Over at The Washington Post's Class Struggle blog, Jay Matthews, extols the virtues of New York City's eight-year-old plan to create so-called "small schools of choice." These roughly 200 non-selective schools, which serve 80,000 students, are geared towards specific career paths, such as writing, law, business, etc., and sprung up to replace 20 shuttered high schools. Matthews believes that, in contrast to charter schools, this system is a more effective way of turning around instances where public education has gone frighteningly awry.
His recommendation stems from the findings in a new report from the research organization MDRC: In the first year that the schools operate, serving only 9th graders, they boost on-time graduation rates from 48.5 percent of students to 58.5 percent. That leads to an improvement of nearly 7 percent in overall graduation rates, which, the MRDC says, eliminates a third of the gap between white and minority students. And among those who benefit the most from the system is the historically difficult to reach "male high school students of color" demographic.
Matthews wants to see this model applied in D.C.:
This strikes me as important information for urban school districts across the country, particularly the one where my newspaper is. New York managed to find enough empty spaces to start those schools, sometimes by sharing space with other schools. Some urban districts may be so loaded with the children of immigrant families that they have no room for a whole new group of seedling high schools with just 100 ninth-graders, but the District has plenty of room. Many classrooms in its large traditional high schools are empty. I have seen enough space to fit 30 or 40 groups of 100 students each. As the large traditional high schools shrink each year, there would be enough space for the new schools to grow.\n
While the numbers are certainly promising, there are definitely drawbacks to the small school system. For one, by spreading out students and staff, money gets spread around, as well. A friend of mine teaches at one of these schools in Brooklyn and tells stories of a four-year-old school with no library, no computer lab, and, on more than one occasion, no toner for the copier. In fact, this year, there wasn't enough money for the school to hire a 9th grade science teacher, so the class simply wasn't offered.
That situation doesn't sound like anything anyone would want to replicate. Small schools may be the best way to go, but, like every other struggling school, they still need to be properly funded.