New York’s Little Schools Make Big Brains

While it’s true that New York has been prospering of late, rightfully boasting of low crime, a friendly business climate and a robust real estate market, the fact remains that no American city in the 21st century, never mind a global leader, can expect that prosperity to continue long term if 40 percent of its high school students are not graduating. Fortunately, Mayor Michael Bloomberg realizes this, and had made education the focus of his second term.

The latest indication that the mayor’s policies are paying off: A report showing that students graduated from 47 small public high schools at a significantly higher rate than the citywide average. Some of the downsized schools recorded four-year graduation rates of more than 90 percent, and as a whole, the smaller schools compiled a graduation rate of about 73 percent this year. That’s an impressive number compared with the city’s estimate that about 60 percent of students overall graduate high school.

It has been five years since Mayor Bloomberg began replacing some poor-performing, large-population high schools with small schools, many of them organized around themes such as the arts or technology. The old schools were compiling dismal graduation rates: Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, for example, graduated only 31 percent of its students in four years. That’s disgraceful and bordering on criminal.

Mr. Bloomberg recognized that the old model of industrial-strength education just wasn’t working. He began replacing some of the schools in 2002, which means that the new, smaller schools have graduated only two classes, in 2006 and this year. So the impressive spike in graduation rates must be treated not as absolute proof of success but as a very hopeful sign that Mr. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein are on the right track. Motivating and educating kids requires attention and follow-up—something not easily done in the mega-schools of the past. Small schools allow teachers and principals to keep track of students and to make sure they are not lost in the shuffle.

It is especially satisfying to learn that while the smaller schools have fewer students with learning disabilities, they are, in fact, serving special-education students, and that they, too, are doing well. So it’s not as though these schools have inflated graduation rates because they’ve cherry-picked the best students.

Good ideas require resources for implementation, and City Hall has done a terrific job in attracting serious philanthropists. New York’s experiment with smaller high schools is working thanks, in part, to a $30 million grant from the New Century High Schools project, which is, in turn, funded by the Carnegie Corporation, the Open Society Institute and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation, it should never be forgotten, has poured $100 million into the city’s public schools in recent years. The Gates’ quiet philanthropy has made a huge difference in the lives of New York’s children.

While the graduation rates deserve notice and celebration, it also should be noted that a high school degree isn’t what it used to be; the number of jobs available to high school graduates becomes lower every year. The city’s economic future requires not only improved high school graduation rates but a high level of college admissions. Happily, the city seems to be moving in that direction.