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NYCDOE: lousy mini-schools, by the dozen

February 5, 2007 am28 9:05 am

(inspired by a post here at Rocking the School System in NYC)

In other places, or here at earlier times, good small schools were carefully created. The principal or the founding teachers shared some sort of vision of what the school would do, why it existed, how it was different from other schools. Staff were recruited who found the concepts appealing and wanted to work there.

which one of these George Washington alumni doesn’t belong: Henry Kissinger, Rod Carew, Manny Ramirez? (answer at bottom)

One nice thing about these places was their cohesiveness. Another was that kids didn’t fall through the cracks. When Johnny didn’t show up, 5 – 7 adults, maybe a fifth of the staff, were asking “Where’s Johnny” and the rest of the adults knew who they were talking about. Celia’s English teacher and Math teacher discussed ways of handling her bad behavior in class. And Anthony had a good chunk of the school concerned when his grades slipped.

“Themes” have become mostly gimmicks.

(much more, below the fold) — >Fast forward to 2000 or so, and the New York City Board of Ed or whatever it was calling itself decided that the intimacy of small schools would solve the overwhelming sense of failure in some of our poorest largest schools. (They didn’t try dropping class size, which would have helped; they didn’t deal with the horrendous overcrowding; they certainly did not address the rapid teacher turnover which plagued most of these schools.)

… the “Empowerment Zone” CEO [sic] … took an awful school and created a handful of awful mini-schools. … Those schools still exist … worse than big Monroe could have possibly been.

The first experiments (and this is before my time, so I may get the order wrong) were Andrew Jackson in Queens, then something in Brooklyn (Boys and Girls??), and Monroe in the Bronx. I know a little about Monroe: Hank Greenberg and Ed Kranepool, two great baseball players, went there. And the man in charge of breaking the school up was Eric Nadelstern. We should learn from the “Empowerment Zone” CEO [sic]. He took an awful school and created a handful of awful mini-schools. Now, on top of everything else, five principals could not even agree on bells and fire drills. Those schools still exist today. IMHO, they are awful, worse than big Monroe could have possibly been.

But the Board must have considered them a success, because they kept rolling out more. (no more Brooklyn and Queens in this post, because I don’t know much). George Washington, alma mater of Henry Kissinger, Rod Carew, and Manny Ramirez (quick, who doesn’t belong on this list? answer below), was broken into four schools (1999?) And then Morris. And then two Bronx SURR schools, Taft and Roosevelt, were targeted.

All this time remember, we have no success to point to, but we keep rolling along.

So for the Roosevelt and Taft phase ins (4 smalls in, 1 big phased out), they cap the school enrollment. Nice? Not if you are in another Bronx school. They intentionally targetted one after the other after the other Bronx high school, each time sending huge numbers of the most troubled, weakest, most disruptive students. The receiving schools were not only intentionally overcrowded, but the deans and discipline systems were systematically overtaxed, resource room and special ed were strained, and freshmen repeater classes dominated the tone of the buildings. (nb, the receiving schools were the victims, but so were these weakest students, used as pawns to disrupt another school, and sent to a building far from home).

Here Nadelstern returns, with some Gates money, and the idea that all of the Bronx will be converted into mini-schools. Why? Because of the great success they were having with top-down imposed small schools so far, of course.

Well, no. There was no success to point to. I think that they were looking to further damage public education in NYC, to help set the stage for vouchers, charters, privatization. And I think they were looking to damage the teachers union. (They’ve since backed down on the complete destruction of all of the large schools in the Bronx. But Walton, Stevenson, South Bronx, Evander, Morris, Monroe, Taft, TR, all will be gone. And several others are squeezed with mini-schools sharing their building.)

The stuff that makes carefully planned mini-schools work is totally absent in the centrally imposed, mass-produced Nadelstern-failure schools. There is no staff buy-in. Staff is pulled together last minute. “Themes” have become mostly gimmicks. And space is squeezed. These schools are not allowed to control their size (the intimacy has been lost at several that the DoE has made, incrementally, larger. ) Through the rapid closure of big schools, teachers who really wanted to stay at big schools are forced to apply. Students are placed – many, if not most, do not choose the school they end up in as their first choice. Since many students did not apply, the themes can become meaningless.

And oh, yeah. Leadership? There are some wonderful small school principals. But the DoE has more often annointed disasters from the Leadership Academy and other fast-track all-management no-school-skills programs. And when there is only 2 – 3 administrators in a building, one jerk can make the whole place stink, if it didn’t already.

There are exceptions. Some mini-schools have done quite well. They must be accidents. Or there are special circumstances.

