When Alan D. Cohen was told his job was to improve a failing New York City school about to be taken over by the state for dismal test scores, it wasn’t hard for him to decide to revamp just about everything.
In 2003, Cohen became the principal of Public School 69 in the Bronx and essentially threw out the way the elementary school had operated. He replaced it with a new framework that included digital curriculum, an emphasis on pedagogy that came with a heavy investment in professional development and communication, a new audio-enhancing sound system and interactive whiteboards in classrooms. He also swapped out curricula based on whether they were shown to work and adopted a community-building and respect initiative.
It wasn’t a difficult decision to try something completely new, Cohen recalls. The school was failing its mostly disadvantaged students, and there was little risk to experimentation.
“It was a community school that was not a beacon of pride,” he says. “There was a sense of urgency.”
Within a few years, the school went from being labeled one of the worst schools in the district to ranking in the top 20 percent of public elementary schools in New York City.
For more on how innovation is being used in education, read the main story, “Schools Struggle to Balance Digital Innovation, Academic Accountability,” June 15, 2011.
PS 69 soared on its new methods, and Cohen continued to see rising test scores.For example, in 2004, 31 percent of 3rd graders were proficient in reading on state tests; by 2009, that number was close to 77 percent. Test scores in math followed a similar pattern. In 2004, 56 percent of 3rd graders were proficient in math, but by 2009, 96 percent were proficient.
Then, during the 2009-10 school year, the New York City schools chancellor’s office asked Cohen to join the district’s Innovation Zone, an initiative to test new and different ways for educating students and managing schools. PS 69 would pilot a new program aimed at providing more individualized instruction to students through blended learning, using online curriculum and instruction and face-to-face teaching.
Cohen agreed, even though he realized the transition could cause test scores to drop in the short term as students and teachers learned a new way of operating. But Cohen says he didn’t hesitate. Though what he had achieved was good, he felt the school could still be better.
“Once again, I blew up the model,” he says. “Everyone thought I was nuts, but I knew good wasn’t good enough.”
‘Why Take Risks?’
When we’re 80 percent sure of something, we go forward, rather than waiting until it’s 150 percent perfect. Otherwise, we’d never do anything. We need to take that challenge and move forward and innovate.”
Cohen’s approach is a hallmark of innovative school leaders, says Christopher Dede, a professor of educational technology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Others say, why rock the boat, why take risks?” Dede says. “But some educators look at today’s system and instead of seeing a system that is working fairly well, they see a system that is not working for a lot of kids.”
Cohen retired as the principal of PS 69 at the end of the 2009-10 school year and became a network leader for the school district’s Center for Education Innovation-Public Education Association, overseeing 32 city schools. For the upcoming school year, he took at job as a principal at a suburban New York City K-12 private school.
Cohen remains confident that his decision to push the envelope at PS 69 was the right one. His assistant principal is now the principal of the school and is implementing the new iZone initiative.
“They’re using the program and anxiously awaiting test results,” Cohen says. “They’re building the plane as they’re flying it, but they’re very optimistic.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Digital Directions as Risks and Rewards