Most classrooms were set up and schedules finalized at M.S. 223 in the Bronx this morning, 24 hours before students would arrive for the first day of school.
But teachers still needed to meet to review the lesson plans they are aligning to the state’s new curriculum standards, the Common Core. As they finished their breakfast and got to work, they were joined by Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and his top deputy, Shael Polakow-Suransky, on the first of their two school visits today.
Walcott gave the teachers a quick pep talk before sitting in on their training sessions. But he cautioned that the school’s past successes — which include a strong arts program, summer classes, and a New York Times Magazine profile — were not enough.
“I think this is a tremendous school. You’ve had major accomplishments,” Walcott said. “We need to make sure we model what you’re doing and also improve on that performance as well.”
Like all city schools, M.S. 223 is contending with the new standards, looming changes to state tests, and citywide special education reforms aimed at better integrating students with disabilities.
Today, the teachers focused on a small piece of the sweeping changes: developing performance tasks, or assessments that reflect the Common Core’s emphasis on real-world applications of classroom learning.
“[This] is probably one of the most difficult pieces of the puzzle,” Principal Ramon Gonzalez told reporters. “It’s difficult to think about six-week lessons that build up to a performance task, but it impacts everything the teachers are doing before that. And the Common Core has really pushed this agenda forward.”
Ashley Downs, the school’s special education coordinator, said the English department has set personalizing instruction as a top goal. “We’ve spent a lot of time trying to work with teachers to move away from whole-group mini-lessons to more specific, individual, one-on-one or small group conferences,” she said.
In one classroom, Heather Burns, the school’s literacy coach, was guiding English language arts teachers on how to use a rubric to help students become better writers.
The stakes are high: This year’s state tests will focus more heavily on essays than on multiple-choice questions.
“This spring there’s going to be a lot more nonfiction, and generally they’re making the tests much much harder — very different than the difficulty level we’ve seen in the past few years,” Polakow-Suransky told reporters.
“Chancellor [Merryl] Tisch has said we will see the results,” Walcott said about the state education official who helped engineer the changes to the exams. “They’re not going to necessarily be positive.”
After 90 minutes bouncing among M.S. 223’s academic department meetings, the pair sped downtown to visit another school: School of the Future, a secondary school where students are not required to take most state exams required for graduation.
While teachers waited for their guests to arrive, some discussed a set of major policy changes that are affect only high schools. In February, the Department of Education announced it would tighten the way high schools award credits and assign students to classes.
So for the first time, School of the Future and other high schools won’t be able to let seniors who are close to graduation take shortened schedules.
Because students have flexibility around state exams, School of the Future won’t have to deal with some of the acute scheduling challenges that some high schools are facing, according to Sarah Kaufman, who is spending the year at the school to learn how to be a principal.
But the school is still making some adjustments. For years, the school used an early dismissal on Thursday afternoons for professional development and also to allow students work at their internships, which are an integral part of the school, Kaufman said.
“It was great for our seniors,” she said.
Now, instead of the early dismissal, the school will hold a study hall where students will be able to work on class assignments and get help with college essays and resume writing.
Once Walcott and Polakow-Suransky arrived, the conversation quickly shifted to the city’s special education reforms, which department officials have touted much more widely than the high school policy changes. This year, schools are being required to accept students regardless of their disabilities as part of a push to create more inclusive education settings. The changes are causing anxiety and tension at some schools, but School of the Future teachers said they are prepared for the shift.
“Our school has always used an inclusion model, so it’ll be a smooth transition,” said Whitney Lukens, the school’s special education department chair, a 13-year teaching veteran. “It won’t be as hard for people to wrap their heads around the changes.”
Before he left, Walcott acknowledged the challenges facing a secondary school like the School of the Future, which loses many of its students in eighth grade and enrolls new ones in ninth grade.
“You have a monumental task in front of you,” he said. “But I know you guys are going to do it.”