Handle With Care
The small schools have been credited with making great gains with high-risk kids. But there are signs that their early success could be waning.
Taisha Jimenez's first day of high school did not go well. An older student pelted her with an egg, part of what Taisha called a "welcoming prank," as she walked to Washington Irving High School in Manhattan, a comprehensive high school with more than 2,500 students, in September 2004. The new black patent-leather flats she had worn proudly that first day were covered with raw egg. At the entrance to the school, she waited in line to pass through the metal detectors. "I felt I was in jail," she recalled in an interview four years later. "There were bars on the windows. There were so many kids in the class. There were people standing on chairs, people eating. The first day I knew I wasn't going to make it."
Taisha, a pretty, well-groomed, 5-foot-1-inch girl with dark brown eyes, olive complexion and shoulder-length black hair, was about to become one of the thousands of New York City teenagers who drop out of high school each year. With poor academic skills—her reading and math skills were several years behind grade level—and a history of poor attendance in elementary school, she fit the profile of the thousands of New York students who leave school without diplomas. At a school like Washington Irving, her chances of graduating were slim: Only 50 percent of that school's students graduate in four years, according to Department of Education (DOE) data.
Luckily for Taisha, she ran into a friend who had been assigned to a newly opened small high school—one of nearly 200 opened in New York City since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002. The school is part of an ambitious effort to stem the flood of students leaving school without diplomas. When Taisha told her friend she was going to skip class, the friend invited her to the new school instead. The next day, Taisha enrolled in the first ninth-grade class of the Essex Street Academy, one of five new small schools sharing the 1929 building that once housed Seward Park High School, which the DOE had closed after just 36 percent of its students graduated in 2002.
Taisha and the Essex Street Academy are part of a far-reaching experiment to improve education for tens of thousands of New York City students who are at risk of dropping out of school. Increasing the city's graduation rate has been the centerpiece of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ambitious agenda of education reform. With hundreds of millions of dollars in support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and the Open Society Institute, the Bloomberg administration has sought to transform the school system for students like Taisha by closing large, dysfunctional high schools and creating small schools within the old, large buildings.
"Small high schools are a concept that has been proven to work," Bloomberg said in September 2003, announcing the first round of 67 new small schools to be created with $51.2 million from the Gates Foundation. "Students at these small high schools have lower dropout rates than students in larger high schools. Also, more of them get passing grades, more of them graduate, and more of them go to college."
The mayor's words have largely been borne out. Citywide, the new small schools, which served 58,000 of the city's 297,000 high school students in 2007-08, have had some early successes. Attendance and graduation rates are both significantly higher than at the large schools they replaced. (See chart, page 16.) The administration credits the new small schools with helping to raise the citywide graduation from 51 percent in 2002 to 62 percent in 2006.
However, the small schools are now facing difficulties of their own. The attendance rates, while better than they were at the large schools, have declined each year at a majority of the small schools opened since 2002, according to an analysis of DOE data by the Center for New York City Affairs. Of 158 new schools for which data is available, 90 saw their average daily attendance decline by at least 2 percent, and 37 saw their attendance decline sharply, by 5 percent. Only 15 had attendance rates that were increasing.
The analysis also shows that a large proportion of the new schools achieved high graduation rates for their first class but sharply lower rates for their second class. Of 30 Bloomberg-era small schools that had graduated at least two classes in 2007, 13 had graduation rates that declined in the second four-year cohort.
Teacher turnover, long a plague of urban high schools, is even higher in the small schools than in the system overall, the center's analysis shows. (See chart, page 33.) Several new schools lost nearly half their teachers in a one-year period. And, while leadership is key to the success of any school, principal turnover has also been high: Fifty-six of 124 principals—nearly half—hired to open new schools between 2002 and 2004 have departed. A handful of schools have had three principals. One, the High School for Civil Rights in Brooklyn, had five principals in as many years.
Because a huge proportion of students arrive in ninth grade with the skills that are two, three or even four years below grade level, the new schools must focus intensely on helping them catch up. A large proportion of the graduates of the new schools so far have received only a "local diploma" that represents the bare minimum of requirements set by the state— standards that officials and academic experts generally agree are well below those needed to succeed in college. The state is phasing out the local diploma and has set higher standards for students graduating in 2012. The new schools—and the system as a whole—face an enormous challenge meeting those new standards.
