Teachers in the small public high schools cropping up in many U.S. cities find the human dimension of their jobs bringing both strains and rewards.
"About how many hours did you put in a week?” Starting at 8 in the morning, the faculty members at Ms. Madell’s new, small secondary school in New York City routinely worked till 6:30 or 7 at night. And then, after the teaching, planning, meeting, and tutoring, she and others went home many evenings to solitary thought and a heap of student work.
Now as a co-founder of a school not unlike her old one, where she plans to keep a hand in teaching while coaching her colleagues, the 39-year-old mother of two is about to ask a fresh band of teachers to shoulder similar burdens. The audacity of it makes her laugh.
“There’s no way I can do [that job] and be a parent,” she admitted.
A major strand in the current national push to improve secondary education is the movement to scale down schools into smaller, more personalized units, especially for students facing the greatest obstacles to success.
Hundreds of small schools and learning communities have cropped up in recent years, famously helped along by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s $1.5 billion campaign to raise the numbers of students who graduate from high schools ready for college and work. (The foundation also helps support Education Week’s annual Diplomas Count report on graduation-related issues.)
The question prompted an eruption of laughter. But there was nothing funny about the answer teacher Jody Madell finally delivered.
Whatever promise the small-schools approach holds, though, there’s widespread agreement it won’t be realized without a sufficient supply of teachers who are up to a triple threat of challenges: urban teaching in the context of a start-up operation, often with a heavy dose of surrogate parenting thrown in.
And as Ms. Madell and many other small-schools educators can attest, ensuring that supply will be no simple task.
“Human capital is going to make or break this enterprise,” said Timothy S. Knowles, who directs the University of Chicago’s Center for Urban School Improvement, which opened its first small high school last September and plans several more. “Our view is human capital is gold.”
Many of the new small schools, especially the ones in cities, virtually guarantee teachers long hours as they struggle against the inadequate preparation of their students. Teachers pour their time, too, into shaping the new institutions, where they are obliged to wear a number of hats.
Ironically, it is the human dimension of small schools—precisely the attribute that experts see as their greatest strength—that can be the most draining. When a school is small enough for teachers and students to know each other well, teachers come face to face with the meager advantages available to the youngsters they teach.
“You can read the first paragraph of their biographies and be in tears,” said Christopher N. Maher, the founding principal of the Academy for College and Career Exploration, a small high school that opened in Baltimore in 2004. “If you are a teacher, especially in a small school, you feel it.”
Read this entire article at Education Week, by Bess Keller, at http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2007/04/18/33strain.h26.html
Small Schools in Big Districts
New York City
1.1 million students
■ 184 separate small secondary schools have opened within the district’s governance structure since 2002, when the system made them a priority.
■ Another 25 or so such schools are expected to open by this fall.
■ Some 20 additional small schools have been operating since the early 1990s.
■ The newer schools generally enroll no more than 600 students, while the older ones generally have no more than 450 students.
■ 19 charter schools that include or will include the high school grades have opened.
■ 143 “small learning communities,” or SLCs, have been approved for 23 of the district’s large high schools; three-quarters are operating.
■ The district’s SLCs enroll no more than 600 students.
■ By the end of the 2007-08 school year, all 31 remaining large high schools are to convert to the SLC structure.
■ Six separate small secondary schools operate under district governance.
■ 32 charter schools that include or will include the high school grades have opened.
■ About 50 “small learning communities” are currently operating.
■ 15 large high schools are on track to add another 60 or more SLCs within the next two to three years.
■ More than 20 separate small high schools are operating under district governance, with more planned.
■ 10 charter schools that include or will include the high school grades have opened.
SOURCE: New York City Department of Education, Los Angeles Unified School District, Chicago Public Schools