New York City’s Changing High School Landscape

High Schools and Their Characteristics, 2002-2008

By Janet Quint, Janell K. Smith, Rebecca Unterman, Alma E. Moedano

New York City’s public high school system — the nation’s largest — underwent a sweeping transformation during the first decade of the twenty-first century. At the start of the decade, students were routinely assigned to their zoned high schools, which often had thousands of students and were overcrowded and low-performing. By the 2007-2008 school year, some 23 large and midsize schools with graduation rates below 45 percent were closed or on their way to closing. Simultaneously, many new schools that were intended to serve high school-age students came into being, including almost 200 new small schools.

In a break with past practices, the majority of the new small schools accepted students at all levels of academic proficiency and thus were open to those who would likely have attended the closed schools. While the new small schools have various themes and educational philosophies, they share three objectives: to prepare their students for college; to ensure strong student-teacher relationships; and to combine learning with real-world examples both inside and outside the classroom.

Concurrent with these changes in the supply of high schools, the City created a new system by which students exercised demand for them: school choice was extended to all incoming high school students in New York City — compelling rising ninth-graders to indicate up to 12 schools that they wanted to attend. A computerized process was then used to assign each student to his or her highest-ranked school with space available. While the introduction of choice affected all public high school students, most of the school closings and openings were concentrated in low-income, nonwhite areas of the Bronx and Brooklyn.

The scale and rapidity of the changes were grounded in the conviction of the New York City Department of Education, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and other key local stakeholders that small schools could more effectively meet the academic and socioemotional needs of disadvantaged students. With funding from the Gates Foundation, three reports are being released on the implementation of the City’s small school reforms.

This report, from MDRC, takes a broad view, looking at the ways in which New York City’s reform effort transformed the public high school landscape from 2002 to 2008 and describing the characteristics of the schools and students involved. It finds, among other things, that, by September 2007, the new small schools collectively served almost as many students as the closing schools had served in September 2002. And the students at the small, nonselective high schools across the five boroughs of New York City tend to be more disadvantaged than students attending other kinds of schools.

A second report, Approaches of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-Funded Intermediary Organizations to Structuring and Supporting Small High Schools in New York City, prepared by Policy Studies Associates, Inc., examines the roles of 18 intermediary organizations that were funded by the Gates Foundation to start and advise new small schools.

A third report, Small High Schools at Work: A Case Study of Six Gates-Funded Schools in New York City, from the Academy for Educational Development, takes a close look a handful of these new small schools, focusing on particular practices associated with student success: intermediary support, personal and academic support, effective instructional practices, and college preparation.

Stay tuned for more on the story of New York City’s small schools. Later this spring, MDRC will release a report on the effects of this reform effort on student achievement.

Quint, Janet, Janell Smith, Rebecca Unterman, and Alma Moedano. 2010. New York City’s Changing High School Landscape. New York: MDRC.