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Ready For Prime Time

When Doug Wood arrived at Teachers College last year to head the fledgling National Academy for Excellent Teaching, he hardly seemed, at first glance, like the man to upgrade literacy in some of the city's worst-performing high schools.

When Doug Wood arrived at Teachers College last year to head the fledgling National Academy for Excellent Teaching, he hardly seemed, at first glance, like the man to upgrade literacy in some of the city's worst-performing high schools.

It wasn't that he lacked the credentials: Wood is a graduate of the Harvard School of Education, and his research on high school exit exams receivednational attention during the 50th anniversary celebrations of Brown v. Board of Ed. His most recent job prior to coming to TC was as Executive Director of the Board of Education in Tennessee, where he fought passionately to upgrade teacher quality and credentialing.

It was just that, well, he looked so young, and seemed so polite and soft-spoken. Plus there was the Tennessee thing-'"you know, sure, you did all right in Memphis, but this is New York friggin' City.

Well, appearances are deceiving - and to anyone who thought Wood might fail to make his mark, Fuhggedaboudit.

NAfET's goal is to ensure - through ongoing professional development for principals and teachers - that small high schools working with disadvantaged minority kids last beyond what Wood calls "that first charismatic founder who initially holds it all together." It's a particularly relevant mission during a time when New York City is increasingly chopping up large high schools into smaller, themed ones - including 52 new small schools that just opened this fall.

"Small schools often burn out fast once the visionary founder is gone, unless their people get lots of support and professional development," Wood says. "That's particularly true of schools like the ones we work with, most of which are in Region 2 in the Bronx-'"the second poorest Congressional district in America. The average length of time in the job for teachers there is a little over three years. We need to give them the skills and tools that will enable them to cope with the challenges they face so they'll stay in their jobs, and so their schools will retain their knowledge and experience."

But NAfET goes beyond working with individuals, and its horizons are broader than Region 2 or even New York City. The organization's emphasis is on "whole school reform," which means that Wood and his staff of coaches work with each institution to develop a sustained - and sustainable - school-wide improvement plan. With a new research director, Veronika Denes, on staff, NAfET has built an

impressive research team and is also gathering data on the outcomes of these efforts - part of its effort to develop national models for literacy coaching and other areas of professional development. In addition, NAfET's research team has been invited by the Gates Foundation to research 10 high schools across the country who are implementing the College Ed curriculum of the College Board. This has great potential to help inform NAfET's professional development model.

Last year, working with other like-minded organizations across the city and backed by a $10 million grant from Gerry and Lilo Leeds, NAfET organized and sponsored New York City's third annual Small Schools Conference, which brought together more than 600 principals, teachers and others from 62 school organizations, and NAfET will do so again this year. By June, NAfET was entrenched in 13 schools in the Bronx, and in July and August, it held three Summer Institutes-'"daylong workshops designed to enhance teachers' content knowledge in their chosen subjects. 

"I strictly believe in the notion that teachers should be exposed to rigorous content - I don't care what district it is, poor or not - and with continuing attention to it," Wood says. "Especially in small schools, where - because of the small number of teachers and their lack of experience - you often end up with a collapsing of disciplines. You'll see courses like Humanities instead of English and History, where it may be, in some cases, more difficult for students to really master either subject."

This fall NAfET entered three new schools - The Academy for Careers, Mott Haven Village Preparatory High School, and New Explorers High School-'"that were carved out of the former South Bronx High School. NAfET is also now active in several schools in Manhattan's Region 9.

As an extension of the work NAfET does with each school, Wood is piloting a series of "Practitioner Collaboratives"-'"monthly meetings of interested teachers from any of the city's small schools, who share classroom practices, challenges and accomplishments and upgrade their content knowledge in English, Math, Science and advisory work.  The Academy will expand the practitioner collaboratives through a new partnership with the Urban Assembly, which works with 13 small schools throughout the city. By working with the Assembly, which was founded in 1997 by Richard Kahan, former head of the state Urban Development Corporation, NAfET expands its partnerships to 8 small schools in New York City.

Wood and NAfET are also collaborating with a group of TC faculty members that includes Dolores Perin, Ann Rivet, Margaret Crocco,  Anand Marri and Angela Calabrese Barton on a program called Enhancing Teacher Preparation for Adolescent Literacy. Supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, the work includes an effort to create an adolescent literacy pre-service teacher education model, to be developed during the 2005-06 school year. In the spring of 2007, 12 TC pre-service teachers will be placed in NAfET schools, where-'"supported by a pair of NAfET coaches-'"each will teach using the new method.

"A huge piece of this is putting TC students in demographically challenging schools," Wood says.  "I think we're doing pre-service teachers a disservice if we don't prepare them for the challenges inherent in today's classroom settings.  My own student teaching, at Spartanburg High School, which is one of the best high school in South Carolina, was a breeze. I had AP history, advanced students, two planning periods, a relatively light teaching load. But then I was thrown into a very poor rural school where I had to teach 200 students over eight class periods-'"and there were no books. It was night and day."  

And in another pilot effort, NAfET has recruited small groups of teachers from three of its partner schools to learn more about the use of standards-based digital portfolios with a focus on literacy development across subject areas.  Not only can these rigorous compendia of student work be used with all students-'"particular those who are English Language Learners or have special needs-'"the portfolios could enable teachers to share practices and help students demonstrate their proficiency beyond a standardized test. That work is being done in conjunction with Evangeline Harris Stefanakis, a nationally know expert in the field now based at Teachers College.

And there's more on the docket. For example, NAfET is exploring the creation of a leadership institute, specifically for small schools' principals, that would be offered in conjunction with the summer institutes for teachers.  

Taken together, it's an ambitious agenda, and not all of it may stick, but one thing's pretty clear: NAfET is here to stay.

Published Thursday, Nov. 10, 2005


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