Schools Chancellor Joel Klein acknowledges these difficulties, but he is optimistic they can be overcome. He says principal attrition rates and teacher turnover rates have declined markedly in recent years. While attendance and graduation rates went down at the new small schools as they took on increasing numbers of children with special needs and English-language learners (ELLs), he believes they have stabilized. "The trend is looking like they are probably hitting an equilibrium," he says.
The Roots of The Small Schools Movement
The small schools movement began in New York City in the 1970s, when a number of visionary teachers created a handful of alternative schools designed to help students who would otherwise drop out. The schools were designed as intimate places where teachers could get to know students
well, where the anonymity typical of a large school was replaced with a personal touch. The teachers, influenced by the civil rights movement, saw the education of the poor as a fight for social justice and teaching as a political act. The new schools were, for the most part, countercultural: Teachers were called by their first names. Students as well as staff had a hand in designing the curriculum, and courses tended to have a left-leaning political point of view. At Central Park East Secondary School, for example, opened in 1984, students might study the Vietnam War from the point of view of the Vietnamese or the black power movement or the history of women factory workers in World War II. Several of these small schools— including Middle College High School in Queens and City-as-School in Manhattan—are still flourishing; others have closed or are floundering.
In the early 1990s, the Annenberg Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation invested heavily in opening about 40 schools. There was a hiatus in the mid-1990s under the chancellorship of Rudy Crew, who was unenthusiastic about the prospects for small schools. He disbanded the alternative high school division, the entity that administered the small schools, and increased enrollment at a number of the schools. By the time Bloomberg took office in 2002, small schools enrolled fewer than 10 percent of the city's high school students.
Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein were convinced that small schools offered a solution to the problem of low graduation levels. With a huge infusion of funds from Gates and other foundations, the administration began mass-producing small high schools, creating what supporters called systemic change and what critics called cookie-cutter schools. Large school buildings that had been gloomy, even violent, places with 3,000 students or more were divided into new schools designed to serve just 400 students. The Bloomberg administration invited community groups to design new schools, which opened at a rapid rate starting in 2002. By 2008, nearly 29 percent of the city's high school students attended a school with an enrollment of fewer than 600 students.
Like the earlier small schools advocates, Bloomberg and Klein saw school reform as a struggle for civil rights and social justice. But the advocates believed effective change bubbled up from the grassroots, while the businessman mayor and his schools chancellor sought to drive change from the top down.
The administration worked with consultants, including the Parthenon Group, a Boston-based research firm, which carried out sophisticated statistical analysis to determine which factors could predict the graduation rate of a school. In 2005, Parthenon produced a study that concluded that student-teacher ratios, teacher salaries and the proportion of classes taught by teachers certified by the state as "highly qualified" were not statistically significant predictors of graduation rates. However, the total enrollment and the concentration of low-achieving students in one school were significant predictors. Accordingly, the report recommended that the city break up large schools that had a high concentration of low-performing students and replace them with mini-schools sharing the same building.
The Parthenon study found, moreover, that a student's ninth-grade performance was key to predicting his or her future success: It found that only 20 percent of students who failed at least one course in ninth grade graduated on time, and only 39 percent graduated within six years. Not only should schools be small, the report suggested, but teachers must focus intently on "credit accumulation"; promotion from ninth grade to 10th grade is an early indicator that students will be able to graduate.
These findings are in line with a body of national research that suggests that ninth grade is the most critical year for students, particularly those who may be ill prepared intellectually or emotionally for the tougher analytical work and greater independence that high school demands. Nationwide, struggling students often get stuck in ninth grade; they may fail their courses repeatedly and grow increasingly disenchanted until they drop out.
The city's new small schools—and their laser focus on ninth grade credit accumulation—were designed to break this cycle.
The new small high schools are today mostly concentrated in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx, and serve about one-sixth of the city's high school students. Nonetheless, these small schools are an encouraging, if imperfect, development for tens of thousands of students.
DOE statistics show that graduation and attendance rates are higher than the schools they replaced: Twelve large schools that were closed under Bloomberg had graduation rates that ranged from 23 percent to 46 percent in 2002; the aggregate graduation rate for the small schools in those 12 buildings ranged from 63 percent to 93 percent in 2007. Attendance rates, which had hovered at 70 percent at some of the old large schools, ranged from 75 percent to well over 90 percent at the new small schools, according to the DOE.
