NYC theme high schools show benefits, but inequity is an issue

iStock_000008233708XSmallSmall theme high schools have the potential to boost student achievement and engagement in a way that large, anonymous  “shopping mall” high schools have failed to do,  write researchers Jacqueline Ancess and David Allen in a recent Harvard Educational Review article.

In one of the more large-scale reform efforts using this strategy, New York City has developed 175 of these small high schools with a dizzying array of themes, from art, science, business, law, technology, social studies to athletics, community service,  social justice, etc.; theme schools enroll about 25% of New York City’s high school students.

One major goal in developing small theme high schools has been to raise the abysmally low graduation rate of students in the city’s  schools. Only 43% of high school students in New York City schools graduate, according to New York State Department of Education data.

“Embedded within the theme component are powerful beliefs and promises,” the researchers write, “that there is a relationship among student commitment, engagement and learning experiences and desirable post-secondary trajectories for students; and that these learning experiences can deliver both equity and excellence in school systems where there has been little of either.”

Early indications are that the strategy is working in New York City. According to city statistics for 2004, 93% of students in small schools were promoted from ninth to tenth grade compared with 68% citywide. These results are particularly promising, the researchers note, given that 67% of entering students scored below standard in literacy, compared with 60% citywide. According to 2006 statistics, average daily attendance was 91%, compared with 82% citywide.

Schools can perpetuate inequity

But the researchers caution that while small theme high schools are making progress in engaging students, they may be perpetuating inequity and segregation with the “unspoken code” of themes.

“Themes communicate powerful messages about race, gender, class, income, expectations, college going, future orientations, definitions of success, and more,” the authors write. “Indeed, they are often their proxies.”

Themes, which reflect the interests of teachers, administrators, students, philanthropists and partner organizations can serve as socioeconomic, academic or racial codes that attract only one group of students. Education advocate and author Jonathan Kozol recently noted the presence of “small schools that cater to very artistic, upscale Greenwich Village families” and “small academies for Black and Latino students with names like Academy of Leadership, or the Academy of Business Enterprise.”

The hope was that by sorting students by their common interests instead of by home neighborhood or test scores, schools would have more diverse and integrated student populations, but the researchers observe that these schools may continue to track and segregate students with themes.

Most do not get top choices

The huge number of New York City students that enter school each year also make it difficult to have enough capacity in the most desirable theme schools. Students with the highest standardized test results have preferential access to the school of their choice, so some small schools are made up of students who score in the in the 98th and 99th percentiles.

“Unless enough attractive theme schools exist,” the researchers write, “the policy risks promoting even greater inequity if those who do not get their top choices are the usual suspects: the system’s most vulnerable and needy students.”

While some 82%, or 77,428 students who applied to the city’s public high schools received one of their choices, only 45% received one of their top three choices and another 18%, or 16,609 students,  were assigned to an undersubscribed school they did not choose, according to 2005 city Deparment of Education statistics.

Integral theme schools

While New York City does not require applications for small public high schools to have a theme, most proposals do include them to ensure that their school will be differentiated from others and so that they can avoid being assigned those students who have no interest in a theme or resist the concept altogether. All of the schools are required to meet New York State Regents standards an administer the Regents exams required for a diploma. Technically, at least, the researchers note, graduates of any of the schools should be eligible for college.

Despite the 14-year history of theme schools in New York, many of them exist in name only. The researchers describe three kinds of theme schools, nominal, marginal and integral. In some schools, the theme exists in name only and in others, only in the margin of the curriculum.  One school, for example, began with a program to provide students with internship opportunities throughout the community. After significant leadership changes, the defection of partners and their contributions and the lack of system-level policies for sustainability, the school gradually lost all connections to the business world.

However, the researchers describe schools in which the theme is integral to the curriculum and the school community. “In such schools,” the researchers write,  “the theme’s influence can be seen the daily life of students and teachers; in how the school’s leaders talk and behave; in the content of the curriculum, the forms of instruction, and the ways students are assessed; in the art of student work posted on the school’s walls; in unique school rituals; and in how the school interacts with its community, including families and neighborhood organizations.”

To address racial or socioeconomic inequity in school choice, the Department of Education provides a high school directory in multiple languages, open houses at schools, high school fairs in each borough and parent workshops. One challenge for administrators, is developing thematic integrity  with curricular, instructional and assessment mandates for six-week benchmark tests. The Department of Education may need to release schools from these requirements and also develop alternative program assessment mechanisms “such as critical friends or school quality reviews that rely on the collective perspectives of multiple stakeholders and provide schools with data for improving instruction and student support systems.”

“Implementing Small Theme High Schools in New York City: Great Intentions and Great Tensions, by Jacqueline Ancess and David Allen, Harvard Educational Review, Fall 2006, Volume 76, Number 3, pps. 401-416.

Published in ERN November 2006 Volume 19, Number 8

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