Thinking Small

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Photos by Benjamin Tice Smith
New York

The Dumpster parked on the curb outside Julia Richman High School is piled high with discarded desks, a jumble of metal legs and scarred wooden tops with inkwells.

Inside the imposing brick building, work crews have sanded away the holes left in the wooden floors by the bolted-down desks. There were row upon row of them, in classroom after classroom.

The high school, built in 1927 as an elite all-girls' public school, is being reincarnated. In its previous life, Julia Richman had deteriorated into a last-resort school, with graffiti on the walls and weapons scanners at the door.

The traditional assembly-line model of education, symbolized by the rows of desks, had long since ceased to work. Only 37 percent of Julia Richman's 2,800 students graduated in four years. Fewer than three-quarters showed up each day. And many students failed to earn enough credits to advance to the next grade.

In 1993, the New York City board of education and the local affiliate of the Coalition of Essential Schools announced that the high school would be phased out. In its place, they opened six small high schools with 9th graders from Julia Richman's attendance zone.

In its new life, the venerable building will be a micro-society--home to some of the small high schools, new elementary and middle schools, an infant-and-toddler center, and a professional-development institute for teachers.

The project is at the heart of a movement that is sweeping New York City. Over the past three years, 50 small secondary schools serving some 20,000 students have opened their doors. The crusade got a ringing endorsement last year when the publisher and philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg bestowed a $50 million challenge grant in the city, part of which will help open an additional 50 small schools.

Educators in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia--where Annenberg also has made substantial grants--are carving out small schools as well. While size alone doesn't guarantee success, it gives teachers and students a fighting chance.

Large, impersonal schools don't, as the glaring problems of urban high schools across the country illustrate. In New York City, the sobering fact is that there are about 20 large high schools, with nearly 65,000 students, where fewer than a third of incoming freshmen earn a diploma in four years.

Reformers who believe that smaller is better will be closely watching the progress of New York City's new schools. From students' complaints, it's clear that they are markedly different.

One of them, Vivian Canada, a 10th grader, describes life at Vanguard High School. "We're together with the same old people," she says. "There are only really two or three classes. You sit there for so long, there's no reason for you to talk. And they keep going over and over the same thing, and if somebody's absent, they go over it again."

Louis Delgado, Vanguard High's director, grins as he listens to Canada describe the school. A broad-shouldered man in a casual sweater, Delgado launched Vanguard after more than 20 years in the system.

"This is not a factory," he tells Canada and the other 9th and 10th graders gathered around the conference table in his office. No more parade of disconnected subjects in 40-minute chunks. And no more anonymity in a crowd. If students are late to class, or don't show up, he says, "We are always on their case."

Matthew Gadling, another 10th grader, agrees. "Teachers are nosy," he says. "If Barbara [Lopez, a humanities teacher] walks by a room and sees you not doing work, she'll come in and yell at you."

Classes are too long, Gadling carps. But, he admits, the extended periods have given students a chance to get to know one another and to concentrate on their schoolwork. "Everyone is friends because we go to the same classes together," he says. "Everyone's going through the same thing. This school doesn't have a lot of crime."

Later, Delgado says that Canada, despite her protests, has flourished at Vanguard. "She's one of those students I had to work real hard with," he confides. "Her family setting is not a good one. I can safely say she's been able to overcome a lot of that anger. She's very articulate and speaks her mind, but she listens and refocuses. She's broadening her understanding and challenges herself a lot."

Vanguard, like the other small high schools created to phase out Julia Richman, was born of city schools that are members of the Coalition of Essential Schools. The established coalition schools--some of which graduate 90 percent of their students and send 90 percent on to higher education--acted as partners for the new schools. They worked closely with the new directors, helping them hire teachers and plan their programs.

Classes are intellectually rigorous, lengthy, and interdisciplinary, combining mathematics and science and the humanities. Students discuss their academic progress with teachers in advisory groups, perform community service, and take some college courses. To graduate, they must demonstrate their performance in exhibitions, using materials saved in portfolios.

Now in their second year, the Coalition Campus schools, as they are called, already have beaten the old system. Each has between 130 to 160 students in 9th and 10th grades. Attendance at most of them is 20 percent higher than it was at Julia Richman. Virtually no students leave. And they are passing more courses. Most important, the schools are safe and succeeding with the same caliber of students who once filled Julia Richman's lengthy halls: kids with low reading and math scores, spotty attendance records, and discipline problems.

It's no mystery why the statistics would be better. The small schools are much more hospitable places for both students and teachers than buildings filled with 2,000 or 3,000 adolescents. No teachers work alone, and no students fall through the cracks.