These statistics are controversial because the new schools do not have exactly the same mix of students as the old. Most of the new schools, for example, intentionally excluded ELLs and children with special needs in their first years. New research by Jennifer Jennings, a sociology graduate student at Columbia University, and Aaron Pallas, a Teachers College professor, suggests that the incoming classes of students at the new schools, at least through the 2005-06 school year, had better attendance and were more likely to be proficient in reading and math than the incoming students at the large schools they replaced. Nonetheless, the new schools draw students from the same neighborhoods as the old, and most do not use measures of achievement or ability to screen students for admission.
The great strength of the small schools is what Brooklyn College professor David Bloomfield, who is also a former president of the Citywide Council on High Schools, a parent advisory board, calls "stickiness," the ability to engage and keep in school students who would otherwise drop out.
Interviews with several dozen principals and students suggest the small schools also have one key feature in common: safety. The buildings that were once dangerous are now safer, students and principals agree. Many of the buildings still have metal detectors, a relic of the old days that principals are loathe to give up in case they should be blamed for any violence that might occur. Some buildings have the feel of a minimum security prison, and fights still break out from time to time. Still, walk the halls and you will mostly see students in class, paying attention, rather than roaming the halls. Police cars are no longer regularly posted at dismissal time outside schools like Evander Childs High School in the Bronx. For students like Taisha, the sense of order in the new small schools is an important first step toward academic achievement.
A Turning Point for Taisha
Taisha's ninth-grade year at Essex Street Academy began inauspiciously. By her own account, she had a foul mouth and nasty behavior. She had been fixing her hair in class one day when the teacher told her to put away the comb and gel. "I cursed at him and said 'Screw you!' I got on the desk and said, 'If I was this tall I would kick your ass!' I challenged a teacher to a fight! Come on, that was intense," she recalled in a recent interview.
That year, Taisha said she spent as much time in the principal's office as she did in class. But she said her teachers never gave up on her and were unfailingly respectful to her even as she was rude to them.
The turning point came in Erin Carstensen's English class, when the students were reading Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe's classic novel of life in Nigeria under colonial rule. Taisha shouted: "This is so f---ing boring! Why do we have to read this?"
Her teacher burst into tears and left the room.
"I kind of felt bad," Taisha said. "This was the first time I felt bad for something I did. I thought, 'Gosh, I'm really being a bitch. What am I doing? She was probably up all night preparing that lesson. She deserves some credit. Why don't we do something nice for her?'"
Taisha organized the classmates to write a giant apology on the big pad of paper where the teacher made notes, with each student adding a personal note.
Taisha failed all her classes that year: English, science, math and history. Although her attendance was good, her behavior was so erratic her teachers couldn't even judge how strong her skills might be. But they gave her a second chance and asked her to go to summer school. A science teacher, Cristie Praeger, recalls engaging Taisha in a special summer elective in entomology—the study of bugs, including live crickets, beetles and giant hissing cockroaches. Taisha had small classes in summer school—with seven to 10 students each—and completed a paper or project for each course. She attended summer school four days a week for four weeks and did well enough that her teachers gave her credit for each course and allowed her to be promoted to 10th grade.
The opportunity to make up unfinished work—called "credit recovery"—is critical to the success of Bloomberg's school reform efforts. It's a controversial policy: Even people who defend it acknowledge that for most students it's impossible to make up a whole semester's work for four classes in 16 days of summer school. Still, so many students enter ninth grade with skills that are two, three or even four years below grade level in reading and math that it's unrealistic to expect them to catch up in just one year. Flunk them, the reasoning goes, and the odds are they will get discouraged and drop out; promote them and keep them coming to school and they have a chance of success. (See "Second Chances")
In Taisha's case, the strategy paid off. In 10th grade, she began to participate in class discussions, according to the teacher she made cry the year before. She did her homework consistently. She willingly revised her papers multiple times. She read The Catcher in the Rye and called it "the best book I ever read." She wrote thoughtfully about the novels of Dorothy Allison, a Southern feminist and lesbian writer who was the daughter of a 15-year-old single mother.
Taisha said she cut classes and "threw tantrums" from time to time, but was beginning to take at least some courses seriously. Instead of failing four courses as she had in ninth grade, she flunked two—history and math. Once again she went to summer school, and once again she passed the courses she had flunked. She was promoted to the 11th grade.