I probably got all sorts of little details wrong, but I stand by the main ideas. Please share corrections with me.

And the trivia question: which one of these George Washington alumni doesn’t belong: Henry Kissinger, Rod Carew, Manny Ramirez?

Carew, of course, he’s the one without power.

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26 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2007 am28 6:53 am 6:53 am

    I think schools need strong leaders and teacher “buy in” to push the theme through. Themed schools are doomed without union support and noisey parents.

    Its our jub as teachers to make this work…

    Great post!

  2. February 12, 2007 am28 9:23 am 9:23 am

    I disagree. It is our job as teachers to teach.
    If the theme makes sense, teachers will work with it, and the chance of success is higher. But where the theme does not make sense, or where it is imposed, teachers will (rightfully) ignore it. With large schools being phased out, many teachers are in effect forced into themed schools, and if the theme has no resonance, it might as well have been imposed.

  3. February 23, 2007 pm28 6:31 pm 6:31 pm

    I agree with most of what you said here. I have been very lucky in my schooling experiences to belong to a small school community (a mini-school inside a relatively small school) that I view as very effective. But this is because our staff (teachers, admin., even most secretaries and school-aides) are so beautifully dedicated and “all up in everybody’s business”. I do worry after our theme though because, as you wrote, most students who go to my school did not necessarily choose it (or decided to go because it was two blocks from home — logical) and, as consequence, disregard the theme entirely…
    Super interesting post! Shall keep reading.

  4. February 24, 2007 am28 1:19 am 1:19 am

    Thanks, Joanna.

    It is an important topic. There are good small schools, and it is possible to create other good small schools. But the NYCDoE is creating so many bad small schools, how can the chaff be separated?

    You know the questions: who are the students? who is the staff? who is the principal? What was the school designed to do? What does it actually do? How is this held in place?

    The last three questions are crucial. Even if a small school is not doing what it was intended to do, if there is a small school community that has it doing something alternate, but well – as long as there is whole-staff input and the administration and their allies have not made the union the enemy, then it may be possible to prosper.

    My school does something a little different than was intended, but does it well, with lots of faculty input. (we didn’t have the same risk of failure that came with many of the other small schools).

    But there are so many variables, for the shaky schools, it needs to be examined case by case.

    For the lousy ones, it’s easy. They should have never been created and they should be, in short order, merged back into big schools so that the little bits that remain good are not isolated from the students and faculty who can reach them.

  5. margo permalink
    March 24, 2007 am31 3:01 am 3:01 am

    There are rotten large schools and rotten small schools, so-so large schools and excellent small schools. What makes a school great is a leadership that demands that students really learn thoroughly and at a hi level. When this happens at a small school where the smallness can assist in targeting kids who would otherwise have fallen through the cracks, the small schools work. In a nutshell, here’s what I’ve observed for over two decades in the NYCBOE: Many teachers in the big schools are just about status-quo & union mentality. “I get a paycheck whether you come or not.” They sit the kids in dull rows and treat everyone the same with mediocre talk-n-chalk and board notes. They bore the kids to death until, one by one, you’re left with seven kids in the class. On the other hand, you have some bad small schools where all it’s about is being warm and fuzzy and chaotic. These schools may have better attendance, but the kids learn very little and expectations are low. – In essence, many staff in large schools are consciously racist, because they don’t care if the kids learn or not and don’t feel they need to rethink how they teach. Many staff in small schools, on the other hand, are unconscious limo liberals who have low expectations for poor minority students and, as a result, allow kids to pass off crap for work. – In any event, the system still sucks on a large level, except for the few truly gifted school leaders and dedicated and creative teachers. – Thanks to the UFT, many boring burnt-out lemons still exist throughout the system. The UFT spends most of its energy defending folks who have no right being in a classroom. – Perhaps their motto, as well as some of the failing small schools should be “every child left behind”.

  6. March 24, 2007 am31 3:25 am 3:25 am

    Thanks to the UFT? You can’t point to a single lousy teacher the UFT has given tenure to… there are none. The Board of Ed or DoE does that.

    And yes, yes, yes. Good schools, big and small. Bad schools big and small. We know all that, we acknowledge that.

    But this post is about something else. This post is about the NYC Department of Education intentionally opening one crummy small school after another, and hiding the data that shows how crummy they are. There is intent here: to deceive, to disrupt the union, to disrupt the parts of public education that still function in NYC.

    50% of teachers in the system have fewer than 5 years experience. Burnt out lemons? The DoE has created a system of untested novices, and has matched them with unqualified administrators, some with even less classroom experience.