"I've seen a lot of changes in their behavior from the usual defensive stance that's taken when they first walk in," says Samuel Ragoonath, who taught at a traditional junior high for 12 years before coming to Vanguard. "Their guards have all dropped, and they are loose and helping one another in class. When a new student comes in, I see the whole thing develop once again. At first they think everyone is out to get them, so they put up a tough look and stance. Then, they slowly realize, 'Hey, this is a different kind of place. I don't have to put on my tough-guy look."'

Ragoonath's classroom, like many in the new high schools, is decorated with posters of Malcolm X and other African-American leaders. Students' drawings of scenes from Animal Farm dot the walls.

Standards were low at his previous school, says Ragoonath, a slight man with dreadlocks that hang below his waist. The bottom line was keeping control. But at Vanguard, teachers meet every day after school for staff development and to plan lessons.

"It's different when you sit around with a group of teachers and decide the what and how," Ragoonath explains. "Before, someone would appear and say, 'These are the books for the 8th grade this year.' That doesn't help me. I know my students, their capabilities, and their likes and dislikes."

He pulls aside Julie Anne Torres, a 9th grader, to talk about Vanguard. "I do my work here," she says. "There are times I get aggravated and don't understand the work, but the teachers help me out. I was hanging with the wrong crowd in [junior high.] I didn't pay attention to the teachers. My friends would cut, and it gave me the urge to cut, too. Now my friends like to work, and it gets me doing better."

In Barbara Lopez's humanities class, students work comfortably in groups around tables, crafting opening statements for a mock trial on a Fourth Amendment case. "A lot of these kids are extremely smart and shouldn't be penalized for coming to the [low] standards of the system," says Lopez, a former employee of the International Business Machines Corporation now in her first teaching job. "How do you ding a kid for not being able to write if he was never taught?"

"This is a protected environment," continues Lopez, who rolls her eyes heavenward in thanks when asked whether she likes teaching at Vanguard. "I can sidle up to any one of them and say, 'Nice jacket.' Some see me coming and say, 'Why doesn't she leave me alone?' They are not used to that. They are used to adults coming at them in negative ways."

The six new high schools couldn't have opened at a worse time. New York City was in the midst of an asbestos crisis that delayed the start of the school year. The board of education also had problems locating, leasing, and renovating space.

Vanguard moved four times in its first year, from an armory to a noisy, dark auditorium, to Long Island for a weeklong Project Adventure ropes course, and then into space in a bleak-looking junior high on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This month, Vanguard finally settled into its permanent home in the Julia Richman building.

Another new school, the Coalition School for Social Change, got an inauspicious start in a windowless building in East Harlem already jammed with four schools. "There are really no words to describe it--it was unbelievable," recalls Charlene Jordan, the director. "It was hard to establish a culture and positive sense of community. The thing that united us was trying to get out of that building."

Teachers made the best of an impossible situation. Central Park became their classroom. They took students to museums, to Ellis Island, on boat trips, to libraries, and on walking tours of the city's ethnic neighborhoods.

Landmark High School, another tenant of the windowless school, now shares a renovated office building on West 58th Street with Jordan's school. Director Sylvia Rabiner calls Landmark's first year a nightmare. Supplies were shipped all over the city. "We have no idea what we lost," she says. "I was running around with things in a bag with no place to be."

The new building is bright, clean, and comfortable, with tables and chairs in lounge areas near the elevators. Some residents of the posh neighborhood around the school were unhappy about its opening, so Landmark students plan to target the area for community service as a gesture of goodwill.

While all of the Coalition Campus schools created to phase out Julia Richman are built around common understandings, each tends to emphasize a different aspect of the program. The schools are linked in formal networks with established coalition schools. Together, they work on issues of common concern: research and evaluation, curriculum, peer review, community service, and the like.

At Landmark High, community service is a priority. The program is modeled after Central Park East Secondary School's approach. In addition to providing a service, Rabiner believes it broadens students' horizons.

"These are kids from very poor homes and communities," she explains, "and the range of what they get to do and see is fairly narrow. The goal is to get them out all the time in every way so they can feel a part of New York."

A paraprofessional and a social-work intern coordinate the program, finding placements for students with hospitals, law firms, day-care centers, museums, and the Central Park ice rink. It hasn't been easy. "Tenth graders didn't see the point, or they would get bored, or they didn't get along with their supervisor, so they would cut," Rabiner says.

Now, the school calls to make sure students arrive at their workplaces. It's an ambitious program for such a small school, but the director is determined to make it work.

To hire her staff, Rabiner turned for help to the Urban Academy, a nine-year-old coalition high school that will relocate to the Julia Richman building with some of the new schools. Applicants had to be conversant with the Coalition of Essential Schools' ideas, intelligent, well read, and interested in working in a new school. Sixty-five candidates were interviewed to hire the first six teachers.

Now that the school is open, Rabiner worries that she and her teachers won't have the time for such in-depth searches. Already, to replace a teacher who left, she's had to hire a dark horse on another principal's recommendation.

