N.Y.C. School Built Around Unorthodox Use of Time
Superficially, the Brooklyn Generation School, here in the Flatbush area, looks a lot like the other six small public high schools that share space in this tall building, the former South Shore High School.
What’s noticeably different about it, though, is the strength of the relationships among staff members. Teachers can be seen running across the hallways to each other’s rooms. They tease each other good-naturedly in staff meetings. Most importantly, said Principal Terri Grey, the tenor of staff conversations is markedly different.
“They aren’t about something egregious a student did,” Ms. Grey said. “Instead, it’s three teachers standing there, talking about how one of their kids really got the lesson today.”
Teachers here attribute the collegial atmosphere to the public school’s novel way of differentiating teachers’ roles and staggering their schedules. At Brooklyn Generation, teachers instruct only three classes a day, get two hours of common planning with colleagues each afternoon, and have a highly reduced student load—as few as 14 students per class. Yet the restructured scheduling costs no more to operate than a traditional schedule.
When the visionary behind this school model, Furman Brown, began devising it more than a decade ago, he did so with an eye to using time in new ways so that both students and teachers had opportunities to learn.
“I could always hear great teaching through the wall, but I couldn’t see what was happening,” Mr. Brown said, recalling his experience as one of the first Teach For America corps members in Los Angeles. “There are a lot of great teachers in inner-city schools, but they don’t have the opportunity to learn from each other.”
Opened in 2007, Brooklyn Generation now serves about 230 students in grades 9-11, most of whom are black and qualify for federal school-nutrition programs. The school will add a 12th grade next fall and expand to the middle grades over the course of the next few years.
The school’s schedule is both dynamic and flexible. Each morning, one group of educators teaches foundations courses in mathematics and the humanities. In the afternoons, those same teachers take on one studio course—science, the arts, and electives. They are also given daily breaks at the same time as their “instructional team” —colleagues in the same grade and content area—allowing them two hours of common planning time.
Twice a year, these dual-role teachers receive a monthlong reprieve consisting of three weeks of vacation followed by a week of professional development with their instructional teams. A second coterie of educators steps in to teach monthlong “intensives,” focused on aspects of college and career readiness, from internships through the college-entrance process and financial-aid applications.
Class sizes for the foundations and intensive courses are small—around 15 students—and expand to about 25 for studio classes. The staggered schedules mean that students receive 20 additional instructional days, but no teacher actually works longer than the 180 days set in the New York City teachers’ contract.
Mr. Brown spent more than a decade toying with the pieces of teacher schedules at hand, trying to “get the colors of the Rubik’s cube to line up.” With early startup money, he and business partner Jonathan Spear founded the Generation Schools Network, a nonprofit dedicated to furthering their vision. Amid that work came the added puzzle of persuading city officials to actually implement the model in a small public high school, a task that took three years.
The United Federation of Teachers, the local American Federation of Teachers affiliate, provided key support in helping to craft a side addendum to the teachers’ contract to set the new school calendar, while allowing most of the model’s core features to be fleshed out using the “school-based option” agreement in the city contract.
With the smaller class sizes and more support, the school’s leaders expect teachers to engage each student in the school’s college- and career-bound culture.
Such class sizes, 9th grade math-foundation teacher Dianne Crewe-Shaw says, help her better monitor her students, who tend to have the most challenges with algebra. “The small class size was like heaven,” she said. “With weaker students, I have to dig deeper for activities that will engage them.”
Mathematics and humanities ‘foundations’ educators teach only one studio class a day, so while other colleagues are teaching the bulk of the afternoon courses, they have two hours for planning and goal-setting.
Teachers of the college- and career-focused intensive courses rotate through the grades, giving other teachers monthlong breaks.
The monthlong intensive classes, meanwhile, directly reflect students’ interest.
With South Shore High’s long history of superior athletics, the school still attracts many would-be professional sports players. So Daymond Haynes, one of the “intensives” teachers, runs a popular class on sports management, helping students understand alternative career pathways in the sports field in case they don’t wind up as the next Michael Jordan.
Some of the intensives highlight both the upsides and drawbacks of various career paths. Quite a few students were fascinated by the culinary arts, said Michele Hill, another teacher of the intensive courses, until they discovered the less glamorous side of the field—long hours and backbreaking work.
The flexibility of the model also allows staff members to regroup students according to need. For example, the staff recently regrouped 10th graders in math to give additional algebra help to students who passed the math portion of the state regents’ exam, but didn’t score high enough for admission to the City University of New York system.
Equally important to student success is faculty members’ shared planning time, which teachers use to craft common instructional units and assessments to gauge student progress. While reviewing data generated from those instruments, the staff can quickly pinpoint frequent areas of weakness, share teaching strategies, and make plans to reteach lessons as needed.
The planning sessions are also where teachers are encouraged to experiment and exchange long-held practices for more-effective new ones.
In 10th grade mathematics on a recent day, the teachers were reviewing a lesson about how to calculate the slope of line, given two points on a graph. After teacher Ronald Singh walked his students through the formula, he showed them how to program their graphing calculators so that they could check their work.
