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.
“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).