School & District Management

In N.Y.C., Fast-Paced Drive for Small Schools

By Caroline Hendrie — June 23, 2004 13 min read
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Racking up the F’s as he drifted through 9th grade at a 2,500-student high school, Ansel Farrell seemed well on his way to becoming just another dropout from the Bronx.

Then came a fresh start as a freshman in one of this city’s new generation of small public high schools. Now he is wrapping up 10th grade at Bronx High School for the Visual Arts with a portfolio that recently landed him in an expenses-paid summer program designed to prepare disadvantaged young artists for college.

“Before I came here, I had no goal in life,” said the 18-year- old immigrant from Trinidad, as he leafed through his portfolio after a recent art class. “Now I go to school because I want to be an artist. I love attention. I want to be famous.”

Big dreams like that are just what New York City’s sweeping initiative to start new small high schools is all about. Determined to give thousands more teenagers like Mr. Farrell a reason to come to school, education leaders here are in the midst of what is arguably the nation’s most ambitious drive to “scale up” scaled-down schooling.

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Read a related story in this issue, “Gates-Financed Initiative Faces Instructional Hurdles, Report Says.”.

By most accounts, the going has been tough. A long-standing space crunch, especially in the borough of the Bronx, is making it hard to accommodate all the fledgling schools. Identifying and training principals has been straining a system that has long struggled to attract and retain talented leaders. And reconciling the new schools’ tendency to emphasize personalized, project-based learning with a need for solid test scores has been another big challenge.

Amid those concerns, a backlash has arisen in some of the existing large high schools that are housing many of the fast-growing corps of small schools, testing the hitherto strong support for the initiative from the city teachers’ union. Some teachers are demanding a moratorium on new small schools in existing schools and are complaining that the city is simply plunging forward too quickly.

But despite the bumpy road, neither school leaders nor the outside partners who are helping to lead New York’s closely watched campaign are second-guessing their decision to scale up as fast as they can.

“You’re not going to learn about the problems that you get at scale until you get to scale,” said Robert L. Hughes, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, a locally based nonprofit organization that is the district’s lead partner in the new-schools effort. “We can’t shy away from the magnitude of the challenge.”

‘Very Committed’

New York City is far from alone in embracing the concept of smaller, more personalized high schools committed to challenging academic standards for all students.

Thanks in part to an outpouring of philanthropic and federal funding, school districts across the country are opening new small high schools and breaking down existing ones into smaller units. The goal is not only to get more young people to the high school finish line, but also to get them there prepared for college and jobs. (“High Schools Nationwide Paring Down,” June 16, 2004.)

Yet even with all that activity, the nation’s largest school district stands out. The sheer scale of the effort here is unusual, as is the enthusiasm for the initiative in the upper echelons of district governance.

“We are very committed to this and doing a great deal on many fronts,” Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said during a conference last month in Palo Alto, Calif., hosted by the San Francisco-based New Schools Venture Fund. “The only thing that makes it hard is we’re all understandably impatient. And I keep telling my people, ‘Don’t lose that impatience.’”

Not content to let the city’s existing small schools gradually inspire imitators, leaders of the 1.1 million-student district are making an aggressive push to open 200 new small schools in three to five years, including 50 charter schools. By this coming fall, after just two years, they expect to be more than halfway there.

While the bulk of the charter schools are expected to be at the elementary level, most of the others are to be secondary schools, concentrated mainly in high-need neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx. This past fall, 42 small high schools made their debut. For the coming school year, 41 more schools serving grades 9-12 are to open, as are another 15 serving grades 6-12.

Many of the initiative’s supporters say that with a citywide graduation rate hovering at 53 percent, more time was a luxury that New York’s children could not afford. Even though many of the new schools feel squeezed for space—and are putting the squeeze on the large schools with which they share buildings—holding out for new facilities was not an option, many small- schools proponents say.

“We don’t have time to wait around for new schools to open,” said George York, the principal of Bronx High School for the Visual Arts, one of five small schools that share a building with the 3,200-student Christopher Columbus High School. “We’re losing our kids.”

