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The Downside of Small Schools

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I've long been a fan of small schools, and there's much to admire in the 200 new small high schools that New York City has created since 2002. But there's a dark side as well. A new report (disclosure: I am one of the authors) shows that the success of the small schools came at the expense of remaining large schools that serve mostly poor kids.

When the city closed large, failing high schools to make way for new small schools, thousands of students who might once have attended those large schools were diverted to the remaining large schools, according to the report, published by The Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.

The new small schools admitted mostly struggling students, including kids reading at a fifth or sixth grade level. But thousands of students who were even needier, including English language learners and kids with special needs, wound up in ever-more crowded large schools. Many of those large schools were ill-equipped to cope with the influx and saw their attendance and graduation rates decline.

The new small schools cater to kids who might otherwise drop out of school. The hope is that schools with an enrollment of about 400 students offer personal attention that's missing in giant schools with 3,000 students or more. The problem is the city tried to create these schools without building a lot of new buildings. Instead, they housed four to six new schools in the buildings that housed the old large schools. The total enrollment in the new schools was lower than the enrollment of the old; the overflow kids were sent to other beleaguered large schools, with commutes of up to 90 minutes.

Is there a lesson? Small schools are good, but large schools still serve the majority of New York City students. The city needs to develop a strategy to help the large schools and not just make them worse.