Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s new idea-sharing initiative for schools launched earlier this month with a lot of fanfare, but not many specifics.
The Learning Partners program, set to more than triple in size next year, puts schools in groups of three with one school in charge of opening its doors to share what’s working for its teachers and students. And as the 21 schools now participating in a pilot version have begun those visits, it’s growing clearer how Fariña’s signature program—a big bet on collaboration, rather than competition—will play out.
One thing that’s clear from a two-page memo sent to principals is that the program won’t cost the city much, though it will be a big time commitment for schools.
This spring, principals at the 21 pilot schools will be reimbursed up to $10,000 each for overtime and to pay substitutes filling in for staff who are on school visits. Next year, the reimbursement for the entire school year will be $15,000, which would cost the city a little more than $1.1 million if 75 schools sign up as planned.
And with schools facing a Friday deadline to apply to be involved next year, the city has cast a wide net to attract partner schools. To qualify, the school must have a principal with two to four years experience, or have any one of a list of “high-need” qualities: at least 70 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch or are black or Hispanic; or at least 20 percent of its population are students with disabilities, English Language Learners, or chronically absent, among other factors.
Fariña said she picked the initial group of host schools based on strengths like improving instruction for English Language Learners, fostering “student voice and independence,” and involving parents. M.S. 503 in Sunset Park, for instance, was picked for its use of “teacher teams,” while New Dorp High School was picked for its use of student data.
For the partner schools tasked with visiting host schools, the memo says that “approximately” four staff members will have to plan to spend about 10 hours per month working on the program.
Participating principals acknowledged the burden, but said it could be worth the extra work.
“Really, the learning was more of the incentive,” said Paul Didio, principal at P.S. 159 in Queens, which is participating as a partner school. “I’m only on the job for three years now,” he added.
The school-to-school approach to professional development will be a marked shift from the Department of Education’s approach under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who often brought in outside consultants and coaches. Speaking at the city’s teachers union conference this weekend, Fariña said she wouldn’t be eliminating consultants, but talked up the Learning Partners Program as a shift.
“The idea is that if we find schools that are willing to share with others the secret to their success, we can get better very quickly,” Fariña said.
While Fariña noted many of the schools leading her pilot were once struggling schools at risk of closing, it’s clear that the program won’t be an explicit intervention strategy for failing schools. One of the selection criteria for partner schools is that they are already doing well in a specific area, but want to go “from good to great.” (A department spokesperson said that would be determined through a holistic evaluation of the school’s goals.)
And though Fariña has made it clear she wants to scale the program up quickly, officials haven’t finalized how they will evaluate if it has been successful. Officials said that in June, schools will present to the department what they learned from visiting their host schools. Next year, the department will develop a more comprehensive evaluation for the program.
For now, New Dorp Principal Deirdre DeAngelis said that it would bring a dose of reality to professional development.
“We know our everyday obstacles,” said DeAngelis, whose school was picked to share its celebrated approach to analytical writing and small learning communities. “We’re not walking into some paid PD where someone’s talking philosophically in some general way.”
Fariña has staked the program on the idea that collaboration can be a key driver of school improvement, another break from Bloomberg-era policies. DeAngelis said the current school evaluation system, which measures schools against each other, created a culture of competition.
“It really created this atmosphere of, shut the doors and don’t share,” DeAngelis said. “I’m not going to tell you that when people were here I didn’t feel like, oh, I’m giving away all my secrets.”
Participating principals are also facing a less philosophical problem: how to fit the school visits into their schedules. Host schools were supposed to send teams on 10 school visits and host six visits of their own by the end of the year, but Didio said last week that he had only visited his host, P.S. 503, once so far.
Other principals in the 21-school pilot program said that they too haven’t been able to visit each other’s schools more than once in the three weeks since the launch. Given the state testing season and a 11-day spring break, it’s been difficult to find time to visit schools at the pace that the program will eventually require, they said.
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