Like a lot of students, Taisha had very weak math skills. Citywide, 40 percent of eighth graders fail to meet state standards for math. Many of these struggle with basic arithmetic—and don't understand concepts like fractions and decimals, which are a necessary foundation for high school math. While high school students generally take algebra in ninth grade, most students at Essex Street Academy start with pre-algebra or even basic arithmetic, which Alex Shub, the principal, diplomatically calls "pre-pre algebra."
Taisha stumbled through math in both ninth and 10th grades. In her 11th-grade year, Shub designed a "pre-pre algebra" class for Taisha and 14 other struggling students. Joining forces with the special education teacher, Shub taught this class in addition to his duties as principal. He gave students plenty of drills and corrected each homework sheet himself. Taisha was promoted to 12th grade but still had some hurdles to jump: Regents exams in her weakest subjects: math and global history.
The Regents exams, the standardized state tests required for graduation, are a significant stumbling block for many students. Taisha passed the English Language Arts and U.S. History & Government Regents without difficulty in 11th grade and squeaked by on the Living Environment exam with a score of 56 (55 was the passing score). But Mathematics A and Global History & Geography were a struggle. She flunked the math Regents exam—typically taken at the end of ninth grade—two years in a row. She finally passed it her senior year, after receiving two years of intensive extra help from her teachers. Similarly, she flunked the global history exam, typically taken at the end of 10th grade, two years in a row. She finally passed it in her senior year after an intensive seminar with about 15 students.
Taisha and more than 90 percent of her classmates graduated on time in June 2008, a remarkable figure considering that only one-third of the students were reading on grade level and 40 percent were overage when they began ninth grade. Some 90 percent of the graduates went on to college, many to two-year colleges but others to selective four-year liberal arts schools like Smith, Hampshire, Bates and Bard, Shub said.
Storm Clouds Gathering
It's hard to generalize about the small schools because there are so many of them. Some have stable, effective leadership, seasoned and energetic teachers willing to work astonishingly long hours and with a sense of camaraderie that helps them make progress with alienated students who have poor academic skills. Other schools have a revolving door of ineffectual principals and teachers, none of whom stay long enough to make a difference and whose very transience adds to the students' alienation.
Still, the new small schools have some features in common. The staff—both teachers and principals—tend to be younger than the staff at more established schools. That can be good, because young staff often bring great energy and enthusiasm to their work. But turnover rates among new teachers are higher than among those with more experience, and high turnover makes it hard to create a school culture that is key to success. Research shows that experienced teachers are more effective than new ones. Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and a national expert on the issue of teacher retention, says research suggests that teachers with at least six years of experience in the classroom are the most effective.
Less-than-adequate physical surroundings are another feature that most of the small schools share. While a few new buildings have been constructed since 2002, in most cases the new schools were carved out of existing school buildings. Many share space with other schools in old buildings with metal detectors at the entrance, flickering fluorescent lights in the corridors, peeling paint, graffiti-scarred desks, scuffed lockers and overcrowded cafeterias. Working out how to share space in the cafeteria, gymnasium or other common rooms is often a struggle. In the former Martin Luther King, Jr. High School building near Lincoln Center in Manhattan, for example, the library has been closed since 2004 because none of the six schools in the complex has the budget for a librarian.
Moreover, many of the new small schools have been forced to move from one floor to another or from one building to another as they've grown. Packing up books and furniture disrupts a school culture even before it has time to take root, and it can take a huge amount of time to get settled in new quarters. "Phones aren't hooked up, and you don't have access to computers" for some time after the move, said Cecilia Cunningham, a former small-schools principal and executive director of a network of schools called the Middle College National Consortium.
Perhaps most troubling of all are the statistics that suggest that the longer the new small schools stay open, the worse they do on key indicators of success, such as attendance. These trends were first identified by Policy Studies Associates, a Washington research group, which conducted a four-year evaluation, published in October 2007, of 75 new small schools opened in New York City between 2002 and 2004. In the first year, the schools had high attendance, low levels of discipline problems and high levels of teacher satisfaction, the study found. But teachers surveyed "perceived a sharp and statistically significant decline" in student discipline in the second year the schools were open, the report said. Moreover, the teachers felt they had less influence on school policy and curriculum as time went by. Teachers said the quality of staff development—the means by which teachers get continual training and support—was poor and declined over time. Suspension rates went up and attendance rates went down, and students accumulated fewer credits toward graduation.
