Cultures of Commitment

By Bess Keller — April 17, 2007 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 10 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name for a teacher at Mapleton Preparatory High School near Denver.

“About how many hours did you put in a week?”

The question prompted an eruption of laughter. But there was nothing funny about the answer teacher Jody Madell finally delivered.

Starting at 8 in the morning, the faculty members at Ms. Madell’s new, small secondary school in New York City routinely worked till 6:30 or 7 at night. And then, after the teaching, planning, meeting, and tutoring, she and others went home many evenings to solitary thought and a heap of student work.

Now as a co-founder of a school not unlike her old one, where she plans to keep a hand in teaching while coaching her colleagues, the 39-year-old mother of two is about to ask a fresh band of teachers to shoulder similar burdens. The audacity of it makes her laugh.

“There’s no way I can do [that job] and be a parent,” she admitted.

A major strand in the current national push to improve secondary education is the movement to scale down schools into smaller, more personalized units, especially for students facing the greatest obstacles to success.

Hundreds of small schools and learning communities have cropped up in recent years, famously helped along by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s $1.5 billion campaign to raise the numbers of students who graduate from high schools ready for college and work. (The foundation also helps support Education Week’s annual Diplomas Count report on graduation-related issues.)

Small-Schools Primer

Amid a push to improve U.S. secondary education, interest has mounted in getting students and teachers into settings that are smaller and more personalized than is typically the case in large, comprehensive public high schools.Varieties of the smallschool approach include:

■ Separate schools that operate mostly under district rules and contracts.

■ “Small learning communities” or schools-within-schools that also mostly operate under district rules and contracts.

■ Charter schools, which operate independently and are usually small.

SOURCE: Education Week

Whatever promise the small-schools approach holds, though, there’s widespread agreement it won’t be realized without a sufficient supply of teachers who are up to a triple threat of challenges: urban teaching in the context of a start-up operation, often with a heavy dose of surrogate parenting thrown in.

And as Ms. Madell and many other small-schools educators can attest, ensuring that supply will be no simple task.

“Human capital is going to make or break this enterprise,” said Timothy S. Knowles, who directs the University of Chicago’s Center for Urban School Improvement, which opened its first small high school last September and plans several more. “Our view is human capital is gold.”

Many of the new small schools, especially the ones in cities, virtually guarantee teachers long hours as they struggle against the inadequate preparation of their students. Teachers pour their time, too, into shaping the new institutions, where they are obliged to wear a number of hats.

Ironically, it is the human dimension of small schools—precisely the attribute that experts see as their greatest strength—that can be the most draining. When a school is small enough for teachers and students to know each other well, teachers come face to face with the meager advantages available to the youngsters they teach.

“You can read the first paragraph of their biographies and be in tears,” said Christopher N. Maher, the founding principal of the Academy for College and Career Exploration, a small high school that opened in Baltimore in 2004. “If you are a teacher, especially in a small school, you feel it.”

Burdens and Payoffs

Still, the human dimension gives some educators their greatest rewards. “I don’t mind working so hard because I see the effects,” said Amber K. Kim, who is winding up her fourth year as an “adviser” to 11 mostly low-income students who will graduate from Mapleton Preparatory High School just north of Denver this spring.

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With six years of teaching experience, she came to the Mile-High City fascinated by the prospect of beginning a new kind of high school. The 100-student Mapleton school is one of three area start-ups following the Big Picture Company model, which builds individualized academic programs on extensive community internships. Students take few or no conventional courses but are closely guided through their four high school years by a single learning coach, or adviser.

Now, after working weeks that sometimes topped 70 hours, along with keeping contact with her students at night, on weekends, and over the summer, Ms. Lee said she believes in the program more than ever. “This is the fight to be in,” she said. “It changes lives.”

Yet the 30-year-old mother of a baby born in October won’t be back as an adviser in the fall, although she hopes to at least coach local Big Picture teachers. “I would do it again if it wasn’t time for me to have a family,” she said.

