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.