Named after the famously liberal Supreme Court justice at its founding in 1965, Louis D. Brandeis High School on West 84th Street has been known less for upholding noble ideas and more for being a last-resort school with an abysmal graduation rate. Still, its being marked for closure along with 14 other schools this year came as a shock to many in the community, who felt that the school’s environment and culture had trended toward the positive recently under principal Dr. Eloise Messineo.
A thread on education website gothamschools.org exploded with comments after it was announced that Brandeis would close, with many students lamenting the loss of their school, while several neighborhood residents wrote they were happy to see new schools coming in to the building.
Brandeis, which will “phase out” until this year’s freshmen graduate, is due to be replaced by three smaller schools, which will each expand as the old high school shrinks to eventually fit the hulking building’s capacity. Additionally, the Department of Education says there is a strong possibility of more schools moving into the campus the phase-out progresses.
“Brandeis is a school that had been struggling for a long time. It had seen improvement particularly around safety in the past few years, but student performance continues to lag, with a graduation rate around 33 percent,” said Melody Meyer, a department spokesperson. “Closing schools that have had this kind of chronic struggle shows us that systemic change can make a dramatic difference in a short amount of time.”
Messineo, who did not respond to requests for comment, may stay at Brandeis, helm another school on the campus or move on, according to education officials.
The schools coming in are the Innovation Diploma Plus High School, a “transfer” high school for students who might not earn their credits elsewhere; the Global Learning Collective, which will focus on an international approach to learning; and the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers, whose mission is to give students the skills they need for both “green jobs” and college.
The breakup of Brandeis is evidence of the “small schools” movement that has been a hallmark of the Bloomberg and Klein administration, as well as the Bill Gates Foundation. In this model, physical facilities are not changed, but several smaller schools take residence in a building that once housed only a large school.
Although Gates has acknowledged in recent years that school size may not be the key factor he once thought it was, the department is adamant that in this case as well as others, breaking up the behemoths is the way to go and has proven results.
“Since 2002, we’ve opened 290 small schools,” Meyer said. “Most all have had graduating classes, but the most recent graduation rates are about 76 percent. The citywide rate is 62 percent and many schools were opening on campuses with graduation rates similar to Brandeis.”
Ron Davis, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, said the union has not yet reached a conclusion on the small schools trend. In the initial years following a school break-up, the union has observed conflict between different administrators in one building, Davis explained. But he added that the model could prove to be effective in the long term.
The search for new Brandeis schools began with an application outreach for those who want to start new public schools.
“Every May, we have a big open house where we talk to people about the new school application process,” said Peter Dillon, executive director of New School Policy at the Office of Portfolio Development who has helped spearhead the new Brandeis campus schools. “In the summer we host workshops that help people put together applications. “It’s a really thoughtful collection of pieces, a portfolio that represents the best thinking behind that school that includes things like a sample student schedule and letters to parents.”
Once the department’s annual (and dreaded) progress reports came out and the decision to close Brandeis was reached, Dillon explained, the department tried to identify three schools that would address the needs of the current Brandeis population. The new schools will draw from all five boroughs, including the immediate Upper West Side neighborhood, and use the citywide high school application process.
“The ultimate sense was that we wanted to be providing a wide range of choices,” Dillon said. “So we have one CTE [career and technical education] school, one transfer school and the global learning school. They all serve English Language Learners and special ed students.”
Dillon assured that the strong relationship the current principal has fostered with the community will continue and believes that Brandeis itself can even improve in the next few years.
“In many of the campuses where we’ve closed and replaced schools, as the phase-out school gets smaller, they’re able to additionally personalize and focus on achievement. So the last couple of graduating classes tend to do better than they did before the phase-out or closure was announced.”
The new schools’ progress will be measured with standard department assessments, but because it takes four years for a graduation rate to be established, officials look at indicators such as 9th grade credits earned to make sure they are on the right track.
“The sense of possibility is tremendous,” Dillon said.
Each of the principals who will helm a school for the first time next fall have taken an active role in conceiving their school’s mission and curriculum. Following are profiles of these educators, along with an overview of each school’s curriculum and mission.
INNOVATION PLUS DIPLOMA
Casey Jones, a former technology teacher in the system who will lead Innovation Plus Diploma High School, explained what a “transfer” school entails: “The school is designed for students who have not had success in traditional setting. They are over-age and under-credited. It’s an opportunity for students to get their regents diploma.”
Students will range in age from about 16 to 20, Jones said, depending on the pool of applicants.
Diploma Plus is a larger model for schools throughout the Northeast that Jones became acquainted with as a teacher at Innovation Technology High School in Queens. He attended New York Leadership Academy, a department program that trains teachers to become school administrators, to foster his ability to bring that model to a new city public school.
Instead of using exams to measure proficiency, Diploma Plus students achieve “competencies” through the practical application of skills and knowledge based on Bloom’s taxonomy, a well-known measurement standard for education.
