In wake of new union contract, 62 schools approved to 'break the rules'

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city and the teachers union had agreed on a new contract two months ago, he promised that one provision would let schools “reinvent themselves.”

On Monday, city and union officials announced which schools will be able to do so by opting out of certain union rules and chancellor’s regulations, starting this September. Sixty-two schools were selected from 107 applicants to take part in the experimentation program, known as Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence.

The participating schools will be able to “break the rules,” as Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris put it, though the city offered few details about the dozens of plans for doing so that it approved in conjunction with the teachers union.

Particulars were provided for three of the schools, including the Community Health Academy of the Heights in Washington Heights, a neighborhood struggling with high obesity rates. The school wanted to incorporate lessons in the kitchen to teach students healthier eating and cooking habits, but was restricted from doing so because of rules related to the use of the kitchen, Principal Mark House said. Access to that space lets them experiment with ways to teach kids about health.

“This just makes sense,” House said.

Next year, the Academy, which teaches students in grades 6-12, will stagger class times so that older students begin school later than younger students. More than student learning, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said that change will help with teacher retention.

Debbie Mendez, a parent at the school and head of the PTA, agreed, recalling her own time as a teacher. Flexible schedules gives teachers “an opportunity to not burn out,” she said. “The amount of time and tolerance a teacher has [for students] is wonderful, but it gets challenging.”

Science teacher Amir Tusher, who has been at the school for eight years, said he is excited about changes to the school’s teacher evaluations. There will be an option for teachers to choose a specific skill to focus on, instead of having the principal sitting in the classroom and then deciding what skill the teacher should hone, he said.

In another proposal, the School of Integrated Learning, a middle school in Brooklyn, will mix large lecture classes with small classes for high-needs students. And Brooklyn International High School, where students are exempt from most Regents exams, has also developed a new teacher evaluation model that would include visits from peer teachers. The city did not explain what changes had been approved at the other 59 schools on Monday.

The scope of the changes has been the subject of debate since the contract was introduced, with some union members voicing concern about the implication that union contracts restrict innovation and that the program would weaken protections for teachers. Other union critics say the program won’t give enough freedom from contract rules for true experimentation.

“The lack of detail makes us wonder if this is just meant to distract us from the fact that the teachers’ contract puts too many restrictions on how schools are run,” Jenny Sedlis, executive director at StudentsFirst NY, said in a statement.

Without information on financial or other support for participating schools, there are also questions about how the schools will implement the changes.

The schools whose plans were announced Monday have already cleared two hurdles. The 62 schools met a tight deadline to develop their plans and have them approved by parent leaders after the contract was ratified. Once approved by the city and the union, 65 percent of a school’s unionized staff also approved the proposals.

The city and the union have said they plan to include 200 schools in the program over the next five years. The initial proposals, Fariña said, will “serve as a guide for all of our school communities.”

Participating schools: Brooklyn Brooklyn Democracy Academy Brooklyn International High School Brooklyn New School Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies East Brooklyn Community High School Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders Gotham Professional Arts Academy Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School Lyons Community School Mark Twain Intermediate Olympus Academy High School P.S. 188 – The Michael E. Berdy School The International HS at Prospect Heights The School of Integrated Learning Bronx Bronx Arena High School Bronx Collaborative High School Bronx Community High School Bronx High School for Law and Community Service Bronx Lab School Bronx Park Middle School Bronx Writing Academy Community School for Social Justice Comprehensive Model School Project East Bronx Academy for the Future English Language Learners and International Support Preparatory Academy Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School KAPPA International High School Pan American International High School at Monroe The Bronx Compass High School The Highbridge Green School Manhattan Academy for Software Engineering Beacon School Castle Bridge School Central Park East II City as School High School Community Health Academy of the Heights (CHAH) East Side Community School Essex Street Academy Frank McCourt High School Harvest Collegiate Humanities Preparatory Academy Innovation Diploma Plus HS Institute for Collaborative Education Manhattan International High School NYC iSchool P.S. 353 The Neighborhood School Satellite Academy High School The Earth School The Ella Baker School The Facing History School The James Baldwin School Urban Academy Laboratory High School Vanguard High School West Side Collaborative Middle School Queens Academy for Careers in Television and Film International High School Middle College High School at LaGuardia Community College North Queens Community High School P.S. 71 Forest Elementary The Flushing International High School The International High School for Health Sciences Voyages Preparatory South Queens

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