School Choice & Charters

A New Focus

By Debra Viadero — November 12, 2003 11 min read
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The mission of laboratory schools is broadening as universities try to connect with neighborhoods.

Sandwiched between the brick buildings here at Broadway and West 110th Street, Columbia University’s spanking new laboratory school has computerized “smartboards” in every classroom, teachers with doctoral degrees and six-figure incomes, a dance studio, and a cafe that dispenses Cheerios, fruit, and salads free to students.

What it doesn’t have are researchers peering at pupils through one-way glass windows. That’s partly because research is not the primary mission of this school, formally named The School at Columbia University. Rather, this is a carrot the university hopes to use to attract and keep top-notch faculty members.

“We were losing our top academics because we didn’t have a good answer to the question, ‘Where are my young children going to go to school?’'' says Gardner P. Dunnan, the head of the new elementary school and an assistant provost at the Ivy League university.

While that mission may seem out of line with mainstream perceptions about what laboratory schools ought to be, it’s not terribly far from the reality of most such schools today.

Expensive to run, laboratory schools are a diverse and dwindling lot. While some do indeed serve as crucibles of educational innovation, others operate more like teaching hospitals, where would-be teachers can see best practices modeled firsthand. A few focus exclusively on special education. Others, like this school, are essentially private schools for the children of university professors and campus neighbors.

With its own private school, Columbia can virtually guarantee a spot in a

good school for the children of the academic stars it wants to hire. To sweeten the pot, the university picks up half the $22,000-a-year tuition for the children of its faculty members.

So, first on Dunnan’s list of priorities is to provide an education worth uprooting the family for. The school’s second purpose, Dunnan says, is to help build a sense of community, both within the university and between the university and its neighbors here on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

In the cafe before school, for instance, children who once went to PS 145, a local neighborhood school, can forge friendships with the children of the noted historians who might live in university apartments upstairs. At parent- association meetings, paleontologists can swap stories about their children with literary scholars they might otherwise never meet on campus.

Becoming a hotbed for educational research and innovation, on the other hand, ranks third.

Turning to Real World

The truth is, most laboratory schools now lack one-way observation windows. Many were plastered up long ago as education researchers began to train their vision on regular public school classrooms.

“My sense is that, indeed, traditional laboratory schools are a less prominent feature on the educational landscape today,” Dunnan says. With his rumpled, white buttoned-down shirt and dark tie, he looks a bit himself like a private school student chafing in the confines of his uniform.

Before coming to Columbia, Dunnan was headmaster of the Dalton School, an independent school on the city’s Upper East Side that serves the rich and famous. But Dunnan has also worked in public schools, serving as superintendent in some New York suburbs.

In planning The School at Columbia, he surveyed the national laboratory school landscape and visited two in Los Angeles and Chicago.

Expensive to run, laboratory schools are a diverse and dwindling lot.

Dunnan’s impressions about traditional laboratory schools are on target, officials of the National Association of Laboratory Schools acknowledge. According to the Edinboro, Pa.-based association, the number of lab schools in the United States has dropped from 200 at one point in the 1970s to around 100 today.

Even the venerable University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, among the nation’s oldest and best-known, have changed their mission, says the schools’ new director, David Magill.

“This is definitely not the traditional laboratory school as John Dewey envisioned it over 100 years ago to test his own ideas about education,” Magill says of his institution. (Dewey, the noted educational philosopher, founded the first lab school at the university in 1894 as a living laboratory for his progressive educational theories.)

With a total of 1,700 pupils enrolled in preschool through 12th grade, the Chicago schools have long since shed that early research mission to become one of the country’s largest independent schools. What’s more, the education school that once guided the lab schools closed in the 1980s.

John R. Johnson, the lab school association’s deputy executive director, sees the nationwide decline as “unhealthy.”

“We lose one or two a year,” he says, “and that’s been the trend for the last 10 years or so.”

The primary reasons for the decline, Johnson says, are budget crunches, increasing competition for precious space on university campuses, changing university missions, and the high costs of maintaining truly state-of-the-art schools.

But laboratory schools also lost some luster when educational researchers switched their attention to more typical, warts-and-all classrooms.

“The real test today is not in increasing the numbers of private schools,” says Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, which is a 10-block stroll through noisy Manhattan streets from The School at Columbia. “It’s in creating public schools to serve urban areas. If we can’t do that, we don’t have the credibility to speak about it.”

Although located on Columbia’s campus, Teachers College operates autonomously. (Its faculty members did, however, advise developers of the new school.) Over its 116-year history, the college has run its share of laboratory schools, including one—the Horace Mann School—that was spun off to become an elite private school.

More recently, Teachers College partnered with the New York City school system to create a public high school in Harlem, called the Heritage School, that integrates the arts into academics. Teachers College researchers, Levine says, also work in hundreds of public schools around the city on many topics, including ways to promote reading comprehension, turn around struggling high schools, or close the achievement gap that separates black and Hispanic students from their white and Asian peers.

A Shared Fate

The University of Pennsylvania, likewise, carved the public Penn-Franklin Elementary School out of an oasis of green in its inner- city Philadelphia back yard three years ago. The Ivy League university’s graduate school of education built the K-8 school on five acres that it owned, and then sold the building back to the school district at cost.

Now, the education school helps to run the school in partnership with the Philadelphia public schools, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and the local community. It also chips in $1,000 per student per year to keep class sizes to 17 or fewer pupils, according to Nancy Streim, an associate dean at the graduate school.

In return, the school doubles as a training site for neophyte teachers, social workers, and nurses, and a proving ground for innovations the education school faculty have developed. To support those activities, classrooms have specially designed nooks where researchers can watch what’s happening without getting in the way.

