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Understanding the Impact of Small High Schools of Choice

About Small Schools of Choice

Since 1999, the landscape of New York City high schools has changed dramatically. Over 150 new high schools have opened, with an average enrollment of just over 100 students per grade. The new, smaller schools were an attempt to create more effective and more supportive environments, with strong student-faculty relationships, high academic expectations, personalized learning environments, and partnerships with external organizations. In addition, the NYC Department of Education implemented a new choice-based high school admissions system, designed to ensure that students could attend a school that meets their needs and interests.

Research, most significantly MDRC’s ongoing evaluation, has provided compelling evidence that NYC’s small schools of choice (SSCs) have had a positive impact on students’ prospects for graduation, and have been particularly effective at narrowing gaps for disadvantaged groups of students.

About Our Study

In partnership with MDRC, the Research Alliance studied the culture and operations of successful SSCs. Our study, which culminated in our report Inside Success: Strategies of 25 Effective High Schools in NYC, aimed to illuminate factors that have helped these schools produce sustained positive effects for students.

We interviewed teachers and principals in 25 of the most successful, to answer the following questions:

  • What were the critical steps in the creation, launch, and early operation of effective small schools?
  • What features did principals and teachers see as most responsible for their schools’ success, and what features of SSC’s did principals and teachers view as less important?
  • What challenges may make it difficult to sustain this level of success in later years?

This information should prove useful for educators and policymakers—here in NYC and in other urban areas—as they work to improve high schools.


A project led by MDRC, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Related Publications

Inside Success

This report provides a rare and textured look at the work of 25 highly effective high schools in NYC. Drawing on interviews and focus groups, the report highlights features that educators see as most responsible for their school’s success. The findings paint a picture of how these features were developed in practice. They also shed light on challenges the schools face, as they attempt to sustain their impact over time. (2014)

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