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Harlem Village Academies plans a graduate school for teachers

A kindergarten class at Harlem Village Academies, which plans to found its own graduate school of education.
A kindergarten class at Harlem Village Academies, which plans to found its own graduate school of education.
Denver Post

Harlem Village Academies, a charter-school network that has attracted a star-studded board and presidential accolades, plans to open a graduate school devoted to progressive education, making it the city’s latest charter chain to spawn its own graduate program.

The graduate school, which is in the first weeks of a yearlong planning period, will feature demonstrations by master teachers; a Japanese-style practice of refining a single lesson over many months; and full integration with the network’s five schools, said HVA founder and CEO, Deborah Kenny.

“It will be a way to promote the things I’m passionate about, and to help more teachers and students,” said Kenny, a former business executive who was inspired to create the schools in 2003 after her husband’s early death.

But unlike the other new teacher training programs that city charter school operators have started in recent years, Kenny is not trading on a record of strong student achievement or teacher satisfaction. HVA was among the city’s lowest-performing charter networks on last year’s state math and reading tests, and its schools have struggled with high student and teacher attrition.

News of the planned school — which surfaced last week in a New York Times op-ed — stirred skepticism among some former teachers, who said the K-12 network’s sky-high expectations coupled with scant support has driven the high teacher turnover.

“Scary to imagine HVA trying to open a graduate school,” Sabrina Strand, an educator who left the school after teaching there from 2006 to 2007 and has been an outspoken critic of the network, wrote in an email. “I imagine their methods will turn a lot of would-be teachers away from the classroom.”

HVA’s demanding culture — extended school days, mandatory Saturday classes for struggling students, uniforms, and a scrupulous conduct code — combined with test scores that have been high at times has earned the network some high-profile fans.

In 2007, after the school’s eighth-grade posted a 100 percent proficiency rate on the state’s math test, President George W. Bush toured the school and touted it as a national model. Today, its board members include singer John Legend, Katie Couric, Hugh Jackman, and Rupert Murdoch. Their support helped propel Kenny to become the highest-paid charter operator in the city.

Last year, bothered by the finite number of students her existing network could serve (about 2,000 at capacity), Kenny decided to expand her reach by starting a teacher-training school. She secured start-up funding from the media mogul Barry Diller and began hiring founding faculty. Six weeks ago, they embarked on a planning year, which will be followed by a one-to-two year pilot, after which the school will officially open.

A core element of the new graduate school is that it will be attached — figuratively, if not literally — to HVA’s K-12 schools. Shelley Harwayne, a longtime educator, author, and former superintendent of Manhattan’s high-performing District 2 who has joined the HVA graduate-school team, said the K-12 buildings will act like “teaching schoolhouses,” comparable to teaching hospitals for medical residencies.

Students will observe master teachers in front of children, then deconstruct their lessons, Kenny said. They will also practice teaching small groups, during after-school programs and as assistant teachers.

A central learning tool will be the Japanese concept of “kounaikenshuu,” a type of collaborative and continual professional development led by teachers. One method of that approach is “lesson study,” where teacher groups research, design, implement, revise, and retry a single lesson over many months.

The founding faculty includes two experts in this method, Makoto Yoshida and Bill Jackson; the teacher-authors Kelly Gallagher and Donna Santman; veteran HVA teacher Mary Lebitz; and Jason Zimba, a lead writer of the Common Core math standards.

Many details of the school have yet to be pinned down, such as whether or not the students will be working teachers, the cost and length of the program, and how students will be evaluated — a matter of growing importance as the federal government and others call for such schools to be judged by their graduates’ classroom performance.

HVA is only the most recent charter-school network to try to forge its own pipeline of teachers that it can be sure are ready for the rigors of its schools — an implicit critique of traditional teacher-training programs, which many say leave teachers ill-prepared for the classroom.

Last year, the city’s largest charter network, Success Academies, partnered with Touro College’s Graduate School of Education to create its own masters-granting program. HVA is considering partnering with an existing educational institution, though it has not disclosed which.

And in 2011, three multi-state networks — Uncommon Schools, KIPP and Achievement First — formed their own graduate school in New York, called Relay. It was the first new graduate school accredited in New York State in over a century and now enrolls non-charter school teachers as well.

Relay students are full-time teachers who learn techniques “that work on ‘Monday morning,’” as the school website puts it. And, unlike almost all other education graduate students, they must prove that their own students made academic progress in order to earn a degree.

Kenny said she envisions dividing her graduate students’ learning into roughly 10-15 percent coursework and research and 80-85 percent practice. “Students will learn something in theory that they then practice and see in action by coming into one of our five schools,” she said, adding that graduates would be prepared to teach at schools beyond the HVA network.

But three former HVA teachers questioned whether the network’s teaching model is one to emulate.

Strand, another teacher who taught at the school from 2006-2007, and a teacher in the high school from 2011-2012 described grueling 12-14-hour work days and criticized the mandatory Saturday test-prep sessions (teachers must lead six per year) and the required five-week summer planning and training “institute.”

The second 06-07 teacher, who asked to remain anonymous because she does not want to jeopardize her teaching career, said her principal observed her only one time and the administration “ignored” her requests for support.

The school “had a very ‘use them and lose them’ mentality,” she wrote in an email, adding that all four fifth-grade teachers in her school quit that year.

Others have pointed out that one of the 5-12 schools had a 61 percent teacher-turnover rate in the 2009-2010 school year, according to State Education Department figures. The other schools had a 26 percent teacher-attrition rate that year, the figures show.

At the end of the last school year, at least half of the roughly two-dozen HVA high school teachers left and the principal was replaced.

The former HVA high-school teacher, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his career, called his experience “awful,” saying he received little support and did not find useful the weekly faculty meetings that last until 6:30 p.m.

He said the school’s primary approach to discipline was an electronic demerit system, where teachers would stop class to use lanyard-attached devices to scan the barcode associated with a misbehaving student. Deans would later print and post these demerit lists, which were used to assign detentions and suspensions or determine eligibility for class trips, outside each classroom door.

“It was using negative reinforcement to try to control [students],” the teacher said.

Matt Scott, HVA’s chief operating officer, said the network does not publicly discuss “individual personnel matters.” But he said the recent high-school staff changes reflect “our commitment to ensuring our students receive the best education possible.”

He also disputed the state’s attrition numbers, saying they lump in teachers who were promoted or moved to another HVA school, and said the network-wide turnover rate in 2009-2010 was 23 percent.

He said a typical teacher’s day lasts about 10 hours, depending on the school, but that “many of our teachers go above and beyond and put in extra time to meet our students’ needs.”

Kenny said the teachers’ complaint — that such long hours and high expectations produce burnout — is a “very valid criticism” with which the school still struggles. She also said she agreed with the concerns about the demerit system, which she said was ended this summer and replaced by a new system that is still in development. She said that after efforts by teachers and staff, the school was seeing fewer students leave each year.

Three current HVA teachers, who were made available by the network, described an engrossing, collaborative working environment where teachers observe one another, problem-solve, plan in teams, and receive individual coaching.

“Ever since I began, my principal has had no door on his office,” said kindergarten teacher Hayley Spira-Bauer, now in her sixth year at the network. “There has never been a time that I’ve felt under-supported.”

On a recent afternoon outside an HVA school on 120th Street, several parents praised the school’s teachers, who they said assign (and check) challenging homework, take evening phone calls, and tutor students after class.

“It’s a lot of one-on-one love,” said parent Damany Mathis.

Anika Anand contributed reporting.

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