Arthur Eduardo Baraf, the principal of another of the Big Picture schools in the area, is concerned about the departure of experienced teachers like Ms. Lee.

Cheyanne Zahrt, who teaches biology at the Academy of College and Career Exploration in Baltimore, confers with health teacher Todd Henning during an afterschool program at the 3-year-old small high school.

“I think our school would be much more effective with people who are going through the [four-year] cycle a second time,” said Mr. Baraf, who heads the Skyland Community High School, a charter school in Denver.

A graduate of Harvard University’s graduate school of education, the 29-year-old educator gave up his chance to advise a second group of teenagers when he stepped up to principal this school year. He already feels like he’s burning out, after having gained 10 pounds or so over the past year because of no time to exercise.

“It’s important for us to figure out how to make [staffing] sustainable,” Mr. Baraf said.

Demand Heating Up

As a rule, small high schools take choosing their teachers with the utmost seriousness, whether or not a central employment office is involved. Not for them a single newspaper ad and a half-hour interview. Too much is at stake in the match between school and candidate.

“I’m looking not just for teachers, but … people who are committed to getting better,” said Jason Singer, who is currently hiring teachers for a new Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, high school to open in San Lorenzo, Calif., in August. “I’m also looking for people who see public education as the civil rights issue of our time.”

Small Schools in Big Districts

New York City
1.1 million students
184 separate small secondary schools have opened within the district’s governance structure since 2002, when the system made them a priority.
■ Another 25 or so such schools are expected to open by this fall.
■ Some 20 additional small schools have been operating since the early 1990s.
■ The newer schools generally enroll no more than 600 students, while the older ones generally have no more than 450 students.
19 charter schools that include or will include the high school grades have opened.

Los Angeles
708,000 students
143 “small learning communities,” or SLCs, have been approved for 23 of the district’s large high schools; three-quarters are operating.
■ The district’s SLCs enroll no more than 600 students.
■ By the end of the 2007-08 school year, all 31 remaining large high schools are to convert to the SLC structure.
■ Six separate small secondary schools operate under district governance.
32 charter schools that include or will include the high school grades have opened.

415,000 students
■ About 50 “small learning communities” are currently operating.
15 large high schools are on track to add another 60 or more SLCs within the next two to three years.
■ More than 20 separate small high schools are operating under district governance, with more planned.
10 charter schools that include or will include the high school grades have opened.

SOURCE: New York City Department of Education, Los Angeles Unified School District, Chicago Public Schools

And, in fact, administrators of small schools say, there are candidates who combine a genuine desire to work in city public schools, the entreprenurial spirit necessary for a start-up venture, and the skills to at least begin to do the job—all for a teacher’s pay.

But those with a track record of even a few years may be getting scarcer as the demand heats up. An analysis by the New York Daily News found, for instance, that in 116 city schools, mostly small high schools “in struggling neighborhoods,” half or more of teachers had less than two years’ experience.

“As more schools pop up, the competition gets much more significant for a small number of people,” said Mr. Knowles of the Center for Urban School Improvement.

Partly in response, some small-school leaders are trying to grow—or at least mature—their own teachers, so that hires made largely on potential can be given the best chances to succeed.

The programs also serve as a recruiting tool. Mr. Knowles’ group, for example, is creating “apprentice” teacher positions for those with little to no classroom experiences. Those apprentices will work independently for part of the day and with an experienced teacher for another part, while drawing low-end public school teacher salaries. On some days, the apprentices will also act as substitute teachers.

Burning Out

The High Tech High School charter-management organization, which by next school year will be running eight small charter high schools from its flagship campus in San Diego, has built its own teacher-credentialing program that allows teachers at the schools to get their licenses while polishing their practice.

The schools are thus able to hire unlicensed teachers who count as “highly qualified” under federal law because they are enrolled in the program.

