New York City is rolling out small schools at breakneck speed. But depending on who’s doing the talking, the initiative is either a bold undertaking or a recipe for turmoil. Both views provide lessons for Chicago.

Now into the second year of a five-year initiative to create 200 new small schools—50 of them will be charters—the city already is past the halfway mark. This fall, 91 new schools opened. The vast majority were high schools; only five were elementary schools. They join dozens of other small schools which have been part of New York’s educational landscape since the 1980s.

“We have such an enormous need for an improved supply of schools, we can’t afford to move more slowly,” says Kristen Kane, chief executive of the Office of New Schools, part of New York City’s Department of Education (DOE).

But some education advocacy groups see trouble brewing on a number of fronts. Class Size Matters, a New York nonprofit that advocates for smaller class size, is calling for a moratorium on small schools until the city can find better places to put them.

“This is being forced on school buildings that are already overcrowded,” says Executive Director Leonie Haimson.

Another nonprofit, Advocates for Children, recently issued a status report on New York’s small high schools. Between 2000 and 2003, the group visited 234 schools and found “many of the small schools had lived up to their promise,” but roughly one-quarter of them have problems similar to “the large schools they replaced.”

Still, proponents say core elements of New York’s initiative—such as principal mentoring and training and strong community partnerships—set an example other cities can follow.

What’s working in New York City

Support from the top From the start, the DOE has been committed to making this work. It has set up small school departments within regional offices and allowed small schools wide latitude in developing their programs.

“They seem to have broader support from within the administration,” says Pam Clarke, senior associate director of Leadership for Quality Education, who has visited several of New York’s small schools. “In Chicago, the small schools are viewed as being boutiques or a small movement that the district as a whole doesn’t have to pay attention to.”

In Brooklyn, Fern Berenberg is one of three small schools project managers working in the regional office. One of the small schools she assists is New York Harbor School, which launched in 2003 with 125 freshmen. This year, it has 250 freshmen and sophomores. The Harbor School is one of three small schools sharing space at Bushwick High School, which is being phased out one grade level at a time.

Harbor School Principal Nathan Dudley says he has felt supported by both the regional office, which has allowed him freedom to develop his inquiry-based school, and by Berenberg, whom he describes as a problem solver and a resource.

Funding Fueling the school openings in New York is a $58 million commitment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is partnering with local groups that vet prospects and award grants to successful applicants to run the new schools. The largest of those partners, New Visions for Public Schools, opened 75 schools over the last three years, 34 of them this fall. Like the other New Visions schools, the Harbor School is receiving an extra $1,000 per student for four years through New Visions; that’s on top of $231,000 in startup money from the DOE. The DOE startup money was reduced to $16,000 this year, says Dudley. Kane said each new school gets both fixed and variable startup dollars to cover costs related to things like furniture, textbooks and technology.

While they would always like more money, several New York small school principals say funding has been adequate for launching their schools. To date, Chicago school officials have not said whether new schools will get extra operating payments in their early years, and it’s unclear how much startup money each will receive.

Thumbs up from teachers union Teachers were quick to jump on board the small schools movement in New York. “The [United Federation of Teachers] saw this as an opportunity. They wanted to save public education and knew they had to do something,” says Kim Zalent, who helped start several small schools in the Bronx. Zalent now works on small schools initiatives for Business & Professional People for the Public Interest in Chicago.

In contrast, Chicago teachers have voiced opposition to Renaissance 2010. Some observers say the union fears the large number of proposed charter and contract schools in the Chicago plan, and others say the union just doesn’t feel it has a clear role in the process. Unlike what is proposed for Chicago, teachers in most of New York City’s small schools belong to the teachers union.

Community partners Each new small school in New York has at least one community partner. The New York Harbor School had three founding partners: The Urban Assembly (a nonprofit dedicated to creating small, college prep high schools), South Street Seaport Museum and Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental organization that came up with the concept for the school.

“Students learn to understand the importance of the harbor in New York and create a model of stewardship,” says Principal Nathan Dudley. He says the partners have been invaluable to his school, raising money and providing experts to assist with classroom and extracurricular projects.

So far in New York, there has been no shortage of organizations wanting to start schools. “There’s an enormous untapped capacity within the system,” says New Visions President Robert Hughes. In Brooklyn, for example, there were 56 original proposals for small schools. Eighteen of those got planning grants and eight of those were selected to start schools in the fall of 2003.

Similar to the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative in Chicago, also funded in part by Gates, New Visions leads groups through the planning process, identifying who will receive funding and providing them with counsel through the launch and beyond.

Although still in the early stages, Chicago has diverse groups voicing an interest in small schools. Roughly 50 groups turned in letters of intent to CPS in September, the first step in starting a Renaissance 2010 school.

Training leadership Finding enough principals for all the new schools is being addressed in New York by the Leadership Academy, a privately financed training and mentoring program, and a recruiting drive outside New York, says Katherine Kelly, a former small schools principal who is now a mentor.

“We are doing something to replenish the well,” says Kelly, who mentors about four principals each year. She spends several days each month with them at their small schools and also brings them together about once a month so they can help each other.

Dudley, who was a social studies teacher before becoming principal at the New York Harbor School, says his mentor was a huge help. “He’d come and spend a whole day every two or three weeks,” Dudley says. “We’d sit down at the end of the day and say, ‘Okay, what did I do? What didn’t I do?'”

What’s wrong in New York

Not enough space Twenty-one of New York’s large, troubled high schools are being phased out and gradually replaced by small schools. However, many of the large schools already are overcrowded and squeezed for space. Even the teachers union, an early supporter of small schools, is complaining about the space crunch.

In a presentation to the City Council in June, union President Randi Weingarten said some transitioning Bronx high schools were now serving almost twice the number of students as originally intended as small schools set up shop in the wings of their buildings. “The new small schools,” she said, “have smaller class sizes and receive extra services and equipment while students in the large high school feel slighted by the impending closure of their school.”

Chicago is trying to circumvent the space sharing squabbles by phasing out the large schools before new smalls move into the buildings.

Small schools don’t stay small New York’s stated goal was to keep small high schools at less than 500 students. That hasn’t always been the case, sometimes because the district assigns more students to the schools than the principals would like. Erasmus Hall High School, for example, was divided into three small schools in the mid-1990s. But within a few years, those “smalls” had enrollments of 700 to 900 each. Achievement levels didn’t go up and the campus is again being redesigned.

Instruction doesn’t change Teachers have not taken advantage of small class sizes or the freedom to be innovative, says Advocates for Children. Its study found that small, failing schools used a style of teaching (heavy on lectures and teacher talk) similar to failing large schools.

“If you don’t change instruction, [school size] doesn’t matter,”says Jacqueline Ancess, co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education and Teaching at Columbia University.

Going too fast Both the teachers union and Class Size Matters are worried that DOE is moving too quickly, without a grand plan showing what the system will look like in a few years, how many large schools will remain open, and where the 200 small schools will be based. Says Weingarten: “There are real questions about whether the institutional capacity of the system to establish quality new schools is being outstripped by an extraordinarily ambitious schedule.”

Jody Temkin is a Catalyst contributing editor. To contact her, send an e-mail to

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