It was easy, Salma, to find support among teachers and students at the High School of Telecommunications Arts in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. With so many kids and adults at school, at least a few shared her interests. Now, the club holds bake sales and other fundraisers to support North Korean refugees in China.
"Oh yeah, that funnel cake was good," Luis Beato, another senior, says, savoring the memory as he stroked the trimmed line of his coal-black chinstrap, like a baby-faced professor. Luis likes Tele's balance of structure and bustle: "Everyone's social, even the teachers. I can talk to them about anything I want. They're strict, but you don't have to be serious all the time. " Luis' coursework is utterly serious, in fact; he's taking AP statistics and AP world history this year, and loved Trig last year – "Once you get one thing, everything else tends to click. I love the way the teachers here teach."
Blanca Melendez, another Tele 12th-grader, loved taking Forensic Science last year. "I never learned so much," she says. "We disproved everything on TV!" The class, led by two science teachers, is offered as a complement to the straight bio-chem-physics science lineup – an alternative that again, requires a critical mass of students who want to step off the traditional track for a semester or two.
"We used anthropology, serology; we smashed bananas to learn about contusions," Blanca says. It was so good, she even got to school early: "It was first period, and I would show up early so I could do more." Blanca was born in Brooklyn but moved, as a young child, to Puerto Rico with her family; when she returned to New York, she was placed in bilingual classes until her English caught up with her inquisitive brain.
A quirky, individualized mix of student-created extracurriculars, demanding AP classes and off-beat electives might sound like the handiwork of the new, small high schools central to the heart of Mayor Bloomberg's education reforms – but Tele isn't one of those. Nor is it once of the few dozen massive high schools left in the city's system, which each enroll from 3,000 to 5,000 students (and, sometimes, more). Tele's a different creature altogether, a "Goldilocks" school of not quite 1,300 students – small enough for concentrated, sustained individual attention and big enough to support a potent mix of varied coursework, clubs, and sports – which education experts have long recognized as the ‘sweet spot' of secondary education.
That thinking has not been echoed by new-school planners at the New York City Department of Education through its decade of ongoing high-school reform. Unlike most of their peers in the class of 2013, who attend either new schools smaller than 600 students or traditional ones larger than 3,000, Salma, Luis and Blanca have lived their high-school years outside the scope of those changes – and are happy with the results.
Swapping Big for Small
Closing struggling schools is a broad-stroke Bloomberg reform that has generated continuous scrutiny.
In Bloomberg's early years, DOE closed schools without public hearings or comment. When the City Council and others demanded that DOE listen to students, parents and teachers, public hearings commenced – rowdy affairs widely recognized by participants on all sides as pro-forma political theatre, where DOE opponents stage puppet shows, mic time is strictly limited to 2 minutes, and the Panel for Education Policy—majority-appointed by the mayor—consistently votes to approve the overwhelming majority of closures.
As the administration has closed scores of low-performing high schools and opened hundreds more small schools, it championed a smaller-is-better ethos once promoted by the William and Melinda Gates Foundation, prime funders and philosophical sponsors of the City's small-schools movement, as well as the Carnegie Foundation.
In so doing, DOE planners were not persuaded by decades of academic research and education policy, which have consistently identified a "sweet spot" for high-school size, of roughly 1,000 students. (The Gates Foundation, meanwhile, moved away from advocating small schools because it was unsatisfied with the results.)
Tiny high schools promise intimacy and strong support but may have limited academic options; these young schools tend to graduate more students than other high schools, but often with less-rigorous high-school credentials that do not confer readiness for the challenge of college or other post-secondary education. Even the best small schools, like the consistently A-graded High School for Public Service: Heroes of Tomorrow, struggle with limited human and physical resources to offer enough classes to keep all their seniors in school for a full day's schedule.
Large, traditional high schools offer a rich smorgasbord of activities, clubs, classes and sports. For some students, extra-curriculars keep them motivated; sports teams encourage academic performance because they require minimum averages to play. But these large schools can be anonymous environments where kids "fall between the cracks," as poor graduation rates suggest.
Middle-sized schools— those that hover around 1,000 to 1,200 students—seem to be able to provide the kind of nurturing, student-aware environment that Bloomberg's small schools aim for but also can muster the rich academics and varied extra-curriculars needed to challenge and engage the kids who go there.
Yet of the city's 554 high schools (according to DOE stats), only 20 enroll between 1,000 and 1,300 students. Most public high schools enroll fewer than 600 students. Another two-dozen behemoth schools enroll more than 3,000 teens – some count upward of 4,000 or 5,000 students.
Students at right-sized schools like in Brooklyn say that size really matters, in their classes, their relationships with trusted adults, and in thinking about their futures.
It's about choices
The fact that Blanca and Luis have access to a variety of AP classes at Tele is a direct function of the school's size. Without a critical mass of motivated, interested and academically prepared students, Tele couldn't afford to staff and run a dozen AP classes or more. Smaller schools, with fewer students, are necessarily limited in what they can offer: If only 120 seniors are enrolled, and only a fraction of those students are motivated to undertake advanced-level work, how many APs can a school offer?