Teachers in the small public high schools cropping up in many U.S. cities find the human dimension of their jobs bringing both strains and rewards.
By Bess Keller
"About how many hours did you put in a week?"
The question prompted an eruption of laughter. But there was nothing funny about the answer teacher Jody Madell finally delivered.
Starting at 8 in the morning, the faculty members at Ms. Madell's new, small secondary school in New York City routinely worked till 6:30 or 7 at night. And then, after the teaching, planning, meeting, and tutoring, she and others went home many evenings to solitary thought and a heap of student work.
Now as a co-founder of a school not unlike her old one, where she plans to keep a hand in teaching while coaching her colleagues, the 39-year-old mother of two is about to ask a fresh band of teachers to shoulder similar burdens. The audacity of it makes her laugh.
"There's no way I can do [that job] and be a parent," she admitted.
A major strand in the current national push to improve secondary education is the movement to scale down schools into smaller, more personalized units, especially for students facing the greatest obstacles to success.
Hundreds of small schools and learning communities have cropped up in recent years, famously helped along by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's $1.5 billion campaign to raise the numbers of students who graduate from high schools ready for college and work. (The foundation also helps support Education Week¡¯s annual Diplomas Count report on graduation-related issues.)
Amid a push to improve U.S. secondary education, interest has mounted in getting students and teachers into settings that are smaller and more personalized than is typically the case in large, comprehensive public high schools.
Whatever promise the small-schools approach holds, though, there's widespread agreement it won't be realized without a sufficient supply of teachers who are up to a triple threat of challenges: urban teaching in the context of a start-up operation, often with a heavy dose of surrogate parenting thrown in.
And as Ms. Madell and many other small-schools educators can attest, ensuring that supply will be no simple task.
"Human capital is going to make or break this enterprise," said Timothy S. Knowles, who directs the University of Chicago's Center for Urban School Improvement, which opened its first small high school last September and plans several more. "Our view is human capital is gold."
Many of the new small schools, especially the ones in cities, virtually guarantee teachers long hours as they struggle against the inadequate preparation of their students. Teachers pour their time, too, into shaping the new institutions, where they are obliged to wear a number of hats.
Ironically, it is the human dimension of small schools "precisely the attribute that experts see as their greatest strength" that can be the most draining. When a school is small enough for teachers and students to know each other well, teachers come face to face with the meager advantages available to the youngsters they teach.
"You can read the first paragraph of their biographies and be in tears," said Christopher N. Maher, the founding principal of the Academy for College and Career Exploration, a small high school that opened in Baltimore in 2004. "If you are a teacher, especially in a small school, you feel it."