    There are dozens of schools where mediocre board notes would represent qualitative improvement. Bloomberg’s chancellor has created new lows.

  7. Sam permalink
    March 25, 2007 pm31 4:16 pm 4:16 pm

    I could not agree more. I’ve worked in both small and large schools. The common denominator for the success of both lies in a vision, a staff that buys into the vision, an experienced adminstration that can pull resources together to support its staff, and students who want to be there.

    The concept of instant schools (add water and mix) is a disaster in the making. The first wave of New Vision Schools in the 1990’s were organic: the community was involved in the creation and staffing of the schools (e.g. Bronx Leadership Academy, Health Opportunities, Bronx School for Law, Gov’t, and Justice, etc.). Today’s new “small schools” have no connection to the communities they serve and are in “campuses.” with thousands of people. The themes are meaningless because the focus is on standardized testing in math and literacy. Most of these mini schools are unable to offer electives, vocational training, or the arts.

    The real impetus for Kleinberg’s “small” schools (with 34 in a class!) is to disconnect schools from their communities. They can do whatever they want without resistance because there is no community investment into these artificial entities. The neighborhood school has always been at the center of New York communities. I’ll believe in this version of the small schools movement as soon as Stuyvestant, Bronx Science, LaGuardia, Brooklyn Tech, Cordozo, etc. are also replaced with mini schools.

    Different schools are needed for students with different needs. What we’re seeing today is the failure to provide adequate resources to the so-called “failing” schools. One of the most effective offerings of the large high schools was vocational training in the zone schools. The reality is that some of our kids are not going to college; a vocational training was standard issue, now they have to pay to go to APEX Tech.

  8. JBL permalink
    March 25, 2007 pm31 10:32 pm 10:32 pm

    For whatever it’s worth, I have an acquantance who is a retired Brooklyn Tech teacher, and this acquaintance has been worried for some time that there are plans in the works to disband Tech and replace it with several small schools, or to shrink Tech and begin placing small schools in its building. (I’m not really in a good position to say whether these claims are justified, I just thought I’d pass them along.)

  9. March 26, 2007 am31 7:24 am 7:24 am

    I don’t know how closely you’ve followed, but Tech has had ongoing problems that led, finally, to the dismissal of McCaskill (for something else, but really for overall poor management). There was real damage done to the school’s longterm reputation and ability to recruit top students. It would not shock me if what you say is correct, but it would really be a different category.

  10. mimi Strum permalink
    July 14, 2007 pm31 10:47 pm 10:47 pm

    Within my small school, the Pricipal is a disaster. She preys upon teachers has poor people skills and tries to compete with every one. She is a complete phony, and disregards any rule that does not serve her purpose. Meanwhile the students, elementary, continue to suffer. It is disgusting to work under some one so disfunctional- yet here we are with another ass backwards black woman, who does the god speak( like Bush she is the decider) as the over seer in a high needs black community. Again we are losing our children and the community. But white folks are returning now, and poor blacks will have to leave and then the school will become better. Once the community begins to truly change. No white kids at the school now. Principal should be removed, try again. It is corrupt, heart breaking, disheartening.

  11. gb2378 permalink
    August 26, 2007 am31 12:07 am 12:07 am

    Taft Campus now has 6 small schools.

  12. August 26, 2007 am31 7:58 am 7:58 am

    And Roosevelt has more than 4. I have a hard time keeping up. Tomorrow I’ll post about Fair Student Funding and Taft and Roosevelt. If you work in Taft, brace yourself. Ugly numbers, scary numbers, coming.

  13. XA1 ANON permalink
    July 9, 2008 am31 8:49 am 8:49 am

    humpty dumpty fell down and broke into a million pieces. i wonder how they are going to piece him back together?

    personally, i don’t like the small schools idea. they’ve failed in california, they’ve failed in the midwest and i hate how everybody is up in everybody’s business. As if teachers don’t have enough on their plate already!

  14. September 11, 2008 am30 8:06 am 8:06 am

    Interesting post. I am a first year teacher at a small school in its first year, and have a number of colleagues starting out their first year at new small schools as well.

    I was surprised when one of my classmates told me he’s starting at a new school filled with other first year teachers, in addition to a first year fast track principal. He basically admitted to me that no one there really knows what they are doing. I understand that principal’s want to make room in their budget so they hire us cheap newbie teachers, but at what expense?

    On the other hand, I am the only first year teacher at my school. There is one five year veteran, and the rest of the teachers have between 15 and 21 years in the system. The administration is great, and we even have a teacher center. The entire staff went away for a week together on a retreat to get to know each other and shape the very basis for our school. By deciding upon our school philosophy, ideals, and even every little procedure together, it is only natural that we bought into it and are all invested in our school’s future.

