School & District Management

Reporter’s Notebook

January 21, 2004 4 min read
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New York

Small High Schools Establishing Foothold In N.Y.C. Bureaucracy

Philanthropy-financed education reforms are notoriously prone to withering away after the funding for them has dried up. But the leaders of a major high school improvement initiative in the nation’s largest school district think they’re starting to put down roots that just might take hold.

Now in its third year, the New Century High Schools Initiative is a public- private partnership here that aims to replace warehouse-size schools that had become dropout factories with small, autonomous schools that prepare graduates for jobs and college.

A leading goal is to weave support for the new, small high schools directly into the fabric of the 1.1 million-student district. Signs indicate that is starting to happen, say top officials from the district and New Visions for Public Schools, an organization that is coordinating the effort with the city.

“If there isn’t ownership, there isn’t going to be sustainability over the long haul,” New Visions’ president, Robert L. Hughes, told a contingent of visitors to the city from Washington this month. Organized by the Washington-based American Youth Policy Forum, the trip on Jan. 8-9 featured tours of small schools as well as discussions with New Century initiative leaders at district headquarters in Lower Manhattan.

Since fall 2002, the New Century initiative has yielded 41 new schools serving nearly 5,000 students—mostly in poor neighborhoods in the city’s Bronx and Brooklyn boroughs—and plans are on the runway for another 20 or so next fall.

The initiative predated the 2002 takeover of the city schools by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his hiring of Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, who undertook a reorganization of the school system’s bureaucracy. But it has nonetheless become an integral part of the district’s push to ratchet up achievement and expand educational options by creating some 200 new schools over three to five years, said Michele Cahill, Mr. Klein’s senior counselor for education policy.

The district’s overriding goal is not to become “an effective school system,” but instead “a system of effective schools,” she said, and the new-schools campaign is “a central, critical element of a strategy” to reach that end.

Yet the campaign faces “enormous challenges,” Ms. Cahill said, chief among them finances and space.

Major funding for the New Century initiative has come from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Institute, both based here.

Those foundations kicked in $10 million apiece back in 2001 when the initiative got rolling. Last September, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates visited a campus of small schools in the South Bronx to announce an additional $52 million grant for New York City small schools, some $29 million of which is going to New Visions to expand the New Century initiative.

Still, the district has had to “put a significant amount of money into start-up costs for new schools,” Ms. Cahill said. While small schools actually cost less per graduate because they typically have lower dropout rates, she said, “early on, it’s a very big investment.”

Space has been a problem, in part because the district is losing seats as it shutters failing schools. The district added 7,000 new 9th graders this past fall, Ms. Cahill said, and the growth in new small schools couldn’t keep pace.

“This is a systemic transformation strategy, with all of the difficulties and complexities of that,” said Ms. Cahill, who helped design the New Century initiative in her previous job at the Carnegie Corporation before joining Mr. Klein’s top leadership team.

New York City has long had a thriving contingent of small, college- preparatory high schools serving poor and minority students. For decades, though, their leaders typically worked around—rather than with—the district and its powerful teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers. That modus operandi largely extended to the intermediary organizations, including New Visions, that put philanthropic dollars to work creating small schools.

Now, New Visions has used its grant money to “embed” staff members sympathetic to small schools into the district hierarchy, by subsidizing new small-schools offices in six of the 10 regional subdistricts that emerged from Mr. Bloomberg’s restructuring of the city’s school system. Staff members in those offices report directly to their regions’ chiefs.

And the New Century initiative includes the UFT as a partner, as well as the union for city school administrators. Representatives of both unions sit on the “core team governing body” that steers the initiative, along with district brass, New Visions staff members, and leading funders.

The idea is to have the major players shaping education policy buy in, said Mr. Hughes. “The early results are encouraging,” he added. “But as that great philosopher of New York said, ‘It ain’t over till it’s over.’ ”

In the small South Bronx schools included in the American Youth Policy Forum tour, several newly minted principals said they felt lucky to be part of the effort. Said Despina Zaharakis, the principal of New Explorers High School, which has a target enrollment of 330: “If something doesn’t work, we meet and change it tomorrow. It’s not a fossilized bureaucracy where change is unheard of and the whole purpose is to keep things the same.”

—Caroline Hendrie

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook

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