Small Schools

It's been a little while since I've written anything about my new experiences in New York.  The past few weeks have been incredibly busy.  Every time I begin work at a new school, it feels as if I'm a first-year teacher all over again.  I have to learn the school's systems, the administration's expectations, the unwritten rules that govern classroom instruction and staff relations, the student culture, the schedule, etc...  On top of that, the school I'm working at is an expanding school; it just added the 11th grade.  A lot of the systems, rituals, and procedures are in the process of being built, which makes things a little more complicated than what they might be in a school that's been around for a while.  In the same way that I'm fighting to keep my head above water with my teaching, the school is fighting to keep its head above water among the outrageous number of dictates, laws, initiatives, and protocols coming from NYC's DOE, the state of NY, and federal law.

Anyway, I'd like to take the time to document some of the things I've learned about working in a small school (we have about 300 students - I think).  I'd certainly read a lot about the merits of small schools before coming to NYC.  Ever since I began taking an interest in education policy, I've been reading about NYC's efforts to close large comprehensive high schools in favor of small content-specific schools.  The argument in favor has always been that large schools don't provide students the individual support that they need.  Kids get lost in the system and fall through the cracks more easily.  If you create schools where the faculty are more intimately familiar with the students, then it's more likely students will be helped by the teachers.  On the flip side, small schools have smaller teaching staffs, which means the variety of courses that can be made available will necessarily be limited.  Advocates of small schools have attempted to mitigate this con by tailoring the curricula of small schools to thematic, and at times narrow, subject matter.  As a result, you end up with schools like, The Urban Assembly Academy for History and Citizenship for Young Men (which is usually accompanied by the name of the old comprehensive high school building the small school is housed in - in this case, it would be "at Taft").  A side effect, as you can tell, is schools with names that often involve more than ten words - a little ridiculous to say the least.  And in some cases, the names of the schools have very little to do with what content is being offered.  For example, last week at a happy hour I met a teacher who works at Bronx School for Law, Government, and Justice.  He told me that his elective on law, government, and justice was the only class in the whole school that had anything to do with the school's name.

As for the school I'm working at, we have something like 25 teachers in four teams.  We cater to Spanish-speaking ELLs who arrived in the country sometime in the past three years, most with little to no English fluency.  We have three teams of teachers who service the 9th and 10th grade students (who are all placed in the same classes) and one team of teachers who work with the 11th grade.  All students take social studies, language arts in Spanish, English language arts, math, and science.  Advisory and electives are offered, but they only occur a few times per week and are only offered to students who demonstrate grade-level proficiency in math and language.  In this way, students' options are limited.  No student in my school will have the chance to take sociology, botany, or calculus.  And very unlike my school in DC, AP is not offered to anyone.

My school is housed in an old comprehensive HS building that now has seven schools on its campus.  One is being phased out, and ours is slowly growing to take its place.  One of the pitfalls of the setup is that our school barely has enough rooms to teach in.  No room can ever be unused, so teachers change rooms all the time.  I work in two rooms and have to change rooms five times throughout the week, which makes me lucky.  Some teachers change almost every period and teach in six or seven different rooms throughout the week.  When I'm on my planning period I either have to plan in a classroom someone else is teaching in, go to the teacher's room (which is maybe 25 feet by 10, packed with six computers and a copier), or work at a desk in my administrator's office.  Because of the shared rooms, I can never walk into a room and expect that a white-board marker or chalk will be available.  I carry a backpack around with me all day with my laptop, supplies, and gym clothes.  At the beginning of the year, we spent our professional development time moving desks, chairs, and filing cabinets to the rooms that needed them.  Some rooms had NO furniture.  Some rooms had fifty chairs and four teacher's desks.  As the only experienced teacher who's new to the DOE in my school, I was the only one asking why we were moving furniture instead of working on curriculum.  Everyone else was either just beginning their first year teaching or smiled and said, "Welcome to New York."

Also, my teaching schedule is crazy.

All of the students in the 11th grade a grouped with somewhere between 11 and 14 students who have the same schedule all day long.  The small class sizes are AMAZING.  But the kids never work with anyone outside of their section (A, B, C, or D) all year long.  Because after lunch on Tuesdays and Wednesdays teachers meet in teams to discuss their students and as a staff to do professional development, my schedule is different every single day.  For example, on Monday I see my B kids three hours and my C kids for two hours.  I see B one time on Wednesday and one more time on Friday.  I don't see my C kids again until Friday, when I have them for three hours.  I have D once on Tuesday, once on Wednesday, and three hours on Thursday.  I have A twice on Tuesday, twice on Thursday, and once on Friday.  Although I've been able to seriously help some kids make progress with some of my outcomes in such a small group setting, helping my C kids remember on Friday what we did on Monday, and getting them to remember to do their homework is an ENORMOUS challenge.  And that's not to say anything about attempting to plan for this kind of schedule.  It's a steep learning curve.

However, because we're a small school and the administration is so bogged down with creating systems, ordering supplies, and negotiating the protocols of the building with administrators of other schools, teams are given a lot of latitude on how they want to handle their students.  I feel like my team and I are mini-administrators.  We don't have to ask the administration for permission to have a parent night for our students.  We can just organize one, get the permit, and inform them of what's happening.  In that way, I feel more empowered.  I feel like a teacher leader.  It gives me a greater sense of purpose, direction, and satisfaction.  Although I am definitely still dealing with what I perceive to be impractical administrative dictates from the DOE and my administration, I don't feel like I'm dealing with as many.  In their place, I'm deciding how to most positively affect our students with a council of motivated colleagues.  I think it makes a huge difference.  If something's not working, we can change course, rather than continue to be forced to do something that we don't believe in.