“When I was in high school we measured everything with tests. But they didn’t tell you how well I was doing, they just said I was able to get 8 out of 10,” Jones said. “Competencies vary depending on what subject they are taking, but it’s a way of seeing where they are in terms of acquiring skills, from beginning to mastery.”
The evaluations could entail anything from simply recalling something to being able to apply that knowledge. Students will keep a work portfolio as they complete their competencies.
“Our learning environment will be student-centered and not teacher-centered,” Jones said. “We want what we teach our students to be relevant. Kids today learn so differently than we did.”
One of the school’s unique features will be a trimester model, which allows students to complete many more credits than they normally would so they can make up missed credits more quickly. But the staff don’t see the school as a diploma factory—they hope it will be a place where students learn that they can overcome obstacles or troubles from their past. Jones believes the social quality of the building will be just as vital as academics.
Furthermore, the school will have strong technology and internship components to prepare students for the working world. To that end, Jones is eager to work with businesses and residents in the neighborhood.
“I’m actually very excited about the opportunity,” he said. “It’s a beautiful site, has great potential and the principal currently there has done a lot of work creating a positive culture.”
GLOBAL LEARNING COLLECTIVE
Jennifer Zinn, 31, director of the Global Learning Collaborative, has long had a passion for education with an international focus. She has taught in several internationally themed high schools in Texas and Staten Island and is an accomplished world traveler both on her own and with student groups. Zinn’s passion for the wider world led her to found this endeavor, a school which already has a bilingual website and aims to graduate “global citizens.”
Students, Zinn explained, will come from “all different backgrounds from across the city, as well as newcomers from different countries. Our focus is on meeting their learning needs.”
English language learners will be educated side by side with native speakers and vice versa.
“We’re excited to be in the neighborhood where there’s such a rich level of different opportunities, organizations and institutions like the museum, which can help students get to know the world around them,” she said.
What really makes the school different is its instruction model. All classes (including “global language” courses—Mandarin or Spanish) will be 90 minutes instead of 45, rely on a system of written feedback instead of grades. Every fifth day will offer students a break with an alternative learning experience.
“The aim is to learn something tied in with curriculum or with the idea of ‘global competence,’” Zinn said.
Some of the things Zinn imagines taking place on these alternative learning days include guest speakers on topics like world hunger, or world AIDS day.
“We could have guests speakers like a professor from NYU, Hunter or Columbia, or a Peace Corps alumnus,” she said.
But the most regular activities taking place on these “off-days” would be seminars, or ongoing projects directed by students’ interest.
“If they are interested in basketball, then they’ll sit with their project mentor and figure out how we can connect basketball to math, English, social studies and world language. They’ll conduct research projects that culminate in not only a paper, but they also get to decide if they want to present through a blog, a film, whatever,” Zinn said.
Because the school’s formation was announced after the first round of high school applications, Zinn is still eagerly recruiting students for her first class of 108 freshmen. She’s also hiring faculty “who really believe in work that we’re doing,” she said.
URBAN ASSEMBLY SCHOOLS FOR GREEN CAREERS
There are a large number of Urban Assembly schools scattered throughout the city with focuses on subjects like law and justice, or writing and arts. They are all partly funded and conceived by the Urban Assembly, a nonprofit that works with the city.
The Urban Assembly school that will open in Brandeis’ campus, however, will be the first of its kind. A “career technical education school” or CTE, this school will be the model for more CTEs in the city, as well as for green schools throughout the country.
“This school will be the first of its kind in this country, preparing kids for the green careers everyone’s talking about,” said Richard Kahan president of the Urban Assembly, the school’s parent organization.
While it’s a career-oriented school that intends to prepare students to go right into the workforce, Kahan added that, “every student will have to complete every requirement for college, so they will have option of going down several work and career paths, but everyone will have to meet the same standards.”
The school’s project director (who will officially become principal this summer), A.J. Rathmann-Noonan, has been training at another Urban Assembly school in Brooklyn. Her background is in science, and in the curriculum planning process she said that she’s been expanding on the labs and workshops that have resonated the most with her students over the years.
The school is going to be a collaborative effort between the Urban Assembly, the Department of Education and various other city institutions such as construction and real estate organizations, CUNY and the Parks Department, which will help with the curriculum and provide internships.
Rathmann-Noonan said that municipal agencies like the Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability and the Office of Environmental Remediation, “have helped us understand what green careers are and where the job openings are going to be in future.”
The curriculum planning process involves a lot of “going backwards,” she explained, starting with what skills students will need in the workforce and ending with how to teach them those skills.
The school’s structure is going to be radically different from other city schools, with a year-round calendar (nope, no extended summer break) and no grade levels.
Instead, Urban Assembly Schools for Green Careers will be divided into three levels based on proficiency, with the third level being primarily work experience.
As a pioneering green-oriented school, administrators are studying the possibility of making the building a model for retrofitting schools to be green.
Like Zinn and Jones, Kahan is excited about the opportunities found in the neighborhood.
“Most of our partners are in Manhattan,” he said, “so our kids are going to be going to those workplaces a lot. It’s an ideal location.
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