The eight schools housed in the massive John F. Kennedy campus in the Bronx get along. Schools share floors of the building, administrators meet regularly, and teachers often stop to chat while passing in the hallways.
But when it comes to teachers knowing what goes on inside each other’s classrooms, the schools might as well be in different boroughs.
“I’ve been in this building for seven years and I’ve never been in this room,” said Wanda Dingman, an assistant principal at the Marble Hill School for International Studies, sitting inside a High School for Law and Finance classroom.
Dingman was finally in the room, which is outfitted with wooden benches for a criminal law class’ mock trials, through the city’s new Learning Partners program. The program is the extension of Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s guiding theory that schools can improve by sharing their best ideas with others. And as the pilot program gets underway this spring, Chalkbeat tagged along for one of those idea-swapping visits to ask, how is it working?
The day-long meeting included staff members from Marble Hill, Law and Finance, and Bronx Engineering and Technical Academy—schools that have a lot in common and make up one of the pilot program’s seven “triads.” All three high schools are inside the JFK campus, so teachers are a just flight of stairs or a few doorways from some classroom visits. They also benefit from sharing a school support organization, New Visions for New Schools.
But Law and Finance is an open-enrollment school that serves a different student population than Marble Hill, which itself serves a high proportion of recent immigrants and English Language Learners. Law and Finance has more than twice as many students with special needs and a high percentage of overage students. The school’s attendance rate is 82 percent, about 10 points below the city average.
As the day began, staff members said that even small amounts of mutual feedback have already sparked change. After one visit to Marble Hill, BETA is redesigning its seven-week summer school program for incoming freshmen based on Marble Hill’s model. Principal Karalyne Sperling said that if it’s successful, she might incorporate it into a new career and technical program that she’s developing.
Those conversations continued as Law and Finance hosted staff members from both Marble Hill and BETA—when it was clear that the program is causing some anxieties as well.
The full-day visit started with a presentation from Law and Finance assistant principal Tyrone Iton, who said he wanted Marble Hill to help his school improve the “rigor” and consistency of its classes. Law and Finance’s challenges were occasionally on display during the classroom visits: In one economics class, where students were calculating what their yearly raises should be in order to keep up with inflation, visiting adults outnumbered the students.
But the teachers’ and administrators’ takeaways were varied, and ideas didn’t always flow from host school to partner school. Marble Hill’s Dingman said she had learned some things herself, pointing to the group’s visit to a 10th grade English classroom where students passed around a conch shell and debated the role that two Lord of the Flies characters played in the murder of Piggy.
“The teacher said almost nothing at all,” said Dingman, which she attributed to high student engagement with the Socratic-style seminar. “I’d like to see more of that in my school.”
Still, the partner schools said they were looking to Marble Hill’s example. One key to that school’s success in graduating their mostly high-need students at an 89 percent clip, and preparing a larger-than-average percentage of them for college, is its project-based curriculum, teachers said.
Teachers and principals agreed that the length and number of visits prescribed by the Learning Partners are likely to prompt concerns. BETA Principal Sperling said she had to issue reassurances to teachers wary of missing class as students were preparing to take end-of-year Regents exams.
“We’re a small school, so for five of us to be out, that’s a big deal,” said Jessica Goring, principal of Law and Finance. “But do we make it work? Absolutely, because we believe in it.”
Next year, the city plans to include 75 schools in the program. The city received 253 applications, including seven from charter schools, officials said.
As the program grows, principals at the JFK campus all said they hoped to remain together since the pilot program started so late into the school year. The city hasn’t guaranteed that yet.
Joseph Urrico, a social studies teacher in his fifth year at BETA, said that collaboration had never felt possible in the past. “We share floors,” he said, “but there’s so many things to do.”
Correction: A previous version misattributed a quote to the principal of Bronx Engineering and Technical Academy. The correct attribution is to Jessica Goring, principal at the High School for Law and Finance.