NYC’s Smaller Schools Movement
It’s easy to Miss Evander Childs High School in the north Bronx these days. Although the 100-year-old building fills an entire city block, its four floors are shrouded top-to-bottom in a dark mesh curtain covering the scaffolding from which workers are replacing the exterior brick by brick.
But the massive renovation pales in comparison to what’s taking place inside the school, which once held 3,000 students and as recently as 2004—its last year of operation—had a 19 percent graduation rate. On a warm spring morning, students converge at the entrance from the east and west along Gun Hill Avenue, squeeze through a bank of metal detectors manned by NYC police officers, and disperse to six smaller schools—the new tenants of what’s now called the Evander Childs Campus.
About 430 of the ninth- through 12th-graders peel off for the fourth floor, where they enter the lime green hallways of the 5-year-old Bronx Lab School, a shining achievement in Chancellor Joel Klein’s aggressive program of creating new, small schools, almost 400 of which have opened over the past seven years. “It’s unprecedented anywhere in America,” says Eric Nadelstern, NYC’s chief school’s officer. “It’s much more productive to create something entirely new instead of throwing money at failed schools.”
Bronx Lab—which shares the building with similarly sized schools focused on areas such as computers, technology and aerospace—defines itself as one of the city’s college prep schools, and although 81 percent of the student body falls under Title 1, 95 percent graduated in 2008, and 83 percent entered college. Even the hallway walls are papered with future SAT words such as “hyperbole,” “throng” and “articulate.”
Small Is Big
There’s nothing usual either about the school’s founding principal and co-director, 30-something Marc Sternberg, who arrived with a B.A. from Princeton, an M.B.A. and Ed.M. from Harvard, and plenty of freedom. “I have absolute autonomy on budgeting, teacher selection, pedagogy and programming,” he says. In short, he continues, Bronx Lab and NYC’s other small schools offer all the advantages of a charter school, while remaining district schools that employ union teachers. “There’s been a natural tension between charters and traditional superintendencies around the country,” he observes. “That has really dissolved in New York City.”
Down the hall from Sternberg’s 8-by-8-foot, glass-enclosed office, 16 seniors in front of computers work at revising and reading their creative writing presentations in an English seminar that meets eight hours a week, including a four-hour block on Wednesdays. This course—as well as alternative senior seminars in history, physics and calculus, and art—provides a “a bridge to college,” explains teacher Chris Bernard, noting that everything from the reading, writing and communication skills to the sheer practice of staying in a classroom for an extended period of time provide valuable preparation.
Destynie Simpson, one of Bernard’s students, points to the manageable size of school and classroom alike. “It’s more of a community. You know each other by name. We have one-on-one time with teachers, and that makes it easier to learn.”
If those sound like features reserved for private schools, so is the college counseling and placement office, which with its two-person staff creates a desirable student-to-counselor ratio. “I can read a college essay 10 times,” says Malika Forbes, who directs the office and also leads multiday trips for juniors to visit prospective colleges. “It is really, really powerful when they see [Bronx Lab] alumni walking these college campuses,” she points out.
“The alumni are telling us that they love college and that all the things we were telling them were true, including the challenges that are there,” adds Sternberg. “They’re telling the 11th- and 12th-graders, ‘You need to listen to what they’re telling you.’”
Of course, charter schools have not been left out of the mix, as Chancellor Klein, with the backing of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, pursues his goal of opening 1,500 new schools in all, many of them on the smaller model. Of the 400 operating so far, a quarter are charters. Charter-provider Uncommon Schools has launched six such schools around the city so far and plans to add four more next year, but CEO Evan Rudall applauds the city’s leaders for their larger approach to smaller schools.
“They have taken the tenets of the charter movement—freedom in exchange for responsibility—and applied them to the district and system,” Rudall says. “They’ve created a zone of schools that guarantee increased autonomy for improved results.”
Ron Schachter is a contributing writer for District Administration.