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Small Learning Communities Redux

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.

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4 Comments:

  • 1 media-teach
    · Nov 22, 2005 at 6:54 pm

    Here’s what doesn’t work. Take 1 failing middle school, where violence and low test scores are the norm. Re-invent it was a *new small school* with 2 academies. Use edu-terminology such as backwards design, advisory, common planning periods, academic rigour, community, project-based curriculum, and then hire new teachers based on these practices.

    Then ignore all of the above. Continue doing what didn’t work before.

    It helps if the administration actually understands all the philosophies, and not just how to type out the words on paper.

  • 2 NYC Educator
    · Nov 24, 2005 at 9:21 pm

    “The real world of the urban high school: five classes a day and at least 150 student a week…”

    And coming this February, thanks to you and your party, six classes a day and 160 “student” a week. How dare you criticize this “real world” after having done nothing to improve it when you had a chance?

    “Continue doing what didn’t work before.”

    Continue voting for Unity.

  • 3 jelfrank
    · Nov 25, 2005 at 9:40 am

    Hi,

    Yes, we are reorganizing into “Academies”. I have been around long enough to remember Houses and their fizzling out. I have also taught in the suburbs and have visited schools in Stockholm. I feel, therefore, qualified to comment.

    Most of what has been said I agree with. Our school is 700+ over capacity. Reorganization is taking place without general staff input. There have been a few touchy-feely workshops were teachers were invited to participate in some vague discussion and sharing.

    My question is: How is it a “small learning community” when you still have over 3000+ students in the building designed to hold up to 2400 and classes remaining at 34 students each?

    I agree common prep periods between teachers sharing the same students would help. However, it’s not possible because of programming and physical space limitations. When your school has no wiggle room you can’t divide up the school in a way necessary to have, say a common lunch period for the whole school and everyone’s science lab at a given period so it doesn’t conflict with double periods, etc. There’s only one lunchroom, the bulk of computer labs are on two of six floors, which also exacerbate these issues.

    When I taught in the suburbs we had a common lunch period for the entire school. It was one hour and we had club meetings many days. We also had double periods every other week. This was only possible because we weren’t multi-session and overcrowded.

    The only better circumstances I have seen are in schools in Stockholm. Even in their worst schools. Perhaps the “Stockholm Effect” is perplexing to Americans because we don’t live in as civilized a nation that builds such a capacity for compassion- even for those who do wrong. While most Swedes are atheists, their outlook on life is somewhat Buddhist in this regard. Indeed, if we had the Swedes’ sense of what’s fair and what everyone is entitled to we wouldn’t be teaching in over-crowed and under-resourced institutions.

    John Elfrank-Dana
    Murry Bergtraum High School
    http://www.elfrank.com

  • 4 firebrand
    · Nov 27, 2005 at 8:47 am

    Ha! Creating “lead teachers” SHOULD work. That would be ideal. However, what really happens, and I believe it’s not just going to happen in my school but most schools, is the creation of the position really creates monsters. I mean the “lead teachers” not the children. We have already had to devote 30 minutes of our chapter meeting to the fact that teachers are spying on each other and reporting back to several APs in my school and the “lead teacher” position hasn’t even been created yet. I hope that horse**** never comes to fruition.