Mr. Singh credits his math-foundations team member, geometry teacher Neil Garguilo, for coming up with the idea of reinforcing to students that there’s nothing wrong with using a calculator to avoid simple computational errors. Or, as Mr. Garguilo likes to tell his students, “you don’t have to be a hero.” That wasn’t the case in Mr. Singh’s former school. “We didn’t have a common goal,” he said. “In fact, it felt more like a competition. They would announce whose students did well on the regents [exams], and there was no turnaround to ask, ‘How did you do it? What resources did you use?’ ”
Ninth grade math teacher Celeste Reyes recalled staff meetings at former schools that, in her view, were held more to satisfy contract requirements than to set goals.
In contrast, one of the aftereffects of the common planning time, the teachers here say, is that it has also led to a greater feeling of peer-driven accountability. In a system in which teachers are routinely expected to share results, instruction becomes transparent, and there are few places for teachers who are struggling, indifferent, or incompetent to hide.
That makes a world of difference for Cynthia Gilligan, a 9th grade humanities teacher who returned to New York after a brief stint teaching in a large comprehensive high school in Hawaii. With few opportunities for gaining feedback from teachers or administrators, it was an isolating experience, she reported.
“I seriously could have been teaching the students jumping jacks all day,” she said. “I wasn’t, for the record.”
“It’s easy to pinpoint when someone’s not doing what they need to,” Ms. Crewe-Shaw, the math teacher, added. “The environment creates a way so that you should be able to do better. And why not take that opportunity?”
Principal Grey notes progress, too. At Brooklyn Generation, it’s not uncommon to spot teachers working alongside their peers or with other support personnel, such as reading coaches. That’s a change from some other schools in the building, where teachers bristle at the thought of unsolicited advice, she said.
Still, Ms. Grey sees some room for improvement in overall instruction.
One of her goals is to improve the differentiation of instruction based on student needs and to get students working in small-group activities that foster higher-order critical-thinking skills. On a given day of classroom walk-throughs, perhaps half the teachers incorporate those techniques. Ms. Grey wants that figure to be higher.
The school has arranged classrooms so that chairs are grouped in small clusters to facilitate student interaction, but not all teachers have given up the tendency to rely on teacher-led instruction, Mr. Brown, the founder, said.
“If you talk for 90 minutes and expect students to be passive, that’s not more effective here with 15 kids than if you have 150,” he said. “Kids know what it means to be engaged and to feel cared about.”
Among the biggest instructional challenges, Ms. Grey said, is overcoming the cultural norms assimilated by teachers from other schools where routines were standardized and classroom innovation was discouraged.
“Their lived experiences around education make it hard to get them to do something different even with the structures we have in place,” she said. “They are hesitant to relinquish control.”
All the model’s elements are explained to teachers who apply to work at the school. Even then, certain features can be a bit bewildering at first, said school social worker Eric Haber, who is also the UFT “chapter chair” for the school.
“When you’re handed a list of the 9th graders and you’re told to take ownership of them, to split them up, to do heterogeneous groupings—I think [teachers] were really surprised to have that opportunity and weren’t sure how to take it,” he said.
Ms. Grey, for one, thinks the model will become even more powerful as the school grows from its current small size to its full complement of 785 students, since the school-based teams will encompass more teachers and permit additional staffing flexibility.
Mr. Brown and Mr. Spear, meanwhile, plan to open two additional Generation schools in Gotham next year, as well as find a partner state outside New York. Next fall, they’ll also work to adapt the strategies in two existing public schools, deemed “affiliates.”
Working in an existing school presents a set of challenges different from starting afresh in a new one, and although the affiliates are volunteering for the work, Mr. Brown concedes that it will help to test the model.
“I think you can design any school like this, but it requires you to push your thinking,” Ms. Grey added.
Leo Casey, the UFT’s vice president of academic high schools, helped the founders work through the contractual issues at Brooklyn Generation. He thinks that schools should allow teachers who don’t want to work under an alternative schedule the right to transfer.
“It’s not a problem unless this becomes the one model that’s supposed to work for all situations, which we know is really not a good idea,” he said. “Teachers should be able to choose, in some sense, their schools just as students or families should be able to choose.”
Despite those challenges, the Generation Schools vision has been surprisingly noncontroversial. Both the city schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, and Michael Mulgrew, the president of the UFT, have praised it—no small feat in a city famous for frosty union-management relationships.
Eleven of the original 14 teachers at the school have stayed on. Enrollments are rising, and more students are listing Brooklyn Generation as a top choice in the city’s high school lottery.
That comes through in the voices of the students here who talk about what they want to do after high school. One bright young woman stopped to ask a reporter lurking in the hallways about journalism as a career, about which she didn’t sound entirely convinced.
“I think I’m going to be a psychiatrist,” she finally announced, laughing, “but I don’t want to work with crazy people.”
Vol. 29, Issue 24, Pages 1, 12-13Published in Print: March 10, 2010, as N.Y.C. School Marches to Unorthodox Schedule