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Small schools changing shape of education in Big Apple

NEW YORK -- Five years ago, Sharis Wingfield couldn't have imagined attending a high school that emphasizes sports vocations and teaches math using batting averages. She also couldn't have envisioned her high school being smaller than her junior high.

But, through various twists of fate, she landed at the Academy for Careers in Sports, enrollment 306. Now she is convinced that a smaller school is better.

``Size is actually the most important factor," said Wingfield, an 18-year-old senior.

``The attention you get from the teachers, just that individual time you spend with them. . . . In a bigger school there's no way I'd be doing as well."

In the past few years, New York's embrace of the small-schools model has dramatically reshaped the nation's largest public school system. Scores of other districts, including Chicago, San Diego, and Milwaukee, are betting that smaller settings will yield higher attendance and graduation rates than mammoth high schools.

The small schools in New York are highly specialized, with themes ranging from human rights to aerospace. There is the High School for Violin and Dance. Peace and Diversity Academy. Food and Finance High School. They generally have fewer than 600 students and outside partners, such as nonprofit groups.

In 2001, the New York City system, which has 1.1 million students, had fewer than 1,250 schools. The addition of new small schools, which primarily serve grades 6 through 12, will swell that figure to nearly 1,450 this fall.

Some education observers said New York is forming too many small schools too quickly. They expressed concern that the schools lack a broad enough curriculum, and they question how long interest in this latest school overhaul movement will last.

``The problem with the current small-school movement is that some people think it's a panacea, the silver bullet," said Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, a partner to one of the city's small high schools.

Education administrators said the city's school system, with a graduation rate of 54 percent (others put it even lower), needs emergency surgery, not more therapy. This year, a key group of small schools will graduate its first classes, and officials are betting the rates will top the citywide average.

Small schools aren't new to New York, but this latest wave is much larger, more centrally supported, and more closely monitored than previous versions. It's accompanied by a phasing out of large, failing high schools -- 20 in seven years -- whose campuses are given to small schools.

The new wave is also better funded, thanks largely to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into districts and schools nationwide to promote school reform, including $130 million in New York in the past five years.

The Academy for Careers in Sports is one result. It began taking students in 2002, and it is now one of three small schools that shares the campus of what used to be South Bronx High School.

Principal Felice Lepore touts solid test results and high attendance rates. Yet, space is very tight. The 11th-graders use portable facilities . The courses are largely basic -- they don't offer advanced placement classes -- with heavy emphasis on standardized exams.

David Bloomfield, who heads an education program at Brooklyn College, said some schools become overcrowded because nearby facilities are being converted to small-school campuses.

The Citywide Council on High Schools recently asked the Education Department to delay small-school creation until it resolves space and academic questions.

The group also posited that the schools may be drawing the best, most motivated students away from other schools.

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