School & District Management

30 N.Y.C. Schools Gain Autonomy From Rules by Promising Results

By Caroline Hendrie — October 01, 2004 4 min read
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How much slack should a big-city district cut its schools to maximize student performance? That’s the question that New York City school leaders want to explore with an experimental governance model they are calling the “autonomy zone.”

Started this month with 30 secondary schools, the pilot project sets specific performance targets for schools to meet in exchange for removing them from the bureaucratic hierarchy governing most of the city’s 1,300 public schools.

“We’re trying to create as much space as possible for good people to do good work, to be able to learn from the work they do, to figure out ways to generalize it across the schools, and then hold ourselves and the schools accountable for what actually happens to kids,” said Eric Nadelstern, who is managing the autonomy zone as the 1.1 million-student district’s chief academic officer for new schools.

With 91 new schools opening this fall alone, the nation’s largest school district is in the midst of a major, multiyear push to increase its ranks of small, more personalized schools. (“In N.Y.C., Fast-Paced Drive for Small Schools,” June 23, 2004.)

Half the schools in the zone are brand-new this fall, and most of them are small. A notable exception is a Brooklyn high school with more than 3,000 students. Also accepting the district’s invitation to take part are three charter schools—one that just opened and two that had been district-run but converted to charter status.

Begun with little fanfare, the zone is drawing some barbs, especially from the unions representing the city’s teachers and principals. Their leaders are upset that they weren’t asked to help formulate the policy, and are voicing complaints about its substance.

“They’ve done one more unilateral, top-down experiment on autonomy,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers.

Genuine Freedom?

The head of the union for principals and other supervisors in the city is questioning whether the schools gain genuine autonomy in exchange for signing performance agreements that could come back to bite them.

“I don’t want to see principals hang themselves,” said Jill S. Levy, the president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators.

District officials say educators in participating schools have little to worry about for the first year, anyway, because the chief consequence of failing to meet targets would be to drop out of the zone. If the initiative continues beyond this pilot year, schools in the zone will be asked to sign performance contracts agreeing to shut down if they fall short after five years, Mr. Nadelstern said.

For the initial year of what the district is calling a “strategic planning and research project,” schools in the zone have agreed to meet or make a set amount of progress toward achieving specified goals. The targets for all schools include attendance rates of 90 percent and course-passing rates of 80 percent.

For existing schools, the goals include an 80 percent passing rate on the state Regents examinations in core academic subjects; graduation rates of 80 percent of 12th graders and 70 percent of entering 9th graders; and a college-acceptance rate of 90 percent. Instead of those benchmarks, new schools agree that their students will make “positive growth on value-added assessments” in English/ language arts and mathematics.

Whether schools achieve their targets will not be used to evaluate principals’ performance beyond what is specified under their collective bargaining agreement.

Schools in the zone will be outside the 10-region bureaucratic structure that resulted from a major reorganization of the district carried out last year by Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein. They will also be exempt from the district’s mandated English and math curriculum, officials said. They will not be excused from current rules in such areas as teacher hiring or union-negotiated working conditions, however.

“Longer term, we’re working with the other members of the chancellor’s senior leadership team to try to figure out how schools could have greater decisionmaking authority in such noninstructional areas as food services, purchasing, and transportation,” Mr. Nadelstern said.

Still, Ms. Levy of the principals’ union argued that schools in the zone “are going to gain nothing” in such areas as budgeting, staff hiring, or testing. “I don’t know what’s innovative about it, frankly,” she said.

And Ms. Weingarten of the city’s affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers said district officials had rebuffed a proposal she made this year to grant greater autonomy to schools where teachers volunteered to participate. She said many teachers at schools in the zone were unaware their principals had signed up.

“Some think it’s a great idea, and some think it’s a terrible idea,” she said.

Looking for Protection

For David C. Banks, the principal of the newly opened Eagle Academy for Young Men—the second small high school he has founded and run in the Bronx—getting out from under layers of bureaucracy “is worth the price of admission.”

“For example, if you want to hire two parent coordinators instead of one, you can do that and you won’t have a superintendent above you telling you, ‘You can’t do that,’ ” he said.

For his part, Louis Delgado hopes that the autonomy zone might help his 400-student Manhattan high school gain greater independence in hiring decisions. The 11-year-old Vanguard High School uses the district’s “school based” option for hiring teachers, which allows a committee of teachers and administrators at the school to screen candidates and offer them jobs. But those candidates can be bumped by more senior teachers who are laid off elsewhere in the system, the principal said, a situation he hopes the zone can help change.

“Right now, there’s no protection,” he said. “That’s what I’m looking for.”

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