Last year, the school lost 18 students. Some were pulled because their parents didn't like the Harlem location. Others were discipline problems or couldn't function in the school because they couldn't read.

"Now, we're attracting students who want to be here," Rabiner says. "The first year, we got whatever was thrown at us. Counselors sent us kids nobody else wanted. It doesn't mean they weren't wonderful kids. The staff has worked incredibly hard, and they are really shaping up."

The hard work, however, is taking its toll. Rabiner doubles as librarian, bookkeeper, office manager, and counselor. "I feel like I've given up my life," she says. "There's an enormous gap between the way I want it to be and the way it is."

Still, she has met one goal: "There is no apathy in this building. You will never see a kid with his head on the desk or looking out the window."

Charlene Jordan gazes sadly at the basketballs on top of a filing cabinet in her office. Kids brought them, hoping to play that day. But the school is out of luck: the gymnasiums it had been using at a local college and Y.M.C.A. are out of commission, and that means she'll have to scramble. Boys, she quickly decides, can go play football in a nearby park. Girls will stay in the building for aerobics and double-Dutch. While the students work out, teachers will have planning time.

The board of education, she charges, made a "huge oversight" in creating schools without places for kids to exercise. "There's no way to get money from the board so that we can go out and rent some place and have some buying power," she sighs. "We're dependent on generosity."

The small high schools also do without art and music teachers, although some work with community organizations to provide enrichment after school. Teachers try to integrate art into the curriculum. At Landmark High, students draw in their advisory groups, in addition to working on study skills, planning field trips, and reading.

At Jordan's Coalition School for Social Change, the big academic struggle now is over portfolios. There's a push on for 10th graders to complete their requirements. The school has built twice-weekly portfolio workshops into the schedule, but students are resistant.

"With portfolios, we are taking the responsibility for education and putting it back on the students," Jordan explains enthusiastically. "This is not about seat time or just attendance, it's about producing work, being willing to revise and edit and do it again and do it again until everyone is satisfied. It's about changing the way they think. And the notion that kids want to do that after years in this system is ridiculous."

Like Rabiner and Delgado, she got a tough crop last year. Of the first 87 students at Social Change, 30 were either learning disabled or severely behind academically. This year's 9th graders, most of whom chose to attend the school, were much better prepared.

Teachers decided to integrate the two grades, except in their advisory groups. Two special-education teachers work side by side with 12 teachers.

In Rene Anaya's humanities class, students are beginning a four-week unit on immigration by writing about their own experiences with moving and drawing maps for a partner illustrating a move. Eventually, groups of students, relying on original sources, will teach the class what they've learned about immigrants' crossing to America, their arrival, search for housing and jobs, and assimilation into the culture.

"A lot of kids have come a long way," Anaya says. "Last year, we had a lot of difficulties. The school was horrible. Now, that argument is gone. It's just kids and their work."

A girl in his class who likely would have been in a self-contained special-education classroom in another school mastered Lord of the Flies, he notes proudly. "We're making some real connections to the kids."

Though students at Social Change may resist changing longstanding work habits, they are in agreement on one thing: Their teachers have time to give them the attention they crave. Says 9th grader Karen Malanum: "They make you feel that they're there when you need them."

Julia Richman, born in 1855, was a pioneering principal of a model school and a crusader for educating immigrants to this country. At the turn of the century, she was named superintendent of schools in the Lower East Side, a first stop for many newcomers.

Richman's life's work, writes her sister, Bertha K. Proskauer, was "the Americanizing and socializing of immigrant children."

"She was ready to give all that her heart and soul contained--truly humanitarian, educational, uplifting work!" Proskauer writes.

The school that bears her name, on the Upper East Side in one of the city's most expensive neighborhoods, is eerily quiet. Officially, there are about 900 students still assigned to the building: juniors and seniors from the phased-out school, special-education students whose building is being renovated, and students in Talent Unlimited, a high school started from a program at Julia Richman.

The Talent Unlimited and special-education students are visible, but the Julia Richman kids are harder to find. There are clots of students in the trash-strewn lunchroom and some in the gymnasium, standing against the wall wearing their coats, listening to a teacher seated at a desk.

Gino Silvestri, the principal, notes that about 20 percent are absent on any given day. In the enormous building, the rest seem to vanish.

Fresh coats of bright yellow and green paint coat the walls and woodwork of the first floor. There's a beautiful auditorium that looks like a private theater. The school also boasts two gymnasiums and a swimming pool. The doorknobs are gems: solid brass ovals, polished by thousands of hands, inscribed with the words "Public School, City of New York."

Despite its problems, Julia Richman was popular with teachers and administrators because of its convenient and safe location. Technically, it was only open to students in its zone and to Manhattan residents, but its roster included students from Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. That suggests the school took in students to keep up its enrollment and preserve teaching positions, says Stephen Phillips, the superintendent of alternative high schools. Despite an official capacity of 2,350, he notes, Julia Richman's enrollment at times soared as high as 3,000.

