Saturday, February 7, 2015

Time to Chuck the Small Schools Movement- A Commentary by Bronx Teacher Aixa Rodriguez

#WeneedaRestorationMvt: Time to Chuck the Small Schools Movement

By Aixa B. Rodriguez

The small schools movement in NYCDOE high schools has got to go. It has run its course and enough students have been experimented on, enough veteran teachers have been pushed out via institutional ageism and the UFT high school divisions have been broken. It is time for this lie to end. We need a restoration movement. These boutique schools based on half-baked themes, were really “charter lite” and allowed for many a despotic principal to burn their small faculty out. I could go on and on on about how these “small” schools have impacted the teaching profession, but I first, let us focus on what this 99cents bargain store attempt at education reform has done to the students of the Bronx. They have suffered under the lie of “school choice” and endured a narrowed curriculum, less services and supports, less electives and less variety of sports and after school extra-curricular activities. The very existence of small schools has impacted the remaining large comprehensive schools and the education of those students in those schools.

The students at the small schools have been sold the illusion of “choice”. Once committed to one of the many schools that have all types of colors, logos, themes, designs, uniforms etc., it becomes painfully evident that your choices end there. Hoodwinked and bamboozled: the kids soon learn they were sold an idea in a glossy brochure that was not fully developed.  Students are subject to taking courses based on what the school offers, and if your schedule permits it. Small schools do not have the funding to have a variety of languages, electives, or even levels of classes. Small schools do not have the ability to have flexibility in which teacher a student can choose to learn from. Have a personality conflict? Too bad, you won’t have options to choose from. Small schools most often don’t have “departments” larger than four teachers and they are usually committed to one grade. If you have an IEP that is an entire other set of problems, because you will be limited to the classes that fit your needs, ICT and SETTS, your therapies etc. It complicates your schedule, and you might find yourself having to take SETTS during lunch, or come to gym 0 period. Not exactly an attractive choice for a teen with a commute since local schools have died the slow death. No choice in classes. No choice in teachers. No wonder credit accumulation is a problem for many of these vulnerable students.

Let’s face it small schools do not, and will never have the supports that a large comprehensive school does. Even at year 4, small schools will not have the arts, music and drama faculty, the social services, the college counseling, the variety of sports and teams, the librarians, the computer/technology teachers, etc. The small schools will never be able to afford to pay the salaries of these professionals. The kids who attend these schools will not be able to benefit from the necessary services and instruction these people provide. This is well known. It is time to stop lying about whether this is okay. It is not.

Stop lying that a kid clicking out a tune on a keyboard in a classroom used for Social Studies and English from a Drama teacher who happens to know how to play the piano is getting the same instruction as a kid who attends a school that has an orchestra and music instruction for all 4 years. Stop lying that a little play done for parents in a cafeteria space is equal to fully produced musicals done on the large stages of the very school they attend only 30 years ago. Stop lying that the guidance counselor can give counseling sessions to all students, program all students, and help with college planning. Things fall through the cracks when one person does everything. Stop lying that teachers like myself can do an excellent job teaching both a foreign language and ESL in the same day to all levels. It is not happening. Stop accepting the mediocre for Bronx students. Stop it. Have the will to call out the injustice for what it is.

Why themes? The themes at many of these schools are not even  fully developed. There are many small schools with ridiculous names and ridiculous themes that have come and gone. The supposed close and personal education, and small class sizes promised by the small schools movement’s supporters does not happen and comes at a steep price. Honors classes, AP classes, remedial classes, business classes, psychology classes, life skill classes, all have taken a hit. Do Bronx students not deserve and need these courses? What’s the subtext of denying this to the students of the Bronx? Hmmm?

Stop lying that small schools can serve everyone well. There are populations of students being actively discriminated against by the very institutional structure created by small schools. English Language Learners, and students with IEPs and 504s have been impacted by the chaos of small schools. The rooms are limited. Teachers are forced to teach mixed level classes which wrecks the idea of consistent curriculum for grade levels in ESL. God forbid you need intense reading interventions, Wilson classes etc. If your small school isn’t hip to your needs, you will be grouped with everyone else for “equity” and spend effort trying to hide your weaknesses from your peers for fear of being discovered. #bullying #actingout #schooltoprisonpipeline.

Is it a choice when large comprehensive high schools have to absorb the excess students who don’t go to small schools at a “campus” bldg, and become extremely overcrowded, with the neediest kids, no real resources or extra supports to handle the chaos? Is it fair to those who chose to go to large schools to have their schools be collateral damage of the small schools movement?  Talk about #dontstealpossible ! Please. Every kid deserves the chance to find themselves. Small schools cannot serve the needs of all students, and when they close because they are disposable and are not beholden to the community and can be dissolved and created on a whim on a flimsy idea, then you don’t have alumni associations, the networks that many people use in the future as professionals. We are denying generations of students this access. What is the consequence of this to the students of the Bronx, raised in poverty, many of them immigrants and students of color? Hello?

