They were known as dropout factories: big high schools in poor neighborhoods where only a quarter to a third of students graduated.
New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg has systematically shut down large, failing high schools and replaced them with small schools, many pegged to themes like the fashion industry or the business of sports.
A new study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — which has invested more than $150 million in New York City schools — suggests that the small schools have succeeded in boosting graduation rates for the city's most academically challenged students.
Proponents say small schools can provide one-on-one support to struggling students, and the specialized programs are supposed to improve students' motivation by enticing them to apply to schools that match their interests.
"This shows the strategy is working," said New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who since 2002 has shuttered more than 20 large high schools with as many as 4,000 students each and replaced them with 216 small schools with names like the Academy of Health Careers or the Law, Government and Community Service Magnet High School.
The study released Wednesday by the education think tank MDRC examined students at 105 of the new high schools with 550 students or fewer.
It found that by the end of their first year of high school, 58.5 percent of students at the so-called "small schools of choice" were on track to graduate in four years, compared with 48.5 percent of the students at other schools.
By the fourth year, the small schools had an overall graduation rate of 68.7 percent compared with 61.9 percent for the control group. Both numbers were much higher than the graduation rates at the closed schools.
Because New York City's system for assigning students to high schools is partly a lottery, the study's authors were able to compare students who got into the small schools with demographically similar students who got into other schools. The small schools are not academically selective; they are open to all eighth-grade graduates.
Both groups were overwhelmingly black and Hispanic and living in neighborhoods with high poverty rates — students who are most at risk for dropping out.
"You can make critical change for the achievement levels of students who enter high school significantly underprepared," said Michele Cahill, who served as senior counselor to Klein and is now director of urban education at the Carnegie Corp.
New York's new high schools typically operate in clusters inside the shells of the schools they replaced.
The eight-story John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx has been broken up into six schools, including the Bronx Theatre High School, the Marble Hill High School for International Studies and the Bronx School of Law and Finance. The schools all teach required subjects like math and English and reflect their specialized themes to varying degrees.
At the theater school, students recently designed costumes and read scenes to each other. Photos in the hallway showed past productions of "Twelfth Night" and "A Raisin in the Sun."
Principal Deborah Effinger greeted students by name, telling one boy politely to stash his football in his backpack. Color-coded charts on her office wall showed that most students were on track to graduate.
Student Anna Gonzalez said she fell in love with costume design and hopes to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology when she graduates.
"I can actually create it and people wear it," she said.
New York City is not alone in seeking to engage students by opening small high schools.
Kathy Augustine, a deputy superintendent in Atlanta, said the school system there has spent $65 million to create small high schools since 2005.
"It is a far better return on our investment than losing students and having them drop out and not be productive citizens," Augustine said.
Emily Krone of the Consortium on Chicago School Research said her group studied 23 small high schools in Chicago and found improved graduation rates there as well, though not higher SAT and ACT scores.
"There was a sense that the initiative didn't accomplish everything that it set out to accomplish," she said.
The MDRC study of New York City small high schools was funded by the Gates Foundation, which has spent tens of millions of dollars in startup costs for small high schools in New York and elsewhere.
Vicki Phillips, the foundation's director of education focusing on college readiness, said Tuesday that the MDRC study "is great news" for New York City students and for school reform efforts.
But the study will not change the priorities of the Gates Foundation, which shifted its strategy in 2008 from starting new schools to targeting teacher effectiveness and national standards. Foundation spokesman Chris Williams said once they are up and running, the schools are expected to be "fully sustainable without philanthropic investments."
Closing schools has provoked opposition, with some students and teachers urging that their schools be given a chance to improve instead.
The United Federation of Teachers spearheaded a lawsuit this year to block New York City's latest wave of closings including 19 elementary, middle and high schools. A judge agreed that the city had not followed state law in closing the schools, and their phasing out will be delayed at least a year.
A union spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the study.