Sunday, March 26, 2006

Size Matters

Being small isn’t easy. Just ask Joanne Jacobs author of Our School : The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea, and the School That Beat the Odds. Last summer, in an article published on she began to point out the problems of structure that small schools face. She points out that schools that concentrate on structure as their focus for the first 4 years are plagued with the dilemma of placing academic rigor as a secondary priority. Teachers feel disheartened, and parents opt not to send their children to them. She makes these claims while looking at large schools that recently became restructured. They know the former traditional model and some of its benefits, and wonder why small schools cannot offer the same.
QHST is different. Recently, we have been asking ourselves where we are headed. Many of the staff here at QHST are looking for the next challenge to tackle (Fine Arts Track, AP Math Classes, advanced English or History classes) while a few are not yet satisfied we’ve successfully handled the problems of structure (teaming, programming, comp-time) and hiring. Might this be a problem of philosophy? Are we trying to fit Big School ideas into a Small School setting? Square pegs and round holes never work.

This got me to thinking about things we will never do well (being a small school) and things we should always do well here at QHST. I know the list isn’t complete and I would love feedback.

Things small schools will never do well:
Have catalogs of highly specialized electives (Fine Art, Music, Math, English, AP History.)
Let students slip through the cracks of NYC.
Allow teachers to sit passively without having input into structural decisions.
Offer specialized positions for teachers.
Offer specialized classes for students
Allow teachers to wear one hat.
Put teacher needs ahead of student needs.
Allow school wide values to be disregarded
Whole School Events
Cross Community Classes

What is it that we at a small NYC School should do well?
Know our students
Expect everyone of all abilities to critically think (including other teachers)
Create a program that reflects the school’s philosophical goals
Meet as teams
Share Ideas
Plan Interdisciplinary around Essential Questions
Provide a physically and emotionally safe learning environment
Foster a
culture of reading
Exhibitions of critical thinking
Hear our students
Know our colleagues
Learn from our colleagues
Have a high attendance rate
Students and teachers get involved in the learning community
Create a positive academic school culture
Community wide events
Know our students (I know its on the list twice…we do it that really well)
Allow students to develop their life long learning skills

"Learning will be personalized with students assigned to one of three multi-grade
small learning communities, each with its dedicated faculty that will grow to a
maximum of 350 students in four years. Each student will have a faculty-advisor who meets with them in an advisory of no more than 18 students. These small learning communities will foster an intimate learning environment where students will know peers and adults well, and have their individual learning styles acknowledged.

The roles of students, teachers and administration will be more demanding, varied and complex than in traditional schools."
(Concept Paper Queens High School of Teaching)

We need to concentrate on the things we could do better. DEAR, Advisory, Teaching Institute, and making sure each student is known. We are not just a big school with fewer students. We are three small schools under one roof, and we must embrace the culture of a small school.
Sound familiar? This is exactly what Dr. Pedro Noguera, nationally renowned educator, urban sociologist and professor at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education explained to us this summer at the ISA Institute. Just because a school is small doesn’t mean achievement increases. “We must change the culture,” Noguera insisted, and enumerated suggestions for transitioning to SLCs (small learning communities). These included the need for shared vision and mission (organic, not mechanical), the need for planning time, the need for time for professional development, and the need to think carefully about administrative duties.
This online journal seems to be a real eye opener.

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