Best of Both Worlds?
Midsize schools have been overlooked in the drive to go small.
If a school is too big, kids can get lost. If a school is too small, kids may not have advanced classes, appropriate special education services, electives or fun activities such as sports teams. But, proponents of midsize schools say, if a school is just right, it may offer students the best of both: the intimacy of a small school and the wide range of courses and services they need.
With an enrollment of 1,250, Telecommunication Arts High School in Brooklyn has the benefits of a large school: lots of courses, ranging from remedial reading to Advanced Placement, and a wide array of sports teams, clubs, dances and concerts. But it also has some of the attributes of a small school: a close-knit, collegial staff and a principal who has time to focus on instruction.
"I can stand on the corner and pretty much tell you which child is ours and which child is not," says Phillip Weinberg, who has been principal of Telecommunication Arts for a decade. "We can offer tried and true AP [Advanced Placement], honors English, regular English and basic skills work in a way that isn't available to a school that has 400 kids. A 3,600-kid school can do that even more easily, but they can't stand on the corner and know who each kid is."
Midsize schools like Telecommunication Arts, the High School of Teaching, Liberal Arts and Sciences in Queens, and Ralph McKee Career and Technical High School in Staten Island are all poised in the space between colossal and intimate.
Not all midsize schools are successful, of course. But an analysis by the Center for New York City Affairs found that, on average, the city's 40 high schools with enrollments between 600 and 1,400 are just as good as or better than smaller schools in terms of graduation rates, attendance and the ability to serve struggling students. Like Telecommunication Arts, these midsize high schools typically have richer offerings such as foreign-language classes, sports, Advanced Placement courses and a wider variety of special education services, the analysis found. (See chart, page 49).
Sweet Spot for Equity
These findings are consistent with research by education professors Valerie E. Lee, at the University of Michigan, and Julia B. Smith, at Oakland University, which found that schools of 600 to 900 students were beneficial for young people across the socioeconomic spectrum. In a landmark 1997 study widely cited by academics and education researchers, Lee and Smith analyzed year-to-year gains on standardized test scores among 9,912 students enrolled in 789 public, private and Catholic high schools nationwide.
"Very large schools, as well as very small ones, are problematic," Lee and Smith wrote in an article published in a journal called Educational Policy Analysis Archives. Students learn less in high schools with fewer than 600 students, as well as in very large ones." School size is especially important for the most disadvantaged students, who typically attend either very large or very small schools, they wrote.
Aaron Pallas, a sociologist and education analyst at Columbia University, says there is a "sweet spot" in school size that gives students of lower socioeconomic status their best chance of academic achievement. Douglas Ready, a professor at Teachers College who collaborates with Lee, says their research shows that midsize schools balance access and achievement: Very small schools are equitable because all students, including low-income students, have access to the same curriculum, he explains.
Very large schools provide opportunities for higher achievement because the very best students may take several Advanced Placement courses. But access to those courses isn't equitable—students of higher income tend to be assigned to more advanced courses. Midsize schools balance equity and achievement, Ready says.
"Students learn more (and learning is more equitably distributed by race and class) in medium-size high schools—those that enroll between 600 and 900 students," Lee and Ready wrote in their 2007 book, Schools within Schools: Possibilities and Pitfalls of High School Reform. "High schools of that size are large enough to provide a solid curriculum, yet small enough to foster positive social relationships."
"Small schools are really good at personalization," adds Robert Hughes, president of New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that has created 140 small schools in New York City. "But big schools are strong with systems, with building capacity. The flexibility in a big school is a really powerful tool, in terms of scheduling, faculty strength, working with a budget and advanced academic offerings. It's not impossible in small schools, but it's easier in large schools." Hughes said he would like to apply the lessons of small schools to the creation of a midsize school of 800 students.
Since 2007, New Visions has worked with several dozen schools of various sizes, providing many of the school support services that were previously the responsibility of the city's community school district offices, which have been dismantled. In working with various schools, Hughes says, he became aware of the strengths of different sizes of schools and hopes there can be greater cross-fertilization of ideas. "I'm not abandoning small schools, but I'm interested in the possibilities of large schools. There is stuff to learn from all these structures," Hughes says. He cites Telecommunication Arts High School, with its strong leadership and solid classroom instruction, as one of the schools he admires.
"A Place of Respect and Collaboration"
Housed in a stately gothic-style building with turrets and stained-glass windows in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, Telecommunication Arts draws a wide mix of students. They are admitted according to a formula, called Educational Option, designed to attract a mix of low-achieving, average and above-average students. The curriculum ranges from intensive remedial reading and math to college-preparatory academics. About half the students are Latino; the rest are an even mix of whites, blacks and Asians. About two-thirds are poor enough to qualify for free lunch. Weinberg says nearly half of incoming ninth graders scored Level 1 or 2 on their eighth-grade standardized tests—a bit better than the citywide average but hardly a concentration of high achievers. Nonetheless, 81 percent graduated on time in 2007, and 89 percent of the graduates earned Regents diplomas, far above the citywide average, according to the city's statistics.