Other small schools groom inexperienced teachers by making as much use as they can of district coaches specialized in helping newbies.

Ms. Zahrt works in the computer lab of the Academy for College and Career Exploration during an after-school program she oversees that allows students to make up course credits online.

Many proponents of small schools contend that they would hire less-than-veteran teachers anyway, even if teachers with more years in the classroom were interested or budgets didn’t make it necessary.

“We find we have more success hiring newer teachers … because they are more open to [our] systems,” said Ben Daley, the chief academic officer for the nonprofit High Tech High CMO, echoing several others.

At the same time, most small schools hope to establish a core of accomplished teachers who have soaked up the institution’s culture and stay to pass it on. That’s the model long in use at many private schools, which expect to lose a certain number of young teachers every year.

“The ideal situation is to have a mix of entering teachers, teachers hitting their stride, and master teachers—that’s something we’ve really lobbied for in creating our teams,” said Ronald Chaluisan, a vice president of New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that has helped start some 80 small schools in New York City since 2001.

Some schools will never get that far, warned Michael Klonsky, the executive director of the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago. “They have inexperienced principals, the teachers are all 22,” he argued with deliberate hyperbole, “and they’ll last about 3.5 years before they burn out.”

Time to Improve

It doesn’t have to be that way, some experts and administrators maintain. Small high schools can get and keep high-quality faculty members, they say, but it takes planning, new ideas, and usually some significant support from beyond the school.

“Although everything cannot be clear when you start a school, the more things you can be clear about, the better for attracting both faculty and families,” said Joe Nathan, a longtime advocate for small schools who heads the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Leaders need to set “clear and measurable goals” with a timeline for achieving them, he said, so that ambitious teachers don’t find themselves frustrated with all that remains to be done. Equally important is a sense of collaboration and the structures that foster it.

Mr. Chaluisan of New Visions advised giving teachers acknowledged new roles—and, to the degree possible, more money—as they mature professionally.

And high-quality professional development is more likely when schools can draw on resources beyond their own doors, said Dan French, the executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education, in Boston, which coordinates a network of 18 small, relatively autonomous “pilot schools” in the Boston district.

As a practical matter, small high schools need to balance unavoidable long hours against the risk of burnout. Mr. French advises looking carefully at how the “extra” hours are spent.

“The greater student contact time, the greater the amount of individual planning and feedback you need to do, not to mention that being with a group of students is very emotionally and intellectually demanding when you are teaching at a high level,” he said.

By maximizing time for improving practice, Mr. French argued, schools get a higher return in the quality of teaching and teachers’ sense of achievement on the job.

As KIPP expands from middle schools into high schools, the largely charter school network is coming to grips with the dark side of the ethic that promises KIPP’s families “whatever it takes” for students to win academic success, according to Mr. Singer, the principal in California.

So it is experimenting with arrangements that allow people to cut back on hours at some periods while remaining with the organization, he said. Positions can be shared, for instance, and not every teacher has to teach the Saturday-morning classes that are a hallmark of KIPP schools.

“Many of us are getting married and having children,” said the 37-year-old Mr. Singer, who will wed this summer. “It’s making us more sensitive,” he said, to the toll the work can exact.

As Ms. Madell and her colleagues reel in the first of the candidates for classroom teaching jobs at their new school in Brooklyn, they are working on supports they hope will keep the positions from proving overwhelming.

For example, Ms. Madell expects that by the time the school opens, much of the curriculum will be laid out. And, to cut down on the extensive tutoring that characterizes many new striving secondary schools, the planners are trying for groupings based on close analysis of student skills that will help them catch up in regular classes.

Still, the school’s job description for teachers reminds candidates that “teachers’ roles in small schools are varied and complex.”

Despite an intensive hiring process that starts with small-group discussions among those who are interested in the jobs, “I don’t know if we can prepare them really,” Ms. Madell admitted. “Are they really ready to hit the ground running?”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as Cultures of Commitment


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