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Strange Bedfellows Strive To Scale Down Schools

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Creating small, effective schools is a reform strategy whose appeal spans the political spectrum.

"We've become a beacon for both soft- and hard-headed do-gooders," notes Deborah Meier, one of the founders of the small-schools movement here.

Now, the New York Networks for School Renewal, a collection of strange ideological bedfellows, wants to both increase and deepen the movement by creating a critical mass of small schools and developing a system that can nurture and support them.

Its members are the Center for Educational Innovation at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank; the Alliance of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, an advocacy group for low- and moderate-income people; the Center for Collaborative Education, a network of schools affiliated with the Coalition of Essential Schools; and the Fund for New York City Public Education, which raises money to support innovation and change in schools.

Good schools, these groups believe, should be small, personal learning communities that have the freedom to make their own management decisions in collaboration with parents and the community. Students should be held to a common set of high standards that are assessed in a variety of ways. And students, families, teachers, and other staff members should be able to choose schools that best suit them.

The project, with a $25 million challenge grant from the publisher and philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg, aims in the next five years to establish a "learning zone" of at least 100 such schools, serving about 50,000 students. At least 50 schools will be newly established or carved out of existing large schools, including 10 of the city's most troubled.

The Annenberg Foundation also made another $25 million challenge grant for reform efforts that complement the New York Networks project.

The learning zone will provide the schools with greater autonomy and freedom from bureaucratic constraints. In exchange, they will be accountable for fiscal integrity, equity, and student achievement.

Networking for Success

Each of the sponsoring organizations has a track record for developing and supporting small, effective schools. Members of ACORN, for example, got elected to community school boards and campaigned to open two small, innovative elementary schools. The Center for Collaborative Education started the 10 Coalition Campus Project high schools. The Fund for New York City Public Education sponsored the New Visions initiative, which created 15 secondary schools with a variety of partners, including community organizations, churches, institutions of higher education, libraries, and hospitals. And the Center for Educational Innovation, home to prominent New York City educators who championed school choice, helps schools improve through a focus on autonomy and parental choice.

Schools in the New York Networks program will be grouped into networks of four to eight schools. Networksenable established schools to lend their expertise to new ones and allow schools to work together on common issues. As schools mature, they will formally join the learning zone.

The sponsoring organizations will oversee their own networks and work together to negotiate waivers for the schools. By next fall, a formal agreement on the learning zone will be hashed out. The sponsors want the schools to have control over per-capita allotments for their students and greater flexibility in such areas as scheduling, staffing, licensing, graduation requirements, and use of categorical funds.

The cornerstone of the New York Networks project is developing accountability measures that are useful to schools and the public at large.

The learning zone's lessons are expected to be fed back to the school system as a whole before the end of the five-year period. Already, the board of education and the United Federation of Teachers, for example, have agreed to allow schools with distinctive programs to hire their own teachers.

The task, says Meier, is to design a "system of exceptions" made up of idiosyncratic schools that reflect their constituents' ideas but adhere to a common set of principles and keep a constant eye on quality teaching and learning.

"Schools have been alike because it has been easier to monitor," she observes. "What would the alternative look like? We can't keep doing this, given the needs of children for the 21st century. We have got to find another way."

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