    I’m not sure how my principal managed to keep such an experienced staff, perhaps that is the reason we have no after school clubs or arts programs… but I truly think as good teachers (at least the other ones in my school are!) we can incorporate our students’ interests into our lessons and by being an active, involved, and cohesive staff, this budgetary decision will definitely pay off in the long run.

    Anyhow, off my soapbox, but I just wanted to point out the difference between two new schools that both popped up this year. Talk to me in five years from now and we’ll see which one is successfull. I certainly hope both, but possibly even neither. However, I think mine has a great chance. I don’t understand how a school like my colleague’s even think they can suceed when you have a bunch of teachers and administrators that don’t even know where to begin with their school.

  15. kpsmove permalink
    August 9, 2009 pm31 1:12 pm 1:12 pm

    I call all these new mini schools POPCORN SCHOOLS because they are popping up all over the place they basically are a great way to improve attendance which increases school finances. A small school is ok but it is a lot of work on the individual teachers a lot of resources are no longer there the custodial staff does not do the little things anymore depending on their relationship with your principal. It is on you to do more especially making phone calls and monitoring I don’t have a problem with this but how many calls can a person make in a day. I just honestly believe that in a country that does not like Big Government to be involved in our daily lives why is it OK in Urban areas for teachers who are government employees to now take on the role of secondary caregivers, primary nurturers and defacto moral beacon.
    Why wont our society final assist parents to be able to get involved in their child’s education without risking a roof over the family’s head lets develop a real system that enables proper learning behaviors and not the paper discipline codes we have now where once a student realizes the school cant do anything to me and my parents are to busy to follow up why should I worry about my actions regardless of school size until we can address this problem we will always be a basket case.

    • August 9, 2009 pm31 9:14 pm 9:14 pm

      I suspect the big jump in attendance fades over time…

      Other than that, if teachers are asked to do more with each student, they should have proportionately fewer students. Otherwise we get the mess you describe.

  16. August 16, 2009 pm31 10:42 pm 10:42 pm

    My biggest concern with the small schools is having enough students with ability and interest to run serious advanced mathematics courses like Trigonometry, Precalculus and Calculus. A serious competitive course would probably be desired by about 10 percent of the population at most (students who want to spend an hour on homework a day and do proofs). In a large school like DeWitt Clinton, 10% is enough students to run a few serious courses all the way through calculus and their students ace calculus and can succeed at schools like MIT afterwards. In a small school, the only way to run a serious course is to encourage or push less talented and less hardworking students into the class if they can even manage to run it. The only alternative is to send students to college for precalculus after school. College Now programs are successful but it can be difficult for students to find time for homework the two afternoons they spend at college.

    Perhaps small schools need to work together to pool their students to ensure that they can run a successful trigonometry with students scoring 85 and up on the Regents and perhaps an AP Precalc where students pass the course. Calculus can wait for college but these basic subjects cannot!

  17. August 16, 2009 pm31 10:51 pm 10:51 pm

    As a NYC parent and a CUNY professor whose kids go to NYC public schools, I would like more information about all these schools on the web. I can get Regents data, which has been very useful picking out a Middle School in queens. The local public middle school has better regents math and science scores than the two smaller themed schools nearby. But for high schools, Regents information won’t suffice.

    We should record what percent of graduating students make the cut off for admission to a CUNY 4 year college. It would seem at some schools that fewer then 5% will be admitted to Lehman College. Do the parents know this? Some of the themes seem to indicate that the school is college prep when it isn’t. If the students aren’t being prepared for college then are they being prepared for a job?

    When my Mom was in high school in Astoria in the 50’s, she was in a non college track but took Regents courses regardless. She was certified in shorthand, typing and low level accounting by senior year and was also good enough to be admitted to the then very competitive CUNY system. CUNY is becoming more competitive again. Our enrollment is booming despite rising standards. We are no longer offering junior high school level math courses in four year colleges. Do your students know that?

    • August 17, 2009 pm31 7:04 pm 7:04 pm

      “We are no longer offering junior high school level math courses in four year colleges. Do your students know that?

      Some do, some don’t. But these themed mini-schools? in them, most kids don’t. Most parents of kids in these schools don’t. And they are doing test prep (and unaudited self-grading of regents, and giving out credits through “credit recovery”), so the kids graduate. And no one cares (until the kids themselves, when they can’t do college work).

      When you write that we should record the percent making CUNY 4-years, you have a good idea, but… The people with access to that sort of data have no interest in sharing it.

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