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Going Small: Progress and Challenges of Philadelphia’s Small High Schools

Between 2003 and 2007, and without significant outside funding, the School District of Philadelphia created 25 new small high schools. This study, begun by Research for Action in 2006, follows the start-up and early implementation of these small high schools in Philadelphia. The study found that parents and students are interested in small high schools and that, across admission categories, these schools are beginning to make a difference for student engagement and achievement. Small high schools had higher rates of algebra passage and lower rates of suspension than comparative large schools. Teacher survey data and interviews with teachers and students indicated a greater sense of safety in small high schools and a more positive picture of teacher-student relationships. The positive differences were greatest for the small open admission neighborhood high schools. However, small size alone does not automatically create academic success or improved school climate. Some findings (e.g., attendance, tardiness) were mixed, with small schools not necessarily outperforming large schools and sometimes doing worse than their large counterparts. This research also details the varied start-up experiences of small schools created from the ground up compared with those converted from preexisting schools; the brand new schools had multiple advantages in the start-up process. More supports are needed if Philadelphia’s small high schools are to capitalize on the advantages of a smaller learning environment. Teachers and administrators articulated what next steps were needed to make schools more rigorous. This multi-method study is based on interviews with parents, students, teachers, and administrators as well as school observations, teacher surveys, application and enrollment data, and student achievement data.