Stop lying that small schools were great for teachers. Teaching as a profession has become collateral damage with the small schools movement in NYCDOE. The closing of schools just happened to cause a shake up that dumped out veteran teachers over 40, those with licenses no longer in vogue. It just happened accidentally that principals now with budgetary power had to worry not just about the teachers skill level but also their average salary level? It just so happened that entire schools could be populated with teachers all under 40? I was the oldest female teacher last year at 36. Oops institutional ageism. Where will mentors come from when you don’t have departments with veteran teachers? Science teachers mentoring Drama teachers. No mastery of the subject needed? Let’s all stop lying that the hours being put in for mentoring are not being fudged either. Teachers are being denied the opportunity for growth and self-actualization across the city. Our unions are unable to respond to this because they are fragmented in the buildings among small schools and subject to the popularity contests, petty cliquish competition and  too many inexperienced teachers who lack the knowledge to know why a certain initiative should not happen because of consequences like lack of credit accumulation or being out of compliance with the laws and therefore don’t push back against equally inexperienced principals.

We need to restore large comprehensive schools so the kids at a science school dont miss out on language, arts or technology. High school should give students the opportunity to explore the universe of ideas to prepare them for university. High quality programs are needed not high overhead for salaries for multiple principals overseeing the same basic classes under the illusion/delusion of choice. We need CTE classes like computer technology and automotive technology. We need music departments to collaborate with drama departments, dance departments and English departments and home economics departments and art departments to write plays, choreograph, act, build sets, and sew costumes. We need teachers of all ages and education levels. We need adjunct professors to be chairpersons of departments at high schools.  We need all students to have the same access to the same course diversity as is offered in suburban schools. We need our funding from NYS. We need to stop eduexperimentation in public schools on populations of vulnerable youth in poverty and youth of color. There was no informed consent for these EdDeforms. We need to implement strategies to help large schools function better, to be more responsive and inclusive of parents, to be less bureaucratic, but size is not the answer. We need to be innovative in how we communicate in the digital age. We need to be innovative in how we address discipline, safety and the need for consistent and safe and productive classroom environments.



Mike Klonsky said...

"Restoration movement"? You whistling Dixie?

Unknown said...

I agree with many of your points, and I teach at a relatively small school. I think that there needs to be a range of sizes of school--from small to large. However, if the thought or bias is toward all small schools, then there will not be sufficient sources for larger schools and that is a problem.

I think there needs to be a range of sizes because different kids and parents want different things. There is a close knitness to a small school that a large one doesn't have (and while I teach in a small school, my daughter went to a large school and I think it was the best thing for her). They are fishbowls and some kids need that. Others don't. I think it is an overstatement to say that kids can never get what they need at a small school (especially kids with IEPs), because ours, by and large do. We work very hard at that. You're right, however, that there are limited elective and such. But I think you go a little too far. There are a number of badly run small schools, but we are not all like that. That being said, as I stated, there is a usefulness in having a selection of different schools. My daughter, after elementary school, never wanted to go to a small school. She went to Baruch Middle School and then Edward R. Murrow High School. Murrow is a great school with tons of offerings and it was great for her. But I have known kids for whom it did not work--who should have gone to a smaller school. Different strokes.

Unknown said...

The small schools model is unsustainable and institutionalizes a lack of choice for families and students. When almost every large high school building is taken over by 5 or 6 small schools and the remaining large schools are overwhelmed with students and the school begins to "fail" and gets slated for closure and "turn around" there is no choice. Changing school culture and creating internal systems is not the same as controlling for size. Every student deserves to be taught by teachers who have colleagues to mentor them, a strong department that develops a consistent curriculum under the guidance of experts with mastery in their field. Small schools don't have big budgets and principals are encourages to hire more young untenured teachers with less experience because they cost less and they will do more in the hopes of getting tenure. High salaries cannot be sustained on a small and limited budget. This is a fact. The core teachers become important and all the other subjects and classes that make a well rounded person ready for the world and secure in their own selves are relegated to nonessential. The libraries in the colocated campus buildings become neglected, or are used for meetings more than research. I have worked at several small schools in different campuses. Evander, Roosevelt, Monroe and now Lehman. Its the same at each one. Fighting over facilities, students unable to take classes that a school one floor down offers. I am sorry to say but this is NOT OKAY. Any student being discriminated against and denied what they need is NOT OKAY. Families being told they have "choice" when it is all a sham is NOT OKAY. When the very same small school model with all its budgetary spending limits, color coded hallways and faux private school trappings is exported to Scarsdale, and the parents scream hooray, then maybe I will be convinced. Until then I see a particular population targeted for such EdDeforms, with the accompanied discrimination and a lot of well meaning, heart on their sleeves, neo-liberals trying to justify an initiative that has failed. Note, it was MY STUDENTS who brought up the injustice to me when I was a fresh faced idealist teacher in 2005, who believed in small schools, charters and choice. I didn't get here to where I am without battle scars. I have seen several small schools in the Bronx, and spoken to many a veteran teacher and ATRs. We need a system that works for all kids. If the small schools are unsustainable and have an impact on the large schools, if the charter schools routinely release students who end up in public schools, if teacher turn over is such that schools become disposable then those different strokes aren't working.

