Approaches of Gates Foundation-Funded Intermediary Organizations to Structuring and Supporting Small High Schools in New York City

School Improvement
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
PSA Director
Eileen M. Foley

This study examined the role that intermediary organizations, which are the groups responsible for distributing grant funds and starting and advising new small schools, played in the Gates Foundation’s New York City initiative. The study was part of a collaborative research effort funded by the foundation and led by MDRC that included the Academy for Educational Development and PSA. This research collaboration produced three reports to date and a fourth report, a rigorous analysis of the impact on students of enrolling in small schools, is expected in June 2010.

The MDRC report released in February 2010, New York City’s Changing High School Landscape: High Schools and Their Characteristics, 2002-2008, looks at the ways in which the reform effort transformed the public high school landscape from 2002 to 2008. It finds that, by September 2007, the new small schools collectively served almost as many students as the closing schools had served in September 2002. And the students at the small, nonselective high schools across the five boroughs of New York City tended to be more disadvantaged than students attending other kinds of schools.

The AED report, Small High Schools at Work: A Case Study of Six Gates-Funded Schools in New York City, takes a close look at six of these new small schools, focusing on particular practices associated with student success: intermediary support, personal and academic support, effective instructional practices, and college preparation.

The PSA study was based on 70 open-ended, hour-long, individual interviews with 53 leaders of 18 intermediary organizations (executive directors and senior staff) and analyses of intermediary reports to the foundation and online program materials (such as start-up manuals, curriculum guides, databases, evaluations). Researchers found the following:

  • Most intermediaries (13 of 18) had at least some experience creating and supporting small schools before joining the Gates Foundation initiative, and most (12 of 18) were located in or nearby New York City.

  • In conceptualizing school designs, intermediaries were attentive to college-readiness learning standards, authentic pedagogy, support for professional community, and integration of external supports for learning with school-system resources.

  • Two-thirds of intermediaries provided schools with rubrics to use in reviewing institutional performance. About one-half of intermediaries provided schools specialized software designed to track individual student performance. About one-third of intermediaries contracted with third-party evaluators for external school assessments. One-half of intermediaries offered schools online means for sharing curriculum and practice tips. Four intermediaries provided teachers with software to map instruction in relation to state competencies and other standards. Three intermediaries provided schools with curricula in response to perceived needs.

  • About two-thirds of intermediaries provided principals with weekly coaching by outside experts or weekly peer mentoring, and about two-thirds facilitated regular meetings of principal networks. Several arranged residencies for prospective principals in flagship schools, and several arranged year-long leadership institutes for novice principals. Intermediaries tended to focus principal-development activities on building leadership skills. In that sense, individual principal coaching was a means for increasing collective organizational capacity and improving teacher practice.

  • Attending adequately to the learning needs of individual teachers was the biggest capacity-building challenge intermediaries faced. Fewer intermediaries had means for intervening regularly at scale with teachers than had means for intervening with principals. Teachers’ formal learning opportunities tended to be occasional (e.g., summer and winter institutes).