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Small School Designed for Success

The Goldman Sachs Foundation Awards NCREST and NCTAF More than $1 Million to Improve Teacher Quality and School Redesign in New York City


The National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST), and the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF) were awarded $1.1 million from the Goldman Sachs Foundation to improve the capacity of New York City public schools to recruit and retain quality teachers and to strengthen redesigned high schools.

"Improving the education of minority, low-income, and other underserved students has been the focus of much work for many years. Many of these strategies, however, have operated around the margins of the education system, trying to put Band-Aids on the wounds left by unequal funding and inequitable access to high quality teaching and curriculum for these students," said, Jacqueline Ancess, the Associate Director of NCREST.

Recent research points to the effectiveness of two strategies that go to the heart of the educational process: investments in teacher quality that ensure that all students have access to well-prepared and knowledgeable teachers, and efforts to redesign schools so that they are more personalized, more focused on student needs, more thoughtful in their curriculum, and more supportive of good teaching.

NCTAF's 1996 report, What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future, found that what teachers know and can do is the most important influence on what students learn. Study after study reviewed by the Commission concluded that teacher expertise is one of the most important factors in determining student achievement.

But even a qualified teaching force is not sufficient to promote teaching and learning. Over the last decade much has been learned from efforts to redesign schools so that, all else being equal, smaller schools and school units (in the range of 300-500 students) are associated with higher achievement, better attendance rates, fewer drop-outs, lower levels of student misbehavior, stronger interpersonal relationships, and greater student participation in extracurricular activities and leadership roles.

Researchers have found that some of the less successful schools are administratively rather than educationally restructured; that is to say that although these schools have rethought how the school is organized, they have not used this restructuring to rethink and improve instruction that students receive.

Ancess calls the Goldman-Sachs Project an attempt to operationalize the link between teacher quality and the restructuring of instruction in schools.
"These two initiatives come together in what we are calling the Goldman-Sachs Project. We are developing three Goldman-Sachs Institutes for Redesign, Teaching and Leadership, which are essentially an apprenticeship model for newer schools to learn from and with more experienced schools and with other like-minded schools."

Ancess discussed the process of developing the Institutes. "We approached three experienced small schools in New York-the Urban Academy, International High School, and Middle High School-and asked them if they would essentially be the hub of three networks of five newer small schools. Each of these lead schools proposed a certain direction of work and self-assessment, focusing on getting people to reflect on what it is they want to do and how they are going to do it."

"The small school model affords a greater level of engagement between students and teachers, creating a more focused learning environment," Dr. Fred Frelow, the Director of National Programs for NCTAF, added. "The support from Goldman Sachs will enable these three schools to take what they've learned and help 15 more schools design successful learning communities."

In order to select the schools that will participate, the project will distribute an application to eligible schools (redesigned New York City public high schools that have fewer than four graduating classes). A review committee consisting of representatives from NCREST, NCTAF and the three mentor schools will select 15 schools to participate based on their demonstrated commitment. Five schools will be assigned to each of the three mentor schools, depending on the match between the needs of the participating schools and the mentor schools' areas of strength and expertise.

"The schools who apply," said Ancess, "will choose the institute that they want to work with and then the more experienced school will work with them to develop a customized plan around particular goals for professional development and school development."

"Our three partner schools are coming in to this project with outstanding track records, and each has received national recognition for its achievements," said Frelow. "All three are small high schools that have shown long-term success in raising student achievement, including growth in the number of students who go on to college."

"The mentored relationships fostered within these Institutes will create an environment in which scholars can support one another to improve teaching," said Frelow. "Specifically, we want to show policy makers that the quality of teaching and learning advances when teachers work within a structure that provides more opportunity for staff development, guidance, and peer review."
Frelow points to a significant aspect of this project-attention to leadership.

"The program makes it possible for principals of the networked schools to meet with one another, and jointly plan how to support teachers and students. It's a fantastic opportunity for principals to build a network for leadership, while gaining new professional skills and forming more collegial relationships in the school district."

"We hope to demonstrate that the new structures created in these schools will have a positive effect on student learning, and will serve to inform and inspire education policy on a wider scale in New York," said Frelow.

Frelow added, "We hope that some of these less experienced schools will be able to become lead schools as well. Essentially, what we might have would be many of these networks where experienced schools and less experienced collaborate and form networks where they teach others. This may very well become part of the school culture in New York City."

"What we are trying to effect," said Ancess, "is the culture that creates quality. Quality is not merely a variable. Quality has to become embedded in what people value and the way people operate. And if the school system can provide the time and the resources necessary for professional development, we can have a self-sustaining peer organization that is committed to quality on an ongoing basis."

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