March 6 — 11:43 am, 2009

‘Going small’

A strategy for reforming large neighborhood high schools

img 7739 Photo: Harvey Finkle

Compared to peers in comparable large schools, students in small neighborhood high schools pass algebra at higher rates and are suspended for bad behavior less frequently, according to a new report by the local nonprofit Research for Action (RFA).

In addition, both teachers and students at these small neighborhood schools report feeling safer and more positive about the learning environment than their counterparts at the larger schools.

These findings indicate that making non-selective neighborhood high schools smaller could play a role in stemming the dropout tide, according to the report, called Going Small. Flunking algebra – a key gatekeeper course for staying on track to graduation – and getting into trouble significantly increase the odds that a student will eventually give up on school. The study did not analyze dropout rates because some of the new small schools had not yet graduated a class.

“The data suggest that families are interested in small high schools and that these schools, across admissions categories, are beginning to make a difference for student engagement and achievement,” the report says. “In addition, small neighborhood high schools seem to be a promising option for reform of large neighborhood high schools.”

 The study, with funding from the Carnegie Corporation, examined implementation of small high schools in Philadelphia between 2003 and 2008, when the District established 25 new small high schools. These schools were created from scratch, carved out of large high schools, transitioned from middle schools, or given autonomy after decades of being attached to a larger institution.

Like the city’s large schools, there are three tiers, distinguished by their entrance requirements. Among the 25 are 10 small neighborhood schools, which are open to all students from a feeder area. The other 15 are either “citywide admission,” which have some criteria regarding grades and behavior but generally no test-score cutoffs, or “special admission” schools, which only take students who score in the upper ranges of standardized tests.

 Students at all small schools across all three admissions categories passed algebra at higher rates and were suspended less frequently than those at larger ones, the data show. But these differences were greatest when the non-selective neighborhood schools were compared.

Positive effects occurred even though only one of the small neighborhood high schools received the same extra resources and planning time as a small group of new, small special and citywide admission schools, which started with specially selected leadership and staff.

Making neighborhood high schools more effective is key to any dropout reduction strategy, since they continue to educate most of the District’s students. Neighborhood schools are open to all students from their feeder areas, serve students with the greatest educational needs, and are consistently among the lowest performing in the city, with high dropout rates and significant climate issues. In 2006-07, 69 percent of all first-time ninth graders attended neighborhood high schools: 61 percent in large ones, only 8 percent in small. 

Most students in neighborhood schools tried to find an alternative: 73 percent of eighth graders in 2006 applied to one or more high schools, but more than half of those were accepted at none.

According to the report, the learning environments at small neighborhood high schools seem to be improving despite their less-than-ideal start-up. In the 2007 District teacher survey, teachers at small neighborhood high schools were more likely than those at large schools to report that their leadership set high standards for teaching and learning and that they collaborated with other teachers on instruction.

However, there are also signs that the smaller schools continue to face challenges in creating and maintaining positive school environments. Most teachers in both small and large neighborhood schools report that some of their students do not have access to the instructional supports they need.

“While size mediates challenges, levels of student engagement and support are troubling at both large and small neighborhood high schools,” the report says.

 Absenteeism is disturbingly high at all neighborhood schools: 58 percent (at small schools) and 57 percent (at large schools) of first-time ninth graders were absent 20 days or more. Students at small neighborhood schools had more serious tardiness problems, with 59 percent having 20 or more latenesses per year, compared to 40 percent at larger neighborhood schools.

Based on interviews, however, students at small schools generally reported that, in addition to feeling safer, they could form closer relationships with teachers. They also said classrooms were more orderly and focused.

“Hardly anybody did their work when it was a big school,” said one student who attends a small school that was created by breaking up a large one. “Half the class would be cutting. Now, everybody does their work.”

Another student said, “I don’t feel like an outsider.”

The research also indicated that administrators and teachers across all schools – small and large, selective and not – believe that more needs to be done to increase academic rigor. Among what they said was needed:

  • Building a shared school culture with common education focus and goals
  • Strong leadership, including instructional leadership from administrators and staff
  • Time for teachers to meet and collaborate on instruction
  • More local control of staffing, schedule, budgets and curricula.

While some of the data look encouraging for small schools, the report says, “if the promise is to be realized, all small schools, but particularly neighborhood high schools, need resources and time to work intentionally on developing and implementing plans to improve learning opportunities and outcomes.”

The full report is slated for March release.

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