Even though the crowds that once filled the school are gone, seven security people are still on full alert. Students can't get into the lunchroom without showing their photo I.D. and their schedule. They can't ride the elevators. They can only use certain doors. And they are still scanned for weapons every morning.

The lock-down mentality will change when the Coalition Campus schools move in, vows Marcia Brevot, the co-director of the project. A retired educator, Brevot is greasing the wheels for the Julia Richman schools and for four similar schools launched to phase out James Monroe High School in the South Bronx by the Center for Collaborative Education, the local affiliate of the Coalition of Essential Schools. The project has raised $3 million in private donations, mostly for professional development, to start the schools.

For the past two years, the directors and teachers of the Coalition Campus schools have attended summer institutes to plan their programs, develop curricula, and share ideas. The networks of small schools also are a powerful vehicle for professional development, allowing teachers to share their expertise with one another and helping brand-new schools avoid past mistakes. (See "Strange Bedfellows Strive To Scale Down Schools," page 41.)

Even after so many years in a system known for grinding people down, Brevot gets angry when she talks about failing high schools. "There are schools where one in 15 or one in 20 students ever graduates," she rails. "We're talking outrageous statistics."

Most high school reform in the city, she charges, has been administrative, not instructional. Proponents believe that creating autonomous small high schools offers a way to tackle the classroom. That's because small schools make it possible for people to pool their expertise. Central Park East Secondary School, a model for the coalition schools and one of the best-known success stories in American education, doesn't depend on extraordinarily talented teachers, says Deborah Meier, the founder of the school and a co-director of the Coalition Campus project.

"They all use their talents well, toward the task," she explains. "A lot of teachers in New York City have great talent, but they use it on the side, on their hobbies or the businesses they run, because it's so frustrating. And others who do use their talents in the classroom have no effect on the teacher next door."

Not so in a small school, where important decisions are made by the faculty. "You can't blame someone else," Meier says. "It changes the discussion from 'Why didn't they?' to 'What can we do?"'

In opening the schools, the New York City board of education is acting as a chartering agency, notes Phillips, the alternative-schools director. "I don't think this is whimsical," he says of the small-schools movement. "This is right on target with what the thinking seems to be across the country."

In addition to the Coalition Campus schools, two other large high schools--Andrew Jackson in Queens and Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn--are being restructured by the high school division into groups of three small schools.

New York City has two key factors in its favor: High schools use a per-pupil budgeting formula, and the United Federation of Teachers has agreed to a process that allows schools with specialized programs to hire their own teachers

The funding stream means that new schools aren't additions to the budget, Phillips explains, because 23 students generate a teacher's salary regardless of which schools they attend. And the union's support has made it possible both to close failing schools and open new ones with like-minded teachers.

The new high schools spend 90 percent their money on the classroom. That keeps classes small, with about 15 students apiece. The schools have no deans or department chairs or assistant principals, Phillips notes, although as they reach their maximum size of 300 to 400 students they should be able to afford some administrative support.

But with the school system facing its most severe budget crisis since the 1970's, the new schools are vulnerable. "Fledgling schools need financial support in order to have firm foundations," says John Ferrandino, the supervising superintendent of high schools. "We've been able to withstand them, but next year is something that scares me."

In its new incarnation next year, Julia Richman will be a hive of activity. In addition to Vanguard, another new high school, Manhattan International, will move in. So will a transitional program for students preparing for college. Urban Academy, a high school with a focus on inquiry, will be there to lend its expertise. And Talent Unlimited will stay in the building. That wasn't the original plan, but politics intervened. The program had vocal constituents who brought pressure to bear to keep the school at Julia Richman.

Urban Academy, with just 110 students, is now squatting in a Manhattan high school. The office is its hub, a central gathering place for students and staff. People navigate through jammed aisles lined with desks, computers, and filing cabinets. The walls are papered with students' work. A sign over the door says, "Blackboards, Not Bodybags." Co-director Ann Cook wants to replicate the buzz, which shows students how schools really work, at Julia Richman.

Most attempts at high school reform fail, Cook says, because the focus is on individual teachers, add-on programs, or creating artificial "houses" of students and teachers who have no focus.

"For schools to work," she says, "you have to be able to create conditions for communities between adults and kids. What keeps people working here is that it's interesting. Schools have to be interesting places for people to be professionals."

As Rabiner of Landmark High and the other directors of the new schools have learned, the work never ends. But even in her most exhausted moments, Rabiner says, she doesn't doubt that she and her teachers are on the right path. "There's a lot of thinking to be done before small schools are pronounced the great panacea," she cautions. "But I think this is the direction to go. It's in the best interest of kids."

Vol. 14, Issue 26

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