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School organization: Case studies

The following case studies indicate how small schools have been implemented in Baltimore, New York City, the Southwest, and South Carolina.


In 2007, the Urban Institute’s Education Policy Center reported on its five-year evaluation of Baltimore’s high school reforms. The city planned to create eight innovation high schools and to convert its nine existing, large high schools into smaller neighborhood schools. All schools were expected to be academically rigorous; have small supportive structures; and effective, accountable instruction and leadership. Although the Urban Institute researchers did not specify the timeline for launching the new schools, their report notes that as of 2007, only four of the nine large schools had been converted and only six of the eight innovation schools were under way.

Baltimore’s innovation schools were conceived as new, independent small schools that would be developed with outside assistance. Any student could apply to attend an innovation school. Neighborhood schools were to be created by breaking up existing high schools and their students would come, initially, from their neighborhoods (although by 2005, the district had instituted a citywide system of choice). Control of these schools apparently remained inside the district.

In order to determine how well these reforms worked, evaluators administered annual surveys to students and teachers from 2003 to 2007. During the 2004—2005 school year, researchers made site visits to twenty innovation, neighborhood, and comprehensive high schools. Data (including standardized test scores, attendance, and credit accrual) were obtained from the state department of education and analyzed.

Although the Baltimore study focused mainly on student achievement, several factors that could be related to student engagement were also examined. Among other things, researchers wanted to know whether students were more likely to stay at one type of high school over the others.

The innovation schools have done the best job of keeping students; students at neighborhood and comprehensive high schools were two and three times as likely to change school types after the first year (ninth grade). Further, by the end of high school, 37 percent of students who left an innovation school “fell out” of the system, whereas 59.6 percent and 64.5 percent of neighborhood and comprehensive students had left the system. Attendance rates for students at innovation schools were greater than at other schools by amounts ranging from 9 percent (sixteen days) to 22 percent (forty days) more days in school.

When Baltimore researchers looked at the differences in how fully the school types implemented the guiding principles—support, effective instruction, and leadership—innovation high schools again came out on top, even after controlling for student characteristics. Urban Institute researchers suggest that organizational advantages at the innovation schools may account for some of the differences. These advantages include “autonomy in hiring staff and selecting and implementing curricula and a student body that chose to be there."

New York City

The New Century High Schools, a “small schools” program in New York City, began to operate in 2002. The results of a four-year evaluation (Foley, Klinge, and Reisner 2007) showed that these schools graduated more students on time than did NYC schools generally (78.2 percent of students as compared to 58.2 percent of students). Dropout prevention, attendance rates, and on-time graduation results were also better than other city schools, although more New Century students came from low-income households and had lower eighth-grade test scores.

Drawing on case study data and evaluations from earlier years, the researchers determined that the following factors contributed to the positive environments:

  • Small enrollments.
  • Close relationships between students and teachers.
  • Expanding learning beyond the regular school day (both through experiential learning and extra academic supports, such as tutoring and counseling).
  • Using data to track student performance.

All of these factors also helped New Century schools engage students in learning and engage teachers in schooling.

A District in the Southwest

In 2006, Zvoch conducted a study of freshman dropouts across eleven high schools in the same southwestern U.S. school district. Two schools had ninth-grade academies for entering freshmen and nine schools did not. The schools with academies provided extra support to ninth-grade students: Individual mentoring, block scheduling, and team teaching by teachers who met weekly to plan lessons and discuss student issues. The two academy schools each reserved a wing of the building for freshman classes so students were segregated in a smaller learning community environment.

When the analyses were complete, Zvoch noted some findings of this study that varied from other studies on dropout rates in which increased poverty tends to align with increased dropout rates. The variances in this study suggested that contextual environment in school—in this case, the smaller learning community—can have a strong and independent effect on a student’s decision to remain in school. The high schools with ninth-grade academies had “a reduction in overall dropout rates and had lower dropout odds for Latino students relative to other non-academy schools."

South Carolina

This case study demonstrates the difficulty of measuring engagement, even when researchers are looking for its indicators.

In 2006, Kenneth Stevenson reviewed a series of eight studies from the past ten years on South Carolina schools. In these studies, doctoral students and graduate faculty looked at academic performance, and sometimes school climate, in relationship to school size. In the studies that looked at climate, some of the measures included percentage of students identified as gifted and talented, percentage of students on academic plans, percentage of students suspended or expelled, and student attendance. Some of these might be considered indicators of engagement.

  • In all studies, the final conclusions were that student poverty had more to do with school performance than any other factor, and this was true at all levels—elementary, middle, and high school.
  • Relative to climate, findings from a study on 267 elementary schools determined that as school size increased, the percentage of students retained also increased.
  • In a study of 156 middle schools, Stevenson was unable to find any correlations between school size and school climate.
  • Stevenson looked at 178 high schools and found no size-climate correlations, but he did note that the factors that promote success in a school may have most to do with socioeconomic conditions and may vary between schools at the lower and higher ends of the socioeconomic scale.

These case studies were prepared by Edvantia, an education research and development not-for-profit corporation founded in 1966.

Posted: September 4, 2008

©Center for Public Education

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