Thursday, October 18, 2007

Small's best - tale from the Bronx

John Crace, Guardian
October 15, 2007

In the school size debate, the New York model is instructive, writes John Crace.

IT MAY not have the burnt-out tenements of Bonfire of the Vanities but the north Bronx is still the kind of neighbourhood that looks to have seen much better days.

Then again, it's hard to know if the Kennedy High School campus ever had a good day; surrounded by high wire fencing and with a vast, eight-storey concrete structure at its core, it looks more like a correction centre. In fact, Kennedy has its own force of more than 160 full-time police officers, and all students go through airport-style security at the entrance, creating long queues and delays.

Yet education policy advisers are now wondering if this could be a model for other secondary schools. So what's going on?

The only clue is a series of five Hogwarts-style heraldic shields high up on the front wall. Kennedy isn't one school; it's five.

Ten years ago, the city's high schools, with few exceptions, were magnets for violence and under-achievement. And Kennedy was up there with the very worst. With more than 4000 students from one of the most deprived areas in New York, it was rife with gang warfare and survival was often a higher priority than education.

Fewer than 40 per cent ever managed to graduate with even the lowest, local diploma.

Since the 1980s, the New York education department priority was to improve pre-kindergarten, elementary and middle schools - the theory being that if children got the basics right early on, then the problems in high school would start to sort themselves out. Yet the key issues of low expectations, few learning supports, student alienation and a curriculum lacking relevance to post-secondary were completely neglected - seen as too difficult.

Then, about 2000, several wealthy charitable organisations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, got involved, putting up big bucks to support those committed to changing failing high schools.

In 2001 New Visions, a New York-based education reform organisation, joined forces with the New York City department of education to launch the New Century High Schools Initiative (NCHSI).

Throughout the 1990s, New Visions had helped to create about 30 small elementary, middle and high schools across the city and the NCHSI was the ideal platform to develop 200 more. "There's no set curriculum," says Lili Brown, one of its vice-presidents. "Instead we prefer to think of disciplined innovation. There are core performance and attendance targets and each school must adhere to our principles of effectiveness but, within these parameters, there is flexibility for educators, administrators and non-profit organisations to create schools that fit in with the aspirations of the local community."

The idea that students might do better in a small school, where it is easier to implement personalised learning programs, is a bit of a no-brainer. Making it a reality is more of a headache. You can't just bulldoze a concrete campus and build five new ones, because it's too expensive and time-consuming even for the Bill Gates squillions. Iris Zucker was head of Morris High School in south Bronx when she and her deputy, Kirsten Larson, decided to join the project. "We set out to give it (their school) an international identity by taking 50 per cent English language speakers and 50 per cent English language learners."

The result, Marble Hill School for International Studies, began in September 2002 but missed the city's deadline for students in 8th grade making their high school applications, so none of its first cohort of roughly 100 had selected the school. It wasn't easy for the teaching staff, either; the school was initially just five rooms on the top floor of the Kennedy campus. The other teachers in the main Kennedy school refused to let them eat in their canteen. "I suppose it felt to them as if we were unwanted lodgers who had turned up uninvited," says Larson, who this year took over from Zucker as Marble Hill head, trying to be diplomatic. "They just felt a bit threatened by us."

By the end of first year, Marble Hill students were outperforming their expected academic and attendance rates and the school had more than 600 for applications for its second intake.

The small school movement had made its point, and five years on, there are now three other schools of roughly 430 students each co-existing with the Kennedy High School and Marble Hill on the same site.

Marble Hill now has a graduation rate of 94 per cent but Zucker insists it's not just size that matters. "What you have to do is use the advantages size brings; roughly half of all our students are following their own personalised learning plans - a percentage that would be almost unachievable in a larger setting."

It is also raised expectations.

"Virtually none of our students had ever been to an off-Broadway show in Manhattan before they came here," Larson says. "We have now been on trips to Senegal and China and the kids can't wait for the next one.

"We're also beginning to make a name for ourselves outside the city; we have a student who was moving to the Bronx from North Carolina and picked us because we offered Japanese, and one of our graduates was recently awarded a Fulbright scholarship to a top college."

First-year student Diana Ryan chose Marble Hill for its opportunities - "I wanted an education with a global perspective. Marble Hill seemed more interesting and challenging than other schools and I want to join the peace corps when I leave" - while 12th-grader Wahdah al Shugaa, who has been there since the second year, finds peace enough at school. "Here I can get on with my work with no interruptions."

While Marble Hill is working, the other schools on the Kennedy campus don't look nearly as inviting, and few other small schools across the city are getting quite such spectacular results, though they are still consistently out-performing the huge, 4000-student high schools.

No-one is pretending it's all perfect. Gang culture hasn't been entirely eliminated, though principals keep the schools apart by staggering start, lesson and meal times and banning students from each other's premises.

Even so, all the evidence suggests small schools work. -- GUARDIAN

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