‘We were losing our top academics because we didn't have a good answer to the question, "Where are my young children going to go to school?"’

Like most public schools, Penn-Franklin enrolls students exclusively from the surrounding neighborhood, a stretch of city that includes homeless shelters and row houses as well as faculty apartments.

The education school has hooked up with three other Philadelphia elementary schools in an effort to build a network of high- performing schools.

“My own feeling is that the concept of the lab school is not as interesting a question for me as, ‘How can the university contribute to the betterment of public schools in their communities?’” Streim says. “The university’s fate is linked to West Philadelphia’s vitality and stability, and West Philadelphia is important to the vitality and stability of the university.”

The University of Pennsylvania calls all its partner schools “university assisted” schools, rather than laboratory schools or professional-development schools, because it sees them as a distinct creation.

The education school, in fact, held a national conference on the concept last month as a way to swap stories and forge networks with other universities that are undertaking similarly pioneering efforts, including those that are helping to shape and manage charter schools.

Ensuring Diversity

Education researchers headed out to work with regular public schools in part because they believed that lab schools housed atypical student populations. That criticism has stung, according to Johnson of the national lab school association. Many laboratory schools, as a result, have since cultivated student enrollments that more closely mirror their communities.

In Florida, laboratory schools on state university campuses are legally required to reflect the overall demographics of the state. And in California, the Corinne A. Seeds school at the University of California, Los Angeles, was taken to court for refusing to admit a student who would have tipped the school’s carefully maintained socioeconomic and racial balance.

Even The School at Columbia, which has purposely avoided putting the word “laboratory” in its name, has yielded to the pressure to maintain diversity.

Half of the 200 students here are former public school pupils from two adjacent enrollment zones, a span that stretches from Columbus Circle to 138th Street. The students were chosen by lottery from among 1,700 public school pupils who applied. Dunnan says he rejected 10 because they had special needs the school was not equipped to serve.

To enable many of the neighborhood children to attend, the school is picking up all or most of their tuition. This school year, 52 children are attending the school for only $100 each per year. In fact, between the subsidized faculty families and the needy neighborhood children, only six families are paying the full tuition.

The resulting diversity is reflected in the names and pictures that adorn the colorful, pint- size lockers outside of classrooms: Hamza, they read, or Mojit or Alejandra.

“I frankly think we have a demographic very like many of the neighborhood schools in the city,” Dunnan says.

The chance to work with inner-city students—and yet remain in a laboratory school setting—is what drew 1st grade teacher Theresa M. Kubasak. She came to the school from the Baker Demonstration School, a laboratory school at National-Louis University in Evanston, Ill., that draws its enrollment mainly from university families and the surrounding, mostly middle-class neighborhood.

“I think there’s more integrity in saying we teach best practices when we have just regular kids from the neighborhood,” says Kubasak, a Woody Guthrie aficionado who wears long pigtails and wire-framed glasses.

She has transformed her modern, high- rise classroom into a cozy space with a sofa, gauzy curtains, and even a tree stump.

Still, she says, she misses the proximity and collegiality her previous school had with the education school on campus. There, she could teach a group of education students about a particular teaching technique and then walk them down the hall to her own elementary classroom for a live demonstration.

“That juxtaposition of practitioners and theorists is one of the sweetest things about being in a lab school,” Kubasak recalls.

‘Master Achievement Plans’

There’s no denying that The School at Columbia has a lot of extras that urban public schools lack. The university spent $44 million tearing down the previous building on the site and erecting the 12-story structure in its place. (The school occupies the first six floors; faculty apartments take up the rest.)

The building is attractive enough to draw neighborhood visitors, who tiptoe in to admire the stainless-steel and faux-granite interior of the lobby and watch a computer screen continually flashing images of students at work and play.

The teachers at The School at Columbia boast impressive education credentials. Many have doctorates.

Likewise, the university has spared no expense on the educational program. (In all, Columbia is spending $11 million a year on the school.) Students in most grades will eventually get their own laptop computers, which they can use to connect with the smartboards or screens that hang in most classrooms. On the rooftop playground, children can safely run on the rubberized surface or build elaborate structures from crate-like wooden blocks. A few steps away sits the fully equipped dance studio, where children can learn ballet, flamenco, and Russian dances from professionals.

The teachers, some of whom have even come from Canada, boast impressive education credentials. Many have doctorates. Others, like Kubasak, have been singled out for teaching honors.

The student-to-teacher ratio this year is 5-to-1; no class has more than 20 students. Dunnan says that ratio could grow to 7-to-1 when the school reaches its full capacity of 650 students in kindergarten through 8th grade.

Educators here also draw up individualized education plans, which they call Master Achievement Plans, for every child. The plans set out blueprints for the enrichment or remedial help children will need as they move through the grades.

The school has plotted a common curriculum, which teachers can access online as they plan their daily lessons.

“This is a lot better than PS 145,” says 3rd grader Joshua Gonzales, one of the former public school pupils here.

His mother, who has come to pick up Joshua in the cafe after school, agrees. “It’s a good thing to have a kid saying to you in the morning, ‘I don’t want to be late for school,’” she says.

As for the research end of the school’s mission, the university budgeted $100,000 this year in seed money to support the studies that take place here.

It’s time now, some teachers here say, to tackle that part of the school’s mission. One is Patricia G. McDonald, a 3rd grade teacher transplanted from Canada. She hopes to continue a research project that she began with an education professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, where she taught in the lab school.

“Now that we’re settled,” she says, “we have to think about designing what we’re doing to make an impact.”

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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