School co-locations, small learning environments, the campus model, and charters
by Claudia Giordano, VP Education At Large Candidate
When the Annenberg Foundation, and later, Bill Gates, chose to fund the creation of new, smaller learning environments, in NYC schools, the decision to push forward on a large scale (due, both times, to the immediacy and scope of the funding) negated any kind of thoughtful research or movement towards creating a few small, experimental schools that would, after a period of proven success, provide diverse. replicable models for progressive change, and a viable alternative to the more traditional, larger schools, schools that appeared to be grossly failing students based on graduation rates, attendance, and test scores.
Having taught in two such small schools, each formed under either Annenberg or Gates, one school that operated in its own space, not shared with any other school or program, and another housed on the now familiar “campus” model within a large high school, I can speak to the aspirations but mostly, the failures of such schools.
As a grant writer proposing a new small school during the Gates initiative, I can attest to the passion and commitment it takes to envision and devise a whole new learning environment, given carte blanche by our mentors to “think out of the box” (we originally used “Out Of The Box” as our temporary school name) without worrying about how our visionary schools would function within the constraints and confines of public school rules and regulations.
The fact that every school budget is driven by actual student numbers creates a real problem when trying to Think Different as the founder of Apple would say. Scheduling, programming, the logistics of the teachers contract, staffing, space, the obvious limitations presented to us, the inability to offer the necessary services, at least in the first few years, of guidance, social worker, deans, and special education or ESL specialists, was daunting. Not to mention the limitations of staffing the rudimentary subjects, much less anything beyond, which, for example when planning an arts focused school, would have meant hiring teachers to teach multiple subjects. The sincere desire to make a real change in our outdated school models was undermined by the reality that such visionary pie in the sky dreams rarely if ever work out the way they were hoped for, because they were designed to fail.
As a teacher in a large high school, plagued by overcrowding that resulted in being labeled a “Dangerous” school and facing increased surveillance and micro managing by the Bloomberg administration, which was flexing its muscle in the first incarnation of mayoral control, I witnessed what happens when instead of solving the glaringly obvious obstacles facing a large comprehensive high school being pulled apart at the seams, why not push in small schools on campus and due to space, dismantle the very programs that a large school is able to offer, the kinds of classes and facilities, e.g. the ceramics studio, the dedicated dance studio, the thriving creative and performing arts department, the automotive, computer technology, and language classes, and extra curricular activities, that bring students to school every day. Instead, let’s turn every available square foot of space into classrooms, and lots of offices, and hire 5x the number of administrative personnel to run 5 different small schools. Only hire newbie teachers because you can’t afford the tenured, experienced, veteran faculty, and expect, indeed encourage, annual staff turnover. Push out, harass, or excess the higher salaried teachers who are a drain on your budget, and who know the contract, and the needs of their students, inside out. (Better yet, never hire such teachers in the first place.)
The other side of the coin was, and is, the fallacy of “School Choice”, much touted as a huge advancement in student empowerment. No longer “relegated” to the ominous, and “failing”,“local” or “zone”school, students were now able to “choose” from an enormous encyclopedia of dozens of new small schools each with its own theme and of course, special name. SO many of these schools were created so quickly that is was impossible to gauge the success or effectiveness of most of them, some destined for success but others relegated to the dustbin of history, replaced by ever new small schools. This constant tumult resulted in extreme DISlocation of school communities as districts were drawn and redrawn, school boards eliminated, superintendencies subjected to continual restructuring, and the ever-layering of leadership under “Tweed” that operated like a never ending game of thrones, a revolving door of who’s in and who’s out.
In the meantime did our students achieve success? Any small high school smart enough to “cream” their students by articulating the more academically inclined students from the local middle schools and keeping out, or transferring out less desirable students, did well, initially. The true meaning of school “choice” is, the schools get to choose the students, not the other way around. This sick joke on our school communities has resulted in what we now see, racial and economic segregation, disparity, and inequality across our entire school system, from K-12. Parents lose their minds trying to navigate the application process to enroll their children in a PUBLIC SCHOOL. (We are not even delving into charters at this point, which attract parents because they are given the impression that their children will be receiving a superior education because charters look like free private or parochial school, complete with stylish uniforms and no nonsense, often abusive, zero tolerance policies).
At this point would it even be possible to reverse the trend of small schools, the campus model that has infiltrated nearly every high school and middle school, the gross inequities across the entire school system and the dysfunctional delivery of educational services? Should schools be merged for the sake of equity, if some smaller school environments ARE working for their students? How would this impact the faculty and staff of these schools and who would be forced to find other positions?
How should school communities be involved? Should school boards be reinstated, or some other form of community control put in place? How about bringing back the Board of Education in some new updated form? Is mayoral control a success or a failure? Should we take a wait and see attitude for the next mayoral election? Are teachers responsible for the decisions made by elected officials, if we do not actually have any control over the decisions being made that create our working conditions? Should we as teachers become more politically involved, individually and/or collectively?
Ultimately, how does the UFT factor in all of this? Outside of negotiating our contract, do we trust our union leadership to do the right thing for our members and for the students we serve every day?
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