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How collaboration can really work: A Bed-Stuy middle school principal explains

As the principal at M.S. 267, a middle school in a high-poverty neighborhood in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, I’ve always believed our wealth lies in the expertise and passion of our educators who work hard every single day in service of our students — our community’s biggest treasure.

But until recently, no matter how hard our team worked, we found it challenging to get students where they need to be. Two years ago, only 11 percent of our students were reading and writing at grade level.

So when Chancellor Carmen Fariña introduced the Learning Partners program to help schools learn from each other, I signed us up. We knew it was our responsibility to explore new strategies developed beyond our own school doors as well as to share our challenges and discoveries.

In our first year, we were paired with two other schools — a “host” school and another school that, like M.S. 267, had a lot of room to grow — to actively share and bring new practices into our schools. Now in our second year, we’re part of Learning Partners Plus, so we have six partners working with a host school.

Both years, our host has been the School for Global Leaders in Manhattan, which faces challenges with literacy just like us but is farther along in developing strategies to improve instruction. The school’s principal, Carry Chan, is a master principal in every sense of the word who runs a school where teachers work together and instruction is rigorous.

Working with Carry last year, we focused on improving our own instruction by making stronger connections between teaching and assessments. Practices that we took back from the School for Global Leaders include their use of data trackers and exit tickets to collect informal student data, plan instruction, and design interventions for students that need them.

We constantly grapple with questions like, how do we monitor how much students read and write? How do we get students to read more than just fiction, and increase their vocabulary? How can teachers ensure that every single lesson can meet the needs of all students?

Instead of just looking for answers on our own, we’ve explored possible answers together by visiting each other’s classrooms. Teachers in the host school willingly open up their classrooms for a period to showcase a particular practice, and then teachers from all of the schools dissect the lesson together.

Throughout the process, our schools created a deep bond. And along the way we have been lucky to have Maureen Wright, a facilitator from the Office of Interschool Collaborative Learning, guide us as we plan our learning activities and push us to get more specific about our schools’ needs.

This year, those needs shifted and the program shifted with us. We are now focused on how best to make literacy lessons appropriate for students of differing skill levels, and how to foster high-level questioning and discussion in each classroom. We have also benefited from seeing how other schools run their team meetings, and are thinking about their methods as we try to make our own meetings more efficient and effective.

Classroom practices have improved dramatically. We learned new ways to make sure student performance today informs tomorrow’s lessons. We learned how to use powerful data tools that allow us to know our students better and provide them with a more supportive environment, especially our students with disabilities and English language learners. And, we learned how to foster student leaders, who have already mastered content, who can teach other students.

Teachers aren’t the only ones learning. Carry taught me new ways to empower teachers by giving them opportunities like taking charge of professional learning, leading meetings, mentoring each other and running school visits. Our school is stronger — and our strength more likely to survive over time — the more our teachers rise as leaders.

All of our hard work translated into higher test scores for our students after one year in the Learning Partners program: Nearly twice as many students hit the state’s reading and writing proficiency bar last year. We think this year’s scores will be even higher.

But the biggest benefit goes far beyond test scores.

School walls can be confining, and the Learning Partners program is intentionally collapsing them all across the city. Being a principal or a teacher can feel very isolating, but as a result of our participation in Learning Partners, all of us are communicating with each other nonstop, by email, text, or phone.

We feel like we are part of one big school, and as we work together, share ideas and collaborate we know that it will be our students who benefit the most.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.