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Study Raises Issues on Small High Schools

Susan Notes: This seems to reveal that political concerns trump research. Research is "managed" like every other part of a PR campaign. When evaluations of public school initiatives are privatized and when people want to cherry pick the results, there is no accountability.

By David M. Herszenhorn

A study of some of New York City's new small high schools has found that they are succeeding in creating a more personalized atmosphere, but the study also identified several core weaknesses, including old-style teaching techniques similar to those in traditional schools.

The researchers also found that community groups that expected to be partners in the schools were only marginally involved on a day-to-day basis and that advisory periods meant to build bonds between students and teachers were often a waste of time.

New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit group that has long been at the center of New York's effort to create small schools, commissioned the study by Policy Research Associates, a Washington firm. The study has not been publicly released, but a copy was provided to The New York Times by a critic of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's management of the school system.

The report was the second annual evaluation of the New Century High Schools, a group of small schools that began opening in the Bronx and Brooklyn in September 2002., and it examined 30 schools that were operating in the 2003-4 academic year.

The second evaluation was completed in March. But unlike the first-year evaluation, which was quickly posted on the Internet, the latest report has yet to be put on the New Visions' Web site.

Robert L. Hughes, the president of New Visions, said that he and other officials questioned some of the findings. For instance, they said they were so perplexed by the report's conclusions about community partnerships that New Visions initiated a follow-up study, interviewing partners and principals.

While the report suggests that partners were strongly involved in extracurricular activities, it found that most partners were not heavily involved in day-to-day operations.

Mr. Hughes said that officials believed that most of the community partner arrangements were very successful. And of the 78 New Century schools that now exist, he said, only three had serious issues that led to a change in the community partner.

In several interviews, Mr. Hughes said that officials had been aware of the preliminary findings for about a year and had already taken aggressive steps to address areas of concern, like stepped-up training for the use of advisory periods.

The reluctance to release the study surprised both critics and supporters of the small-school effort. And it perplexed the researchers, who concluded that the small schools were mostly doing well.

"They have got a positive story to tell," said Elizabeth R. Reisner, one of the chief authors of the report.

The findings have large implications for the Bloomberg administration, which greatly increased the city's efforts to create small schools using the New Century initiative as a model. More than 100 such schools have opened in the last two years.

The report shed new light on the students attending the small schools, finding that in junior high school they had better attendance, test scores and behavior than students who ended up at large, troubled high schools.

Those findings seemed to confirm the suspicions that small schools were being sought out by more dedicated students and more involved parents.

Because of a long lag in getting data from the city's Education Department, the student profile information came only from the first 12 New Century schools that opened in September 2002. David Bloomfield, the head of a principal-training program at Brooklyn College, said that the trend of more engaged students' leaving larger schools for small schools was disturbing. "That's an important area for continued concern," he said. "There is still a creaming phenomenon."

Mr. Bloomfield, who has argued that the small schools have come at too great a cost to big schools, said he was unimpressed by the findings.

"They look a lot like traditional schools," he said. "They lack instructional innovation; they generally lack important community linkages; and they lack improved student performance."

Leonie Haimson, whose group, Class Size Matters, endorses smaller classes in public schools, said the report suggested that small schools were benefiting a minority of the city's high school students, while those in big schools were being ignored.

"The only thing that appears to be working in these schools is the way in which the personal bond between students and their teachers is enhanced, which in turn depends upon smaller classes," she said. "Yet the lowest performing high school students who need smaller classes are mostly being left behind in the large high schools."

Stephen Morello, a spokesman for the Education Department, said the report highlighted the successes of small schools but called it "a somewhat dated snapshot."

Of the concerns raised, he said, "we have already been aggressively addressing the issues." But he did not address any of the report's specific concerns about advisories, community partnerships or teaching techniques.

Mr. Morello summed up by saying, "The new small schools are getting results; we are very pleased with the tremendous progress of our new schools."

— David M. Herszenhorn
New York Times
November 4, 2005


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