John Jay High School was a struggling low-performing school and the overlords at 110 were encouraging schools to create "Academies." Paul Feingold, the Jay Chapter Leader, and a number of his colleagues created a wonderful “Small Learning Community.” It had its own space and a “dedicated” staff of teachers, counselors and paraprofessionals. Student attendance improved, teacher morale was high and the classrooms were “exciting.” The school administration changed, the Assistant Principals abhorred it, funding ceased and the Academy ended, and, the school went into redesign. No good deed shall go unpunished.
The recent announcement of a “Small Learning Communities” initiative in nine high schools sounds a lot like “Houses/Academies Redux.” Tweed has created 150 small high schools in the last two years. These schools are supported by grants from the Gates Foundation to “intermediaries,” not-for-profit organizations that provide a range of supports for the schools during their first four years. For example, over seven hundred teachers in schools sponsored by New Visions for Public Schools, the largest of the “intermediaries,” trekked up to a hotel in Westchester and spent a day and a half working on a school “issue” of their choosing.
However, the small high school creation effort also “deflected” students into other schools and created serious overcrowding. The teachers in the small schools are predominantly new to the system and many of the principals have limited experience. The move to “small learning communities” is a reaction to the criticism of an overly aggressive small school creation effort.
Can you “redesign” an existing school? Some have compared it to repairing a 747 while in flight.
The real world of the urban high school: five classes a day and at least 150 student a week, common planning time takes place in the car pool and we race into school early to find a parking spot and a duplicating machine that works … The kids see six or seven teachers a day and rarely develop a relationship with any adult, except, maybe, the Dean. The factory model label fits, for teachers and kids.
While Tweed has chosen to obliterate history we did go through the small learning community era in high schools, called “Houses,” or “Academies.” Taking a group of kids and calling them the “Harvard” House or the “Achievement Academy,” and telling the Assistant Principal that in addition to his usual duties he/she was the Academy Director was not a glowing success.
The irony is we know what works:
• Block scheduling that allows teachers to teach longer blocks of time with significant fewer kids.
• Common planning time during the school day that allow colleagues to discuss practice and talk about their students.
• Family Group/Advisory were teacher and small groups of kids can develop relationships
• Lead teachers who can model and coach newer teachers.
Many of us are victims of a kind of Stockholm Effect. We rigorously defend a dysfunctional system. Change is scary and really hard: we have to figure out how to do it together, as colleagues. Change imposed from above always results in a teacher intafada and a continuing underground combat. We have to use our union to create a functional school system, not use it as weapon to fight a never ending fratricidal conflict.