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Co-located 'Learning Partners' forge bonds as they swap ideas

Educators from three schools in the John F. Kennedy High School campus met on Thursday as part of the Learning Partners program.
Educators from three schools in the John F. Kennedy High School campus met on Thursday as part of the Learning Partners program.
Patrick Wall

Instead of traveling to far-off countries, what if exchange students stayed closer to home — say, in the building where they already go to school?

Chancellor Carmen Fariña floated that idea to educators Thursday in the Bronx’s lumbering John F. Kennedy High School campus, which is home to seven small schools. Speaking to three of the schools, which have struck up a close working relationship, Fariña suggested the next step could be to trade teachers and honors students for a week at a time as a way to swap ideas and sow goodwill.

The triad — Marble Hill High School for International Studies, the Bronx School of Law and Finance, and Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy, or BETA — are members of Fariña’s signature initiative, called Learning Partners. Its own sort of exchange program, Learning Partners sends educators on regular visits to high-achieving host schools (in this case, Marble Hill) so they can gather ideas and build professional networks. The program cuts to the core of Fariña’s school-improvement philosophy — that the best people to train educators and offer ideas to better their schools are fellow educators.

Among the 73 Learning Partners schools, the Kennedy campus triad is the only group housed in the same building, or co-located. Co-location can be an explosive issue, and with many school buildings already overcrowded and new charter schools seeking space, it might become even more so.

As the city prepares to release new co-location guidelines, Fariña said Thursday the issue doesn’t need to be divisive, and she pointed to the three Bronx schools as a model of how to make space sharing work. She even suggested that other schools that share buildings could come visit these three — a sort of Learning Partners, co-location edition.

“We struggle so much about co-location, but there are ways to deal with it,” she told the group of educators from the three schools gathered in the campus library. “And you have found a way.”

The Kennedy campus schools joined Learning Partners last spring, when it was still a pilot. But they already had a good rapport, their principals said. They formed a building council years ago to address logistical issues like bell times and lunch schedules, their students play on building-wide sports teams, and they worked together to revamp the shared library, which was recently completed.

Still, teachers from the separate schools seldom interacted before Learning Partners. Now, they compliment the work posted outside one another’s classrooms and observe each other teaching, several said. Even elevator rides in the eight-story building have improved now that the teachers in the lift recognize each other, one said.

“I do think it’s a great way to build community on the campus,” said Marble Hill principal Kirsten Larson. “Because co-location is one of the most difficult things — having to share resources without funding behind it, without support.”

Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy English teacher, Dana Holness.
Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy English teacher, Dana Holness.
Patrick Wall

In the spring, the schools decided to focus on the intensive projects that Marble Hill requires students to complete throughout the year in every subject and present to reviewers during hour-long presentations. BETA tried out similar projects over the summer with incoming freshmen, while Law and Finance is rolling them out in special-education classes this year. And Marble Hill, inspired by questions that their building colleagues raised, decided to tweak its own system, reducing the number of projects from three to two per marking period.

The group’s emphasis now is on strengthening their school “cultures.”

To Marble Hill, this includes things like its strict dress code and their equally high expectations for recently arrived immigrants, who are expected to present their projects in English even if they are still learning the language. At Law and Finance, it means making it cool to be smart, said principal Jessica Goring. And at BETA, a strong school culture is one where teachers have similar approaches and mindsets — something the school is trying to learn from Marble Hill, said BETA principal Karalyne Sperling.

“How do they get all their teachers to drink the Kool-Aid?” she asked, admiringly.

The Learning Partners program has played out so well among the three schools in the Kennedy building, the four others should also be brought on, said Marble Hill teacher Sherry Lewkowicz.

“That,” she said, “seems like the obvious next step.”

Correction: A previous version misidentified the principals of two schools. Jessica Goring is the principal of the Bronx School of Law and Finance, and Karalyne Sperling is principal of the Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy.

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