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Learning by Community

Learning by Community
It’s one thing to tweak a successful model to keep things fresh. Stephen Duch essentially threw the whole model out the window.
Four years ago, Hillcrest High in Queens, where Duch had served as principal since 1996, boasted an above average four-year graduation rate—58 percent compared to less than 50 percent citywide. But that still left close to four in 10 Hillcrest students who didn’t graduate within four years, which Duch found unacceptable.
So Duch split the school’s 3,400 students into seven small learning communities, each with a theme-based program: pre-med, health careers, theatre, public service and law, business tech, humanities, and pre-teaching. Each community is led by a teacher director and guidance counselor, and Duch oversees the operation.
Duch hatched the concept during his year in the Cahn Fellows program at Teachers College, a time when he also worked with educators from New Visions for Public Schools and the New York City Leadership Academy. A grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided funding to train teachers to lead the small learning communities within the sprawling high school complex that serves a diverse student population that’s about 42 percent African American, 30 percent Asian, 23 percent Hispanic and 5 percent white.
“The Cahn program opened my eyes to begin looking at education in a different way,” he says. “And it helped move our school to a very, very different place than what our neighboring schools have been able to achieve over the years.”
Duch sees his model of separate-but-conjoined learning communities as preferable to reform efforts at other comprehensive high schools, where formerly monolithic institutions have been divided into stand-alone small schools within a broader campus. The latter approach, he says, can lead to feuding among principals for supplies and building space.
The small learning communities at Hillcrest, in contrast, retain an esprit de corps, with students from all the communities participating together in a broad range of athletic and extracurricular programs. The school also offers a vast array of AP and early college courses. And Duch remains in charge, able to serve as the “tie-breaker” when tough decisions must be made. “I’ve moved from being the captain of the ship to becoming an admiral of the fleet because there is a fleet of small schools within the building, and ultimately I’m the one who is navigating them through the course,” he says.
Duch believes the learning communities have empowered his teaching and administrative staffs, most of whom are people he has hired during his 14-year tenure. (Duch is a Queens native, and 22 of his 180 teachers are Hillcrest graduates.) Each day the teachers have common planning time, which is led by teachers and supported by Duch and the school’s assistant principals. Duch says the teachers have become more involved in the day-to-day operation of the school, making them more concerned with the school’s overall progress.
Duch sees their growing involvement as a way to guard against what he calls the “curdle factor”—when teachers turn sour and become cynical and bitter.
“The Cahn program provided me the opportunity to be reflective on what the role of the teachers should look like,” says Duch. “It let me work on what needs to be in place to sustain teachers to be successful in schools.”

Published Wednesday, May. 19, 2010


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