Setting such a brisk pace also had an important strategic value, the initiative’s architects say, because it forced everyone to think systemically. Rather than focusing on how to phase out one failing high school and replace it with small schools, the idea was to require the district to figure out how to make that transition in many schools at once.

“If you’re only looking at one school, you’re never going to start to take the steps necessary to build a system of those schools,” Mr. Hughes said.

Power of Partners

Small schools designed to put disadvantaged youths on track for college have existed for decades in New York City. In the 1970s and ’80s, pioneers such as the educator Deborah Meier founded schools lauded for pushing low-income and minority youngsters to unusual academic heights. Building on that work, the national Annenberg Challenge financed a five-year initiative in the 1990s that produced scores of new small schools.

Yet even some of the city’s most celebrated small schools have seen their luster dim over the years, as the leadership has changed at the school and district levels. And a few are being closed, after replicating the dismal academic results of the big schools they replaced.

Determined to learn from the past, district leaders have tried to put together a scaling-up strategy aimed at producing nurturing but rigorous schools that are well supported both by the school system and the larger community. A critical feature of that strategy is collaboration with partners outside the education bureaucracy.

“I don’t think you could do a scale-up that would be quick unless you partnered with organizations that are bringing knowledge, resources, and access to schools,” said Michele Cahill, who oversees the new-schools initiative as Mr. Klein’s senior counselor for education policy.

Each of the new, small high schools is required to have at least one “community partner” that is involved in planning the school and providing continuing support and learning opportunities once it’s off the ground. Those organizations include social-service agencies, cultural organizations, museums, higher education institutions, and others.

Not all the matches between schools and their partners have been made in heaven, city officials acknowledge. But on balance, small-schools leaders say, they’re working.

One showcase partnership is South Brooklyn Community High School. Targeted at chronic truants and dropouts, the 150-student school shares a custom-built, 35,000-square-foot brick facility with Good Shepherd Services, a social-services and youth-development agency based in the city. Agency counselors work with district teachers to move youngsters through an accelerated program that lets them earn credits more quickly than in traditional high schools.

Jon Camacho, a 16-year-old who had cut class constantly at his old high school, has been piling up the credits since starting classes last September in the well-equipped, 3-year-old building.

“Here, the counselor and the teacher, they get together and help you,” he said.

Besides the school-level partnerships, outside “intermediary organizations,” such as New Visions, and the private foundations that finance them have been integral to the scaling-up effort.

More than half of next school year’s crop of new schools are being opened in partnership with New Visions through its New Century High Schools initiative, a public-private partnership launched in 2001 with money from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the locally based Open Society Institute.

Besides nearly $40 million to New Visions, the Gates Foundation has given liberally to other organizations that are helping start new small schools in the city. Of the nearly $650 million that the Gates Foundation has spent around the country to promote new small high schools, New York City has received a bigger slice—some $79 million—than any other locale.

Officials with the city’s department of education dispute the notion that the scale-up is being paid for privately, however. “The department is putting a significant amount of money into start- up costs for new schools,” Ms. Cahill said. “Early on, it’s a very big investment.”

Still, officials say that attracting new partners to the push to improve the city’s public schools was actually a central objective of the initiative.

“They bring financial capital, but also lots of human capital,” said Kristen Kane, the director of the department’s office of new schools.

A Focus on Leaders

Another cornerstone of the strategy is leadership. Faced with the challenge of starting dozens of schools at once, the city launched a distinct preparation program for small-schools leaders as part of a broader public-private effort to step up the professional training of principals systemwide.

“As important as getting the design right is making sure we have strong leaders,” Ms. Cahill said during a recent interview at the district’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan.

Shael Polakow Suransky, the principal of the 213-student Bronx International Academy, said anxiety initially inspired him to sign up to help train those preparing to lead the 60 new small schools scheduled to open in the fall. Now, he said, he’s not so nervous.

“I was very worried that there were so many schools opening, and that there wouldn’t be enough support,” he said. “But actually I’m really impressed. It’s a very strong group of people.”

