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Global Studies bets 'transformation' funds on new tech, staff

To Joseph O’Brien, principal of Brooklyn’s School for Global Studies, there is no clearer indication of how new federal funds have led to higher achievement than Room 326.

The classroom-turned-computer lab, outfitted with 35 Apple computers purchased last winter, is being used by students to recover credits toward graduation and study languages online, and by parents who lack Internet access at home. In addition to two laptop carts and new smartboards for a dozen classrooms, the lab replaces the school’s once-meager technology offerings, which included aging classroom computers hampered by viruses and two broken smartboards.

“For the first time, our students were able to have a dedicated room where they could use the computer on their own time, whether after school or on their lunch hour, with staffed personnel,” he said.

Tasked with raising the school’s graduation rate when the Department of Education appointed him to run Global Studies last year, O’Brien sees the new lab as a main tool. He paid for the lab with $170,000 of the $890,000 in federal School Improvement Grants awarded to Global Studies because it landed on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools last year—requiring the city to overhaul it.

For Global Studies and 10 other schools on the list, the city chose “transformation,” meaning they would receive new principals and nearly $2 million in School Improvement Grants over three years to buy extra supplies and support. The city is starting to overhaul another 33 schools this year under three improvement models.

As the 6th through 12th-grade school enters its second year of transformation — bringing it a second infusion of cash — O’Brien said change is already being felt.

“We are no longer the school that we once were,” he said. “This school is really becoming an oasis of learning.”

Now he just has to convince families that that’s true.

“In the last five years I can count on one hand how many kids have gone to Global” from P.S. 58, a high-performing elementary school in nearby Carroll Gardens, said Lorie Glazer, a guidance counselor there. “It’s a school that is in the district, but it’s not a very sought-after school for our students.”

For years, enrollment at Global Studies has been shrinking, down to 400 this year. DOE space estimates, which many believe are inflated, say it could accommodate another 150 students or more.

“We’re always looking for more students. I want to get an awareness for our school and how successful we are right now,” said O’Brien, who previously was an assistant principal at Ralph R. McKee Career and Technical High School in Staten Island. “But that reputation is very difficult to break.”

Boosting enrollment would cushion the school’s budget — schools get more money for each student they serve, so adding students would pay off in Global Studies’ budget long after transformation funds are set to dry up — and also bring it one crucial step away from being shuttered. The city takes demand for a school into account when deciding which schools to close.

But getting more families to sign on could be a tall order. The low-slung building on Court Street, which houses two schools, has long kept a low profile. Some would-be applicants were likely scared away after the school made news in 2008 when several students were arrested for giving teachers a laxative-spiked cake as a senior prank, and again in 2009 when the principal at the time was arrested for allegedly attacking her husband with a box-cutter.

The real damage came when the high school was one of just nine schools to land an “F” on its city’s progress report last year. O’Brien called the grade “a scarlet letter” that he hopes will change when the city releases new school grades next month.

He said the new data would show a significant jump in the school’s graduation rate and English Regents exam passing rate.

O’Brien’s emphasis on testing reflects a sharp shift in philosophy for the school, which was founded as an alternative high school where students would be graded on projects instead of standardized tests. Because the school belongs to the Coalition of Essential Schools, students have in the past been exempted from almost all of the Regents exams required for graduation at most schools. But beginning this year, 9th-graders will take all the exams mandated by the state.

Luis Sierra, a junior who has attended the school since sixth grade, said this year, teachers seem to be taking academics more seriously, telling students that they wouldn’t tolerate late work, as some did in the past.

Another student, an 11th-grader who attended middle school on Long Island, said the school was becoming more demanding. “The change is good,” she said. “It’s more like what I’m used to. It’s what I need — the classes before weren’t really challenging.”

O’Brien attributes the boost in performance, in part, to the presence of computers that allow students to use Plato Online, a curriculum software program, to recover credits after failing classes—a practice that has come under scrutiny for allowing teachers to give students passing grades they have not earned. Global Studies students said they have been scrambling to make up credits after disorganization under the previous principals put them off track to graduate.

O’Brien said the computers also allow students who do not have Internet access at home time to complete assignments and become more aware of their graduation requirements and goals they need to meet—something that he hopes will attract more families to Global Studies.

O’Brien spent $170,000 of his federal grants on computer technology and on hiring Clare Daley, the school’s technology teacher. He has also funded in-class coaching for teachers and has plans to bolster after-school programming this year with band and drama programs, which will make use of the school’s new black-box theater, which was once an empty classroom.

And at a time when many schools’ staffs are contracting, O’Brien has added a host of new positions. In addition to Daley, over two years, he has brought on an assistant principal of safety and security, a band teacher, one “turnaround” teacher and six “master” teachers (one of whom left last year).

“They’re trying to fix [the school],” one student said about the new administration while waiting for class to begin on a recent morning. She said the school seemed more organized this year, with students getting their new schedules and Metrocards for the first time before the year began.

But she said change had come at a cost: “All the good teachers left” over the summer, she said.

Twelve of the school’s 29 teachers are new this year, a fact that O’Brien related to the transformation process.

“Some teachers felt like being a transformation school is a lot of work,” he said. Six teachers left for other schools in June.

O’Brien said he was confident that teachers who stayed are on board with plans to improve the school.

One of them is Daley, who is helping students receive certification in Microsoft Office and IC3—a computing curriculum recognized in the technology industry.

“We’re also looking into becoming an Apple site, so students could be certified as Apple technicians,” she said. “That means they would be able to walk out of here able to land a position at Apple.”

Daley said that, besides providing students with valuable job skills, the computers are addressing a need particular to the high-poverty school’s families.

“Sometimes the assumption is that all students have the resources that we have at home. Many of them don’t have access to technology at home,” Daley said.

According to O’Brien, parents will be able to use the computer labs outside of class time to search for jobs and take online classes in a second-language thanks to a newly-purchased site license for the entire school community to use Rosetta Stone language software. This year every teacher received an iPad, which they will use to track student performance, access transcripts, and take notes.

“I thank god every day that we have the School Improvement Grant funds,” he said.

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