"Every indicator was moving in the wrong direction," says Eileen Foley, managing director of Policy Studies Associates, one of the authors of the study. "When you might have expected the schools to make inroads [as years went by], it looks as though they were losing traction."
An analysis by the Center for New York City Affairs suggests these trends are continuing. DOE data for 2007-08 showed average daily attendance declined at a majority of the new schools opened since 2002. At Taisha's school, Essex Street Academy, for example, average daily attendance declined from 90 percent in the first year to 82 percent in the fourth year.
Some of these statistics may be attributed to ordinary growing pains. The schools typically start with a ninth-grade class of 108 students and add a class each year until they serve children in grades nine through 12. In New York City and nationwide, attendance tends to be higher in the ninth grade than in subsequent years. Moreover, as the size of the student body increases, it becomes more difficult to offer each child intense personal attention, teachers and principals say. And, by holding on to students who would otherwise drop out, the schools are increasingly dealing with more difficult students. Still, the trends do not augur well for the long-term sustainability of the small schools.
A few of the small schools that opened in 2002, just as Klein took office, have seen a sharp erosion in their graduation rates, almost to the dismal level of the large schools they replaced. The graduation rate of Jonathan Levin High School for Media and Communications in the Bronx, in the former Taft High School, declined from 64 percent in 2006 to 34 percent in 2007; Bronx High School of Business, in the same building, saw its graduation rate decline from 53 percent to 36 percent in the same period.
Even at their best, the small schools have limitations. Most are ill-equipped to offer special education services and instruction for ELLs—who make up a large proportion of the students at risk of dropping out. A large school can afford to hire staff members who are highly specialized—a Chinese-speaking guidance counselor, for example, or a teacher who knows how to work with emotionally disturbed or autistic children. A school that has only a handful of students with special needs cannot afford to hire the specialists trained to help them, while a large school may have an entire department devoted to ELLs or special education.
"There are many services and supports that exist for ELLs in large schools that tend not to exist in small schools or, because of economies of scale, are hard to create in small schools," says Arlen Benjamin-Gomez, a policy analyst at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy group. Finding a good way to offer special education services and help for ELL students is one of the challenges of small schools.
In addition, small schools, by pouring resources into helping needy students catch up, may shortchange students who have stronger academic skills. At Essex Street Academy, for example, Taisha received the intense individual attention she needed to fill in the huge gaps in her education: One of her biology courses had only three students. But the course offerings, at least in the school's first years, were thin for advanced students: There were no Advanced Placement courses, for example. Calculus wasn't offered in the first years, and, although the school offered introductory courses in chemistry and physics, the material they covered was not geared toward taking Regents exams. Art, music, foreign language and sports offerings were limited. Resources are finite, and as the new schools engage students who might otherwise have dropped out—their great strength—those limited resources are mostly directed to marginal students, Foley says.
The Trouble With Turnover
The new schools are mostly led by new principals—some of whom have as little as three years' teaching experience—and new teachers, many of whom are new to the profession. High turnover among principals and teachers makes it difficult to create a school culture, build a cohesive community or even to establish order. In addition, student mobility is high in many of the neighborhoods where the small schools are housed—which means kids come and go throughout the year. That makes stability in a school even more elusive.
For example, the Bronx Expeditionary Learning School, a small school housed in the former Taft High School, has had three principals since its founding in 2004. Students were hurt and angry when the first principal left unexpectedly in 2005. Cutting class was common, and there were many fights, according to teachers and administrators. The second principal, Talana Clark-Bradley, worked hard to reestablish order. Still it was a difficult time to be at the school.
A first-time teacher says that about 15 teachers, more than half the staff, were new when he began teaching there in fall 2007. He tried to order supplies such as Bunsen burners and graduated cylinders in the summer before he started teaching. But the school secretary, also new, didn't know how to place orders; he eventually placed the orders himself and received the supplies the following January. Like a lot of new teachers, he knew his subject matter well but didn't know how to control his often rambunctious students. The teacher, who asked not to be identified because he didn't want to criticize his supervisor publicly, says he felt isolated, and his principal, who was 30 years old when she took the job, wasn't able to offer much guidance. "You are completely on your own," he says. The teacher and the principal both left in June 2008.
