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

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.”

Shana Covel, a coach who works with four iZone360 schools, said the DOE selected schools with strong leadership and a culture of staff collaboration to participate in the Innovation Zone, which was funded with a mix of Race to the Top money, private donations and $10 million in city taxes.

iZone “gives teachers time and space to think through what they’re doing, teach deeply and look at 21st-century skills,” she said. “At lot of schools talk about it, but iZone is giving them resources to get it done: partners, time, access to laptops.”

Covel facilitates meetings between teams of teachers after school and connects principals with organizations and other school leaders who can support their innovation ideas.

At New Design, Covel’s current task is to help teachers implement a student-coaching project, where teachers review study skills with students one-on-one. It’s different from a tutoring program, she explained, because the coaching is about showing each student how to set his or her individual goals, not about reviewing content.

Other schools in the iZone, she said, are testing non-traditional class schedules; the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, for example, is rearranging the school day so that classes meet for longer blocks of time, but at fewer times per month. Another school, Bronx Writing Academy, is extending its school day and school year. Other schools are focusing on making their assignments more rigorous. At University Heights High School, for example, teachers are learning how to assign more projects to students.

“This adds a big accountability piece to our work,” said Maria Clausen, a special education teacher at New Design, who meets regularly with other teachers in a brainstorming group called a “beehive” to review her lesson plans and receive feedback. “Normally, when we lesson plan we do it for ourselves and for our students in the moment. Now in the beehive initiative, we are being asked to talk about it, and keep our data and our records.”

The iZone has also brought new technology to many of the participating schools, including New Design.

Some of New Design students’ assignments don’t seem all that different from what their peers in non-Innovation Zone schools are doing. In a ninth-grade life sciences class on a recent afternoon, students used laptops from one of the school’s iZone-funded computer carts to take photos of themselves and upload them to blogs, where they will be documenting their science lessons for the year.

But if it’s hard to tell exactly what effect the school’s iZone participation will have, said science teacher David Rothauser, that’s because true innovation will take time.

“It’s about making a mess, trying new things. It feels primordial,” Rothauser said. “When you’re dealing with 100 students, the unknowns are powerful and can be scary, so often you see teachers clinging to ineffective practices because it’s what they know, and they don’t have the support to invent new ways.”