Another priority that has consumed a lot of energy is placing teachers in all the new schools. With heavy involvement from the city’s affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, the district has developed a teacher-selection process that places major emphasis on a teacher’s academic qualifications, as well as on seniority.

On the facilities front, district leaders are scrambling particularly hard for solutions as they catch flak for what critics call a failure to plan adequately, especially in the Bronx.

Early on, the decision was made that numerous low-performing high schools in that high-poverty borough would be a prime source of space for new small schools. The idea was that the big schools would be phased out, ideally a year at a time by not taking in any new 9th graders, as clusters of new schools gradually grew to full size in the buildings.

In some schools, that blueprint has been followed, leading to relatively smooth transitions. But in others, such as Columbus High School, the district has had to keep sending new 9th graders to the large high school—making life difficult for all concerned.

A complicating factor, officials say, has been growing enrollment in the borough fueled by immigration. In September, city officials expect 1,600 more students to enter high school in the Bronx than last year, when about 1,000 more entered than the year before.

“We’re in a demographic bulge,” Ms. Cahill said.

Buying and leasing new space and creating off-site programs for overage students who are behind in their credits are some of the ways the district is trying to ease the pressure on the large high schools. Small- schools advocates also have been agitating for more capital funding from the state to address what they see as a long history of neglecting the facilities needs of poor neighborhoods, especially in the Bronx.

‘Daily Struggle’

Meanwhile, for principals such as Columbus High’s Lisa Maffei- Fuentes, the situation feels a little like being put on death row without a date set for execution.

Overcrowding exacerbated by the loss of classrooms to the building’s five new small schools has forced the school onto a 14- period, double-session schedule, making the school’s efforts to tackle its attendance and achievement problems that much harder.

“It’s a very hard place to be,” Ms. Maffei-Fuentes said. “There are a lot of unhappy people at this time, and trying to get them to buy into the new vision is a daily struggle.”

Among those people is Peter Lamphere, a math teacher who started at Columbus High last fall. Mr. Lamphere is helping organize an ongoing effort to draw attention to the problems of large high schools in the Bronx that are sharing space with small schools.

Teachers from two of those schools, including Columbus, recently presented the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s AFT affiliate, with a petition demanding a moratorium on putting new small schools in larger ones. Bearing about 500 staff members’ signatures, the petition called on the union to withdraw its support for the city’s small-high- schools initiative. So far, the union is continuing to back the initiative, despite what leaders say are concerns about its implementation.

Mr. Lamphere acknowledges that the small schools also have legitimate complaints about their cramped conditions in the building. But he said that Columbus High teachers nonetheless see it as unfair that the small schools can run on a normal schedule with smaller class sizes. The situation has been especially hard on the school’s veteran teachers, he added.

“It’s been heartbreaking to see these older educators being told that everything they’ve poured their hearts and souls into is being thrown away, including the kids,” he said.

Ms. Maffei-Fuentes said many of Columbus High’s most talented staff members have taken jobs in new small schools, including the ones in the building, and she is encouraging more to follow. She’s been warned to expect new freshmen in the fall, but she doesn’t yet know how many. She’s also been told that her last class of incoming 9th graders will be in 2006, but she is prepared for that date to change.

Amid the uncertainty, Ms. Maffei-Fuentes gets high marks from others in the building for making the best of difficult circumstances. Jane Aronoff, a former Columbus High assistant principal who now runs Pelham Preparatory Academy, a 200-student school in the building, said the cooperation among all six of the principals is made easier by Ms. Maffei-Fuentes’ attitude.

“We have been most fortunate in the support we have gotten,” Ms. Aronoff said. In many other buildings, she added, small- schools principals have not been so lucky.

Mr. York, whose 157-student school for the visual arts shares a floor of the Columbus High building with Ms. Aronoff’s, said critics need to keep in mind youngsters like Ansel Farrell when they start complaining about the new small high schools.

“I’ve been working for 35 years in education, and this is the most exciting thing I’ve ever been involved in,” he said. “There’s lots of complaints, but you know, I can’t listen to the complaints. This work is too important.”


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