All incoming freshmen are assigned to a "block" of 150 students, led by a team of five teachers who teach core academics during five periods each day. Structurally, it feels a lot like middle school. Weinberg says this helps ease the transition to high school life. About 50 students are assigned to remedial math and reading classes. Those who need extra help continue to take support classes through 10th grade. They can also take an extra semester to complete the math sequence required for graduation.
At a midsize school like Telecommunication Arts, the enrollment is large enough to support competitive sports and clubs like student government and newspapers, but there are fewer students competing for spots than there would be at a larger school. Weinberg says more than 20 percent of his students play team sports, a far higher proportion than at large high schools.
A small school might have only one biology teacher or one special education specialist. At Telecommunication Arts, on the other hand, there are enough staff members to have a lively exchange among teachers. The school's 80 teachers work in teams. A corps of master teachers serves as mentors to new teachers. Each teacher visits other classrooms twice a month. The school culture that supports this kind of collegial, professional collaboration took nearly a decade to develop, says Weinberg. "It's a place to learn. It's your home, a place of respect and collaboration," he says.
"They Really Know the Students"
There is great variation among midsize schools. The 40 schools included in the center's analysis range from the highly selective Townsend Harris High School in Queens to the beleaguered Far Rockaway High School, which serves children with low levels of academic achievement from mostly low-income families. Many factors besides school size—including the effectiveness of the principal, the experience of the staff, and the academic strength of the incoming students—affect the success of any school.
Many of the city's career and technical education high schools—offering what used to be called vocational education—are among the midsize schools. These schools have an academic core, combined with technical and training programs in specific trades.
Ralph McKee High School on Staten Island, with 800 students, is small enough to give students individualized attention but large enough to offer sophisticated (and expensive) shops and labs for vocational courses in Cisco computer networking labs, graphic design, construction trades, auto mechanics and cosmetology.
Only 13.5 percent of McKee's entering freshmen read at grade-level and more than one-fourth qualify for special education services, according to Department of Education (DOE) data. Still, 76 percent graduated on time in 2007, above the citywide average, according to city statistics, and most go on to college or technical school, often with large scholarships. Top students have been admitted to the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Rochester Institute of Technology, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and the New York Institute of Technology, according to Alan Troshane, a shop teacher and machinist who leads the school's robotics team.
The school offers a connection with caring adults, challenging and compelling work, and enough variety to engage a wide range of students, according to Principal Sharon Henry. There is a 3-D "printer" that spins three-dimensional plastic models from 2-D renderings on computer screens. Students design robots on state-of-the-art computer-aided design equipment and build them in a state-of-the-art-machine shop, according to Troshane. And there's an auto shop designed by BMW.
McKee has a full-time assistant principal for special education, a position that would be hard to support in a very small school, as well as honors classes for high achievers. (However, top students in McKee's drafting and pre-engineering programs must travel to other high schools to take high-level courses such as calculus and physics.) At the same time, the enrollment is small enough that close relationships with adults are possible. "Teachers work very closely—they really know the students," says Linda DeMare, a guidance counselor.
McKee isn't perfect. Its attendance, at 85 percent, is far below ideal. While the shops are well-equipped, science labs are in short supply. But at McKee, struggling students have the opportunity to build basic skills even as they master a marketable trade. Many graduate into unionized, full-time employment.
Better for Special Needs
In Queens, the High School of Teaching, Liberal Arts and Sciences, founded in 2003, isn't small, but it isn't gigantic either. Like other midsize schools, it has more extensive special education services than a typical small school provides.
With 1,100 students divided into three "learning communities," the school has 15 full-time special education teachers, a full-time psychologist, an assistant principal to help with budgets and security, and services such as occupational and physical therapy for disabled students. In smaller schools, students with disabilities often receive services from part-time specialists who may travel among a number of schools.
Housed in a sparkling new building on the grounds of the former Creedmor psychiatric hospital in the Bellerose section of Queens, the High School of Teaching welcomed special needs students from the day it opened. Children with disabilities are integrated in regular classes, many of which have two teachers, one certified in special education. "Our graduation rate for students with special needs is exactly the same as that of our general education students, 91.5 percent," says founding Principal Nigel Pugh.
Pugh, a former small-school administrator who now oversees about 150 schools at DOE headquarters, says he has long believed students need highly personalized attention. He believes the small learning communities at the High School of Teaching are critical to its success. But he has come to believe that a school as large as the High School of Teaching may serve special needs students better than smaller schools.
"If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have said small is the way to go," Pugh says. "Now, I think this is the best of both worlds."