On the last school day of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 12 years in office, an educator gave him an unexpected gift.
Bloomberg was speaking to students at Bard High School Early College Queens, a small selective school with a 96-percent graduation rate where students leave with associates’ degrees. He told them that “small, innovative schools like Bard” had helped drive up graduation rates across the city.
“You are some of the luckiest kids in the world,” Bloomberg said.
As he was leaving, Principal Valeri Thomson shook his hand.
“I want to thank you for the small-school movement,” she told the departing mayor in an unprompted endorsement of one of his signature education policies.
Then she scurried off to teach a class on the biology of non-infectious diseases, and he continued on his five-borough valedictory tour.
The more than 200 new small schools the administration created — part of a national small-school movement — reflected its commitment to school choice and competition. That approach had plenty of critics, not least because its flipside was the closure of many large high schools.
Repeated studies have found that the city’s small schools give students a better chance of graduating — a point that Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who accompanied the mayor to Bard, touted Friday.
“A lot of great small schools came into existence under this administration and they’re flourishing and students are getting a great education,” he said.
The most recent study, by the independent research group MDRC, found that students who were randomly chosen to attend one of the city’s nonselective small high schools graduated in four years 70.4 percent of the time, compared to 60.9 percent of the time for similar students in other schools. The 2013 study was funded by the Gates Foundation, which poured millions into the city’s small schools before ending its giving in 2008, citing lackluster college readiness rates.
An earlier study found that some of the small schools’ gains tapered off over time. That 2009 study, by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, said that the closure of large schools, which the small ones replaced, created “collateral damage” as an influx of students overburdened the remaining large schools.
David Allen, Bard’s assistant principal, said the city’s small school-drive had spurred many excellent schools, but that simply creating a small school is no “slam dunk.”
“I think it gives opportunities,” he said, “but it also gives some challenges.”
For instance, Bard Queens has thrived since it opened five years ago, largely because of its early-college program and its support from Bard College, Allen said. But it has also had to overcome obstacles in the building it shares with two public high schools and a community college, Allen said — namely, a shortage of space for gym class and science labs.
Omar Ferreira, 17, said he had entered Bard devoted to history, but became enthralled by the school’s math and science classes, where he said he received personal attention. After he finished two semesters of calculus-based physics at the school, a Bard professor agreed to add a third semester just for him and one other student.
Next fall, he will begin classes at the University of Chicago, where he plans to study physics.
“I feel definitely ready,” he said.