the way of others before it or whether it will create new possibilities for schooling."

    According to the researchers, "New York City, like many other districts, must decide whether to transform its core operations to undertake widespread systemic change."

    Inside TC would like to thank the AERA's Office of Public Information for information on the study.

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