Unknown said...

I don't think you can generalize. I think there is a difference between small schools that are carved from a big school that is deemed to be failing and other small schools. The one I teach at has been around since the early 1980s. There are other schools that are small that are excellent. Over generalizing about small schools is like saying all large schools are bad. Call me an idealist if you will but I think there is room in the system for schools of different sizes and that is the kind of choices that should be offered to families.

Unknown said...

There is no room for school models that have an impact on the other types. If you are calling for choice, then the reality is the budgetary issues and space and facilities issues, and the population density issues all must be taken into consideration. The small schools I am talking about are the smalls schools initiated under the small schools movement promoted by Bill Gates. Schools that happen to be small are not subject the same caps on student enrollment and are still larger than 400 students. If they exist in their own building and have all the support systems then they are just not as big but in no way are they a "small school" in the sense I am referring to with shared campuses etc.

Unknown said...

aixa, you are totally on point. when i worked at a small school in the bronx, i was appalled by how many students with special needs did not receive the appropriate services. we basically tailored the ieps to the school, not to the student. if we didn't have the service or support, then it didn't go on the iep, even if the student needed it.
small schools usually lack access to OT and PT, and, at least at the small school where i worked, counseling services are basically non-existent. there's a problem when students who are classified as ED are spending their counseling sessions playing board games and eating snacks. it's an extra burden on special ed teachers when they are the ones who are providing ad hoc counseling sessions to students during class because the kids can't function otherwise.
any time i pushed for a student to have modified work, i was shot down by admin and other gen ed teachers. when i attempted to suggest co-taught classes or to provide me with the work in advance so i could modify it myself, no one was interested. it's understandable - with only a couple of teachers per department, it IS really daunting to even consider tailoring an assignment to one student. but these kids are entitled to certain accommodations, modifications, services, and support; otherwise, they wouldn't be considered special ed. it's a disservice to students who already are behind and struggling to place them in schools that are also lacking.

catt55 said...

Thank you for this. I've been there and back (now retired) and can attest to both the large comprehensive high school, the "zoned" community school, the small school developed on it's own to address specific needs or population(s), and the "small school movement" which displaced and destroyed the zoned, community schools - not just the "large" high schools but later on middle/intermediate schools, broken up into "mini" themed schools, and the legacy of so-called "school choice" which now impacts every single child in the the NYC public school system, from K-12: a complete scam. Parents have no idea what is being done to their children in the name of "reform" - there is no choice. Your child is being chosen; you are not in any way "choosing" the school. It's a crime and the ACLU should get involved and stop this corruption of public schools - no longer in the interest of the "public" and our neediest children.

Lisa said...

High school students, and even many (if not most) college students change their career choices based on courses they take just because they sound interesting, or courses out of their primary major/track. Limiting their exposure to different subject areas limits life choices for many years. In addition, it is fascinating to discover how two seemingly disparate courses relate to each other. When I was an undergraduate, I attended a college with eight week "terms." A full class load was two courses. I realized at one point that no matter which two courses I took--perhaps business and history, or sociology and literature--there was always some connection. This "aha! moment" opened up an entire world to me. I continue to benefit from seeing how the world is connected in some highly unusual ways. The small schools movement adversely affects our human development.

Howiecopywriter said...

I have recently been working on an art/music project where I call up teachers and administrators in NYC public schools. It is interesting that Riverdale Bronx (a wealthier neighborhood) doesn't have the same level of "small school" menagerie... MS 141 is still more or less in one piece.But where do they go to high school??

Then when you get more into the Kingsbridge neighborhood, it is back to the Walton "campus" sliced into 5 schools. Small school "theme schools" are even creeping into Middle School and k-5 grade. How can you put a 1st grader into an "Environmental Science school"?? Really bad and weird.

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