I'm sure my attitude will change over the course of the year, but so far I see small schools as effective ways of reaching kids who would rather not be in school, or who are so far behind grade-level they'd never catch up without many adults reaching out to them.  That's what my school allows its teachers to do.  However, a high-level student who has lots of interests, is capable of grade-level work, and has lots of support at home would probably be done a disservice by this environment.  Her academic options would be limited and there are few clubs or after school activities to join.  Teachers are all so busy trying to catch students up to grade-level, there's not a whole lot of time for much else.

Obviously there are pros and cons to everything.  If you think small schools are the savior of public education or that they have no merit, you probably haven't thought about the situation too critically.  However effective my school is, I can say that I'm a lot happier working this year than I was last year.  Our school may be be struggling to keep its head above water, but at least I work with competent and capable administrators who can laugh off all of the politics that come with public education.  It's quite a 180 from last year.


  1. i agree that there is no one answer for education. it's almost like there are lots of different types of schools, like there are lots of different types of peoople. I am so glad things are going better for you this year, it is so much better to be busy but feel productive and useful than to be busy but feel overwhelmed and frustrated. I hope things continue to go well for you. =)

  2. I read your first paragraph to my wife -- she's in just about exactly the same space, although actually moving out of a small school in her case. For an example of what a small school for more affluent kids can look like, the Parker School is a good example:

  3. Thanks, Tom. That's a useful reminder that they can cater to all kinds of needs.

  4. Anythings got to be better than DCPS. Few teachers were replaced after they were let go last year, so our classes are bursting at the seams. Teachers are sooooooo stressed out with new IMPACT requirements and the students are acting crazier than last year, it's a disaster. You are so much better off out of here and the ratio of students to teachers in light of DCs current level is pretty high. I can't wait until I can get out of here too.

  5. NYC is also having huge problems with overflowing classrooms. The nice thing about NYC, however, is that the situation at any given school might be wildly different than in a school down the block in the same neighborhood. I felt like this was not AS true in DC. Sure there are pretty big differences west of the park and south of the Anacostia, but one way I prefer Klein over Rhee is in the amount of latitude given to schools to do their own thing.

  6. :) Glad to hear that you are surviving in NYC! And I have to say, I was kind of glad to read that you are feeling like a first-year teacher.

    Also, aren't small classes so fun? Your teaching schedule will definitely require some getting used to though. Good luck with your C kids; my kids have trouble remembering what they did a period before (but I love 'em)!

  7. two questions: How much of what you like about your school and you believe benefits your students relates to the school size vs. the class size?

    And while class sizes may be far larger at the large HS elsewhere in NYC, how much do you think is that due to the "latitude" given schools to "do their own thing" as you put it, and how much instead may be the result of an administration that favors small schools and allows them to cap enrollment at far lower levels?

  8. Leonie - great questions.

    I'd first say that it's entirely possible that my happiness and the school's effectiveness may be unconnected, but I doubt it. I think when highly motivated, capable teachers are happy, you're going to see positive results in the classroom.

    If you're asking whether I think class size or school size is more important, all I can tell you is what I'd prefer. I do see great benefits in both as long as they're combined with caring, capable, committed educators. I'd have to say, though, that I'd prefer a large school with small classes than a small school with big classes. But that's from a teacher's viewpoint. I believe I could help more students in any given class given that setup. But I also believe that a student's education has to be understood holistically. However, I'm not sure exactly how well a small school would function with large class sizes. if, as a teacher, you're overburdened with classroom management, questions about content, and grading, do you really have the time to give the support to students that small schools were created for? I doubt it.

    As far as your second question goes, that's probably a little out of my league. I honestly don't know why things happen the way that they do in the DOE. I do know that because my school's students are ELLs and many have gone years without formal education, we get grants and monies that other schools might not. Our students are also exempt from certain tests and requirements other students in NYC have to deal with. So, I'm not really sure how much of what we do is a result of our special status, how much of it is a result of administrative philosophy, and how much is a result of DOE policy. I'll ask my administrators and see what they have to say, though.

    Thanks for the questions.

  9. Hi,
    Welcome to NYC! I stumbled across your blog a few days ago and I've been enjoying reading your observations about teaching in different settings. I've been teaching here for about ten years now- four years of 2nd grade in the South Bronx and almost six years teaching mostly middle school ELA and some high school. I totally agree with you that small classes in a bigger setting would be best for secondary students- they have so many interests and it hurts that we're too overstretched to offer a whole lot outside the basics (although we do have a few electives and AP courses as well as art.) We share the building with another school and I've always wondered if it would have been better to create two academies- a small middle school and a small high school rather two separate 6-12 schools.

  10. Leonie: I did some more research and found out that I was actually wrong about our school getting money other schools might not. I discovered that the reason our class sizes are so low is because the principal chooses to spend the school's money on teachers rather than administrators. We have one principal, one AP, and a couple secretaries. So class sizes are small because our administration makes small class sizes a priority.

    Dalilou: Thanks for the comment. I worked at a MS/HS combined campus last year in DC, and I think there are a lot of benefits to the setup. On the other hand, our administrators were mostly Michelle Rhee drones and had little to no clue about how to manage the overwhelmingly youthful and inexperienced staff they'd hired, so it didn't work out so well there. But given common planning, alignment of skills and content standards, and a common culture with more extra-curricular opportunities, I think that school setup could be really great.


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