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Smaller schools work well in NYC

Michael Bloomberg had a vision that smaller schools in New York City could bring better educational results for students. Fortunately, this multibillionaire, who also happened to be the mayor of New York, had the power to execute his vision.

Bloomberg was convinced that reducing the large and often dysfunctional high schools in the city that didn't do the job, and replacing them with smaller schools, could bring beneficial results.

Fortunately this forward-looking mayor was right and the results are proving that his premise was correct. The smaller schools he created within the framework of the older, much larger institutions that had existed for years have produced remarkable results.

The 47 new smaller schools that have opened in New York since 1992 have produced significantly higher graduation results. Eight of the 47 smaller schools have achieved a 92 percent graduation rate while in 2002 only 40 percent of students from larger schools graduated. On average, the 47 small schools reported 73 percent of their students graduated in June, compared to the city's 60 percent rate in 2006.

The mayor and his chief adviser on the school system, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, enthused and greatly encouraged by the positive results of the first phase of the mayor's program, now are targeting the creation of 250 additional smaller school schools out of the larger ones.

There has been and continues to be a debate on what should be the ideal size of a school. Most of the researchers now agree that 300 to 400 students for an elementary school and 400 to 800 for a high school would be most effective. Based on the first phase of the Bloomberg initiative, those involved say that achievement in small schools is equal to or even superior to that of the larger schools.

One of the key findings, not really unexpected, is that student social behavior is more positive in the smaller schools. Truancy, discipline problems, substance abuse and gang involvement show great improvement. The level of student activity in extracurricular school also is much higher and more varied in the small schools than in the larger ones. The report also shows that student attendance was better in the smaller schools and that a smaller percentage of students dropped out of the smaller schools than the larger ones.

Teachers' attitudes toward their work were definitely more positive in the smaller schools, and relations between and among students, teachers and administrators were much more positive in the smaller schools. Adults and students in the small schools know more about each other than in the larger institutions, and in addition and most importantly, small schools have a higher rate of parental involvement, a factor that educators have repeatedly stressed as vitally important.

It is significant that poor students and those of racial or ethnic minorities are more adversely affected by attending large schools than other students. This is another plus for those who favor the concept of smaller schools, as opposed to the larger institutions that predominate in so many large urban environments.

There are, of course, many researchers who still favor the larger schools and who are not convinced that smaller is better for students, parents, teachers and administrators. I believe that, in large measure, is because they have been responsible in the past for pushing school consolidation as a means of achieving large scale economies in education. I find the pragmatic result of New York City's 47-school program adequate proof that the Bloomberg administration decision to opt for smaller schools made eminent good education sense. Hopefully, when the program is expanded the results will continue to be positive.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News

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