Ryan Scallon, the school's third principal, began in fall 2008. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and former assistant principal of another small school, Williamsburg Prep in Brooklyn, he has good credentials for this new challenge. But he inherited a difficult situation: Only 7 percent of the teachers responding to a DOE survey in 2007-08 agreed that "order and discipline are maintained at the school," while more than one-third of the students said they felt unsafe in the school's hallways and bathrooms. Average daily attendance declined from 86 percent in the school's first year to less than 80 percent during Scallon's first year.
By contrast, many well-established high schools—whether large or small—have extremely stable leadership: Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, for example, has had only six principals since it opened in 1929; Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn has had two principals since it was founded in 1974. Alternative schools such as Urban Academy, founded in 1986, and Beacon High School, founded in 1993, have had the same leadership since they opened. NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies, founded in 1987, had the same co-directors for nearly two decades.
Leading a new small school is more difficult, in many respects, than leading a large, well-established school.
"In the old days, the principal of a large school sat on top of a big pyramid with a lot of help," including assistant principals, deans, guidance counselors, secretaries and department chairs, says Cunningham, a longtime principal of one of the city's first small schools, Middle College High School in Queens. While principals can get to know students individually at small schools—and that's a big part of their success—they also face constant interruptions during the day. They are responsible not only for administrative concerns such as budgets and hiring but often become involved with students' social and emotional problems. Small problems, such as mediating a quarrel between two students, may become the responsibility of the principal, not a subordinate. In many small schools, principals don't even have an administrative assistant.
Some small school principals manage to juggle these demands and take pride in the close relationships they form with students. Consider the High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry, a small school opened in 2004 in the former Martin Luther King High School in Manhattan. Early one recent spring morning, Principal Steve Noonan took a call from a grandfather who asked Noonan to suspend his grandson because he hadn't done his homework.
"We can't suspend everyone who doesn't do his homework," Noonan explained patiently, sitting in his windowless office that also serves as a cluttered storeroom for unopened boxes of books and large jugs of water for the staff water cooler.
A few minutes later, the principal met with a mother whose daughter had been accused by another student of pushing and name-calling. In the course of the morning, he was asked to look for a substitute for a teacher who was on jury duty. He arranged for reimbursement for a teacher who took students on a college trip. He managed to change the lunch period for students who were taking a field trip. He helped schedule a series of concerts for the fall. In the midst of these interruptions, he tried to plan the budget, hire new teachers, and set a course for the coming school year.
"One of the big differences between big schools and small schools is the number of people running interference," says Martin P. Kopelowitz, the former principal of Abraham Lincoln High School, who now serves as mentor to Noonan and other principals of high schools that were founded with the support of New Visions for Public Schools. "I had nine assistant principals, nine secretaries. I never had to answer my phone. I had a gatekeeper, someone who would schedule my appointments. Steven [Noonan] has to determine the urgency [of a situation] after they've knocked on the door and interrupted him."
For his part, Noonan takes joy in his students' progress. He is philosophical about the demands of the job and tries to pace himself—and his staff—to avoid burnout. "It's a marathon, it's not a sprint" said Noonan, "We have to be able to sustain ourselves over time. We don't want to be a beautiful experiment that's not sustainable."
Many principals believe passionately that they are saving lives; they fear that the children in their care may end up homeless or in jail if they are allowed to slip through the cracks. "We know the parents. We know students' concerns," says Lottie Almonte, principal of the Performing Arts and Technology High School (PATHS) in the former Thomas Jefferson High School in Central Brooklyn.
"The environment is a lot more personalized." She has had remarkable success: Only 20 percent of her students began ninth grade reading at grade level; most read at a sixth-grade level, yet 90 percent graduated on time in 2008, she said, an enormous increase from 2004, when the old Thomas Jefferson graduated just one-third of its students.
But the amount of time she spends is also extraordinary. As the assistant principal for administration in the old Thomas Jefferson High School, Almonte was used to working 10 to 12 hours a day. Now, as principal, she says she works 12 to 14 hours a day. "I don't have a choice," she says. "Which child am I going to sacrifice?"
While Almonte says she feels "empowered" by her position, others feel the demands put on principals are burdensome, particularly by an administration that puts far more emphasis on accountability measures and data collection than previous administrations did.
