More Time

Sensing interest, group wants to replicate Brooklyn school's unusual schedule

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida / File photo

A roomful of sophomores at Brooklyn Generation School in Canarsie brainstormed sports-related jobs Tuesday — lawyers, trainers, coaches, commentators — at the start of a month-long course devoted to life after high school. Down the hall, students kicked off a class about government participation.

Meanwhile, their core-subject teachers settled into a month-long break from teaching — a bit of creative scheduling that keeps Brooklyn Generation students in school a month longer than their peers at other public schools.

At a time when both the city and state want students to spend more time in school, but have tangled over the financing, Brooklyn Generation offers an enticing model: Its school year is 20 days longer than the rest of the city’s district schools, but the number of days teachers work and the school’s budget are roughly the same as other schools’. The arrangement has approval from the United Federation of Teachers, whose contract dictates when teachers can work but makes exceptions for special cases.

Now, the nonprofit that founded the school is hoping to replicate the model in the coming years. It has produced a policy paper that it hopes Mayor Bill de Blasio — who has advocated for expanded learning time in the form of more and longer pre-kindergarten classes and middle school after-school programs — and officials in other cities will use as they experiment with new models to boost student achievement.

The advocacy comes against a mixed track record at Brooklyn Generation. After seven years in operation, the school has earned high marks for offering an engaging and collegial atmosphere, but its graduation rate lags behind that of schools with similar students. Still, teachers and students are optimistic about the model.

“It’s working,” English teacher Louise Bogue told a group of visitors Tuesday. “But it’s still a work in progress.”

The nonprofit Generation Schools Network founded the Brooklyn school in 2007, one of several small high schools to replace the giant South Shore High School. The new school’s unusual schedule required an agreement between the UFT and the education department.

Twice a year, Brooklyn Generation students spend a month in full-day, credit-bearing courses centered on college and careers — they might shadow professionals, apply to colleges, or study budgeting. Meanwhile, other subject teachers spend one week during each of those months planning and training, and the rest of the time on vacation, so that they teach no more than the state-required 180 days.

The school’s weekly schedule also builds in lots of time for teacher collaboration — at least one period a day is intended for team planning and all teachers meet for 90 minutes every Wednesday.

To afford its 200-day year, the school maintains a small staff that takes on multiple roles. For example, required-subject teachers also lead elective or remedial classes, some teachers do administrative work, and teacher teams handle tasks usually assigned to deans, which the school does not have.

City reviewers in 2012 praised the school’s “wide-ranging professional development offerings” and said the school’s “strategic” scheduling led more students to pass the state Regents exams. On Tuesday, several teachers touted the school’s model.

Principal Lydia Colon Bomani said that even if schools did not adopt the entire model they could still try aspects of it, such as the courses that combine career planning and academic work.

Deshawna Thompson teaches a class on sports management at Brooklyn Generation School.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Deshawna Thompson teaches a class on sports management at Brooklyn Generation School.

“There are many schools that could benefit just from taking parts of it,” said principal Lydia Colon Bomani.

But the school’s approach is still being refined, even as its designers hope to spread it to more schools.

Some students and their families struggle with the longer year, and the school has yet to reach its own enrollment targets. The schedule also creates logistical hurdles. For instance, the city doesn’t issue students free MetroCards until the start of the normal school year, administrators noted.

The school has yet to fully implement the Generation Schools Network model, which is detailed in the policy paper. For example, while teachers collaborate across disciplines, the school had not yet combined its English and history and math and science classes into unified courses.

The paper also identifies some district-level policies that could hamper efforts to replicate the model. For example, teacher evaluations based in part on student growth, a new requirement in New York City, do not easily account for the school’s flexible grouping, where students rotate among teachers.

And the school must still ensure that students’ extra class time is well spent. The Department of Education reviewers in 2012 said that “questions and tasks generally lack rigor” at the school, and its 51 percent four-year graduation rate trails the average for the city and demographically similar schools.

Despite these obstacles, the network hopes to open new schools in New York and Denver, Co., in the coming years, according to Generation Schools Network co-founder, Jonathan Spear. It also plans to continue coaching schools that are part of the city’s Middle School Quality Initiative, which involves extending their school days. (The network tried to open two charter schools in New York in 2010, but its application was denied. Spear said the cause was “changing expectations” about the proper relationship between the boards of the nonprofit and the charter schools.)

The network also wants de Blasio to push for greater school-scheduling flexibility in its contract negotiations with the teachers union, Spear said.

Creative scheduling was a hallmark of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s prized Innovation Zone program, but neither de Blasio nor Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has yet shown an appetite for such experimentation. Still, Spear said he is confident that the Generation Schools model fits within the administration’s push for students to spend more hours and years in school.

“We’re really encouraged by the new mayor and the chancellor,” he said.

This story is part of a multi-city series on expanded learning time, with funding from the Ford Foundation, which supports “more and better learning time” in high-need communities. Participating along with Chalkbeat’s four bureaus in the series are the Notebook (Philadelphia), Catalyst Chicago, and EdSource (California).

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”