scott conti

draining the pool

New York

An offbeat school gets funds and a push to try something new

Maria Clausen, a special education teacher at New Design High School, works with students on laptop computers provided by the iZone program. Teachers at New Design High School have long tried to conduct familiar tasks in new ways. They write announcements in graffiti chalk in the hallways, maintain a freestanding "pond" inside the science lab, and ask students to fashion outfits out of newspaper in a design class. But this year, innovation is a second job for New Design's teachers. As one of 26 schools participating in the Department of Education's iZone360 initiative this year, the quirky high school on Manhattan's Seward Park Campus is getting extra funding to let teachers test out homegrown strategies to boost student achievement. iZone360 is the smallest slice of the DOE's two-year-old Innovation Zone, which expanded from 80 schools last year to 163 this year, but it offers the most flexibility. The zone's two other divisions offer online learning and small-scale pilot projects. In contrast, schools in iZone 360 are encouraged to rethink every aspect of their existence, from their schedules to how they use space to the way that teachers work together. A month into its first year as an iZone 360 school, New Design is using the $30,000 it received to pay teachers overtime to coach students one-on-one; host weekly brainstorming sessions, called “beehives”; and methodically document their lesson plans and deliver feedback to students online using an organizational tool called Teacher Dashboard. The point, according to Principal Scott Conti, is to let teachers make their own attempts at figuring out how to promote innovation by giving teachers extra pay to imagine alternative teaching practices — and then try them in the classroom. “The DOE has said, ‘We don’t know what you’re going to create, but we’re going to support you. Go out and do it, make mistakes,’" he said. "The city is saying through the iZone that the traditional model of education that dominates the system no longer works.”