Sustained Positive Effects on Graduation Rates Produced by New York City’s Small Public High Schools of Choice

During the past decade, New York City undertook a district-wide high school reform that is perhaps unprecedented in its scope, scale, and pace. Between fall 2002 and fall 2008, the school district closed 23 large failing high schools (with graduation rates below 45 percent), opened 216 new small high schools (with different missions, structures, and student selection criteria), and implemented a centralized high school admissions process that assigns over 90 percent of the roughly 80,000 incoming ninth-graders each year based on their school preferences.

At the heart of this reform are 123 small, academically nonselective, public high schools. Each with approximately 100 students per grade in grades 9 through 12, these schools were created to serve some of the district’s most disadvantaged students and are located mainly in neighborhoods where large failing high schools had been closed. MDRC researchers call them "small schools of choice" (SSCs) because of their small size and the fact that they do not screen students based on their academic backgrounds.

In June 2010, MDRC released a report on the effectiveness of 105 of the 123 new SSCs, based on an unusually large and rigorous study that takes advantage of lottery-like features in New York City’s high school admissions process and includes data on 21,000 students from four cohorts who entered ninth grade between fall 2005 and fall 2008. That report demonstrated that SSCs are markedly improving academic progress and graduation prospects, particularly for disadvantaged students.

This policy brief extends the analysis by a year, adding information on high school graduation rates for the 2006 cohort and providing a fifth year of follow-up for the 2005 cohort.

Key Findings

  • Sustained impacts on graduation with Regents diplomas: With the addition of a second cohort, average four-year graduation effects have reached 8.6 percentage points (67.9 percent for "target SSC enrollees" vs. 59.3 percent for their control group counterparts). Almost all of this graduation effect reflects an increase in receipt of New York State Regents diplomas. For this type of diploma, students must pass a minimum of five Regents examinations (English Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, Global History, and American History) with a score of 65 points or above and must pass all courses that are required by the state.

  • Positive graduation effects for virtually every subgroup, including students with low entering proficiency in math and English, males and females, blacks and Hispanics, and students eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch.

  • A positive effect on a measure of college readiness: A 7.6 percentage point impact on scoring 75 or higher on the English Regents exam (a marker that the City University of New York uses to exempt students from remedial English). There was no effect on scoring 75 or higher on the math Regents exam.

  • Five-year graduation effect: Students in SSCs are 7.1 percentage points more likely to graduate in five years than their control group counterparts (75.2 percent vs. 68.1 percent).

What Are Small Schools of Choice?

SSCs are more than just small. They were developed through a competitive proposal process run by the New York City Department of Education that was designed to ensure that school founders met specified conditions and to stimulate innovative ideas from a range of stakeholders and institutions. SSCs emphasize academic rigor and strong and sustained personal relationships among students and faculty. In addition, most were founded with community partners who offer students relevant learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom and provide school faculty with additional staffing support and resources. Each SSC also received start-up funding as well as assistance and policy support from the district and other key players to facilitate leadership development, hiring, and implementation. These reform efforts were supported by a consortium of funders and were implemented in collaboration with the United Federation of Teachers and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators.

Supplemental Figure and Tables

Supplemental Figure 1: Displays the locations of the new small schools created between the fall of 2002 and the fall of 2007. These schools are 115 of the 123 Small Schools of Choice. Most are located in high-poverty areas of Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Supplemental Table 1: Demonstrates that students who won lotteries for SSCs and students who did not are virtually identical on all measured characteristics, including race/ethnicity, gender, poverty status, eighth-grade reading and math proficiency, and English language learner and special education status.

Supplemental Table 2: Compares characteristics of SSC enrollees in the study sample, all students that are assigned to these SSCs through the high school application process, and all first-time ninth grade students in New York City public schools.

Supplemental Table 3: Displays four-year graduation effects separately for cohorts 1 and 2.

Document Details

Publication Type
January 2012
Bloom, Howard and Rebecca Unterman. 2012. “Sustained Positive Effects on Graduation Rates Produced by New York City’s Small Public High Schools of Choice.” New York: MDRC.