New York City's Small High Schools Continue to Raise Graduation Rates, Report Finds

Small high schools in New York City that serve mostly disadvantaged students of color have raised graduation rates in the city by 8.6 percentage points, a new report from MDRC finds.

Sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and based on a multiyear study, the report, Sustained Positive Effects on Graduation Rates (12 pages, PDF), found that small public high schools graduated nearly nine more students for every hundred students entering ninth-grade than larger schools in the city. Driven almost entirely by Regents diplomas attained, the graduation gains were seen in nearly every subgroup of the student population, including male and female students of color, students with below-eighth-grade proficiency in math and reading, and low-income students. The small schools boosted the proportion of students scoring 75 or more on the English Regents exam, a critical measure of college readiness as defined by the City University of New York, by 7.6 percentage points, or nearly 25 percent.

More than a hundred academically non-selective public high schools and 21,000 students were included in the study. The schools themselves were created as part of a district-wide reform effort between 2002 and 2008. As a result of the reforms, the New York City Board of Education closed twenty-three large high schools, opened 216 small high schools, and implemented a centralized high school admissions process that assigns more than 90 percent of some 80,000 incoming ninth-graders each year based on their school preference. The MDRC reports compare the academic outcomes of students who secured admission though a lottery and enrolled in a small school with those who lost out in a lottery and enrolled in another school.

"These results demonstrate clearly that high school reform at scale is possible, with potentially important implications for federal School Improvement Grant funding as well as high school turnaround efforts under way in every district in America," said MDRC president Gordon Berlin. "While more certainly needs to be done if all students are to be prepared for college and careers, the small school strategy as implemented in New York provides a solid foundation on which to build."