One small school principal quit partly because of what she calls the excessive focus on data in evaluating principals. "You have two choices," says the principal, who asked not to be identified. "You can either do the real work and not worry about the evaluation, or you can worry about the evaluation and not do the real work." She says she spent hours trying to reconcile what she believes was faulty data about her school. The focus on small differences in data, she says, distracts principals from the substantive work of helping teachers craft better lessons and reach more of their students.
Keeping the Small Schools from Unraveling
Many observers believe the new small schools are fragile and require substantial attention if the city is to ensure early gains don't unravel as years go by.
Sandra J. Stein, CEO of the NYC Leadership Academy, which trains principals for the city schools, says that just as students need support, the grown-ups in the building need support, too.
"Sometimes they [the principals] feel like they are moving a boulder up a hill," she says. "I think the real challenge is to think through how we can make the job of school leadership manageable for [ordinary] human beings to do." The Leadership Academy provides coaches to new principals. Many of them are former small-school principals themselves, who meet regularly with those new to their jobs to offer advice and help solve problems.
In decades past, high school principals were generally in their late 40s and early 50s and mostly male. The latest crop of principals is much younger, often in their 30s, and just as likely to be women as men. This means today's principals are much more likely to be parents of small children for whom the demands of long hours are even more difficult than for people whose children are grown. One way to ease the demands is job-sharing: Two young women, both with small babies, are co-directors at the Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women. Kelly Demonaco and Kiri Soares find sharing the responsibility of running a school makes the job more manageable.
But leadership and stress are only two of many challenges. The students themselves routinely arrive in high school poorly prepared after many years of inadequate schooling. Each year, tens of thousands of students enter high school with reading and math skills below grade level, and many have the skills of a sixth-grader or even a fourth or fifth grader.
The alternative schools, created at a time before the intense accountability brought about by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, the state Regents and the data-conscious Bloomberg administration, dealt with the same problem by allowing students five or six years to graduate. They also had the freedom to create their own curricula, without having to shape it to the requirements of the Regents exams. The Bloomberg administration instead assesses schools on their ability to graduate students in four years, regardless of their skills upon entering ninth grade.
One solution to the problem has been to create new schools that begin in sixth grade, rather than ninth. These schools, many of which have been started in the past five years, have not been open long enough to judge whether they are successful in terms of graduation rates, but teachers say the continuity gives students a chance to catch up.
The Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science, for example, began in 2004 with a sixth- grade class and added a class each year. By 2007, when it had its first ninth-grade class, teachers said students were ready for regular high school algebra and didn't need the years of remediation that is typical at the new small schools. "By creating a successful middle school, we are starting high school the right way," says Principal Ken Baum.
The city has also set up a new support infrastructure to offer guidance to principals, replacing the regional superintendencies. The School Support Organizations (SSO) are charged with helping schools address issues such as poor attendance, low graduation rates and high teacher turnover. Some SSOs offer coaches to help principals develop and implement effective strategies for improvement.
"Focusing on kids is more effective than focusing on structure," says Donohue of New Visions for Public Schools, which helped create many of the small schools and now serves as an SSO. "We tailor solutions to fit each school's needs." Some schools, for example, ask each teacher to keep track of a few kids who have unacceptable attendance records. These teachers then call home when a student is absent. Some schools have increased the number of students passing the Regents exams by offering the exams a year early—giving students who fail the opportunity to prepare and retake the exam the following year. Some schools have found that offering teachers "common planning time," a chance to meet during the school day, makes their jobs more rewarding.
"The School Really Changed My Life"
After graduating from high school, Taisha enrolled in a five-week summer school program at Cazenovia College, a residential college in a small town near Syracuse, five hours' drive northwest of New York City. Founded in the 19th century, the college has just 1,000 students (fewer than half the number at Washington Irving High School, the school Taisha attended for just one day) and a campus with large shade trees and white clapboard and brick buildings. Taisha lived in a dormitory with another Spanish-speaking girl from New York City and took introductory classes in mathematics and writing to better prepare her for the fall semester. In the fall semester, she got four B's and one C in her courses.
She planned to study for two years at Cazenovia, then transfer to a two-year college in Los Angeles called the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, where she would pursue her dream of becoming a fashion designer. She said she was "working incredibly hard" at college. Her experience at Cazenovia "completely changed my personality," she said in a telephone interview from college. "It mellowed me out, calmed me down."
Without Essex Street Academy, she said, she never would have finished high school. "I would probably be a dropout, pregnant, living with my mom, getting drunk and hanging out," she said. "The school really changed my life."