Mark Dunetz, a former high school teacher and principal, was named president of New Visions for Public Schools on Wednesday — a nonprofit that helps manage a network of district and charter schools in New York City that is larger than the entire Buffalo public school system.
He replaces Robert Hughes, who helmed the organization over the past 15 years as it opened scores of small high schools under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. With many influential backers and union leaders on it board, the group managed to weather the transition to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, under which it supports 70 district schools (mostly high schools) and runs seven charters.
Dunetz, who was most recently New Visions’ vice president of school support, helped found in 2008 the Academy for Careers in Television and Film, a non-selective Queens high school with a 98 percent graduation rate. His fingerprints are all over New Visions’ work: After using Google Apps to streamline the flow of information at his high school, Dunetz helped New Visions develop a data-sorting tool powered by Google software that is now used by some 200 New York City schools.
Chalkbeat (which shares a board member with New Visions) spoke with Dunetz, who described a vision of change rooted in classrooms and fueled by detailed information about what’s working, or not, and why. The interview has been edited and condensed.
For an outsider who sees this group that has opened schools, that has helped managed them, that oversees district and charter schools, how do you explain what exactly New Visions is?
The organization is 26 years old and the work of the organization has changed a lot over time. I think right now we have a tremendous breadth of programs within the organization.
What’s been a constant is that the work has always been quite close to the work of educators in schools. We’ve really taken our lead from what we see as things presenting obstacles to principals leading their schools more effectively, to teachers teaching in classrooms. We’ve sort of stepped into a number of different spaces over the years in order to take advantage of opportunities that we saw to address those needs.
You taught English to high school students who were still learning the language, then you were the founding principal of a high school. How did those experiences inform the work you do now at New Visions?
One thing I’ve learned is the idea that you can fix one part of a school selectively or even organize supports to impact one particular element of a school absent a vision for the larger organization, it really doesn’t work.
Things work together, whether it’s the organizational infrastructure, or the curriculum, or the personal relationships that get built within a school. All those things have to come together.
Do you have an example from when you were a principal where you created a system that helped teachers be more efficient?
One example was our advisory structure, which was a “distributed-guidance” model where each teacher took responsibility for approximately 15 students and followed them for all four years of high school. That was a critical support for students and was a single point of contact for parents.
In order to really make that structure function, the advisors had to have deep insight into what was happening with their advisees across the entire school. So we worked very hard to make sure that when an advisor sat down with a parent at any time, whether for a formal conference or a phone call, they knew everything that could be known about how that student was doing in their classes: up to the most recent grades entered in a grade book, when they had come into school that morning, whether they had cut a class, whether they’d had a conflict with another student.
Basically anything that we could know that was kept as a record anywhere we brought together at the administrative level so that none of that work needed to be done by the advisor. The advisor really was able to focus on the hard work, which is deciding how to enter a conversation, how to leverage a partnership with a parent, how to invest a student who might be struggling in developing the next steps forward.
Do you see that as a role that New Visions plays on a larger scale: working within the existing Department of Education infrastructure, but trying to make things work more smoothly for schools?
Much of what we’re doing is taking what was being done in isolation in scores of schools that were trying to solve these problems, but trying to solve them with limited time and limited resources and limited technical expertise, and really solve those problems at scale. And ultimately provide evidence and examples of how these problems can be solved in cost-effective ways, so we’re not taking time away from school-based educators — time they spend interacting with students, with other teachers, thinking about what’s being taught in classrooms — to solve technical problems.
New Visions is often associated with the small-schools movement and former Mayor Bloomberg’s system of outsourcing some of the management of schools to private organizations. The de Blasio administration has moved away from opening small schools and has tried to centralize school support. How has that changed what New Visions does?
I think that this chancellor recognizes, despite differences she’s articulated with her predecessors, that there’s an important role for innovation that intermediary partner organizations have played for decades. I was personally heartened to see her preserve this space in the “affinity” structure, which really not only preserved space for us to work closely with schools, but expanded the goal to supporting innovation on behalf of the system as a whole.
One of the major changes was the opportunity to work closely with dedicated superintendents, which was part of the design of affinity that the chancellor and her team developed. That’s provided us with some really important opportunities to align our work not only to the formal supervisory structure, but also to the larger initiatives of the system as a whole. Our partner schools have really benefitted as a result of that.
Based on your conversations with educators and your own experience in schools, are there any challenges that still need to be addressed that you want to focus on in your new role?
One thing that’s really critical is that we’re able to organize our conversations and our work around really concrete evidence. In particular, evidence of where students are and how they’re progressing toward the goals we have for them….
We’ve spent a lot of money and resources investing in accountability, and accountability is absolutely a necessary thing. But we’ve not made necessarily the same types of investments in generating information in ways that has the express purpose of learning in systematic ways from the things that we do to be able to be better at them each year.
How are you going to judge your own success in this role?
[I]t’s not enough to see numbers go up. For us it’s as important to understand what’s moving and why. So we’re committed to seeing that the students in the schools we support are more successful over time. But we’re also really interested in being able to understand what it is that’s having that impact, so that our support for schools improves over time and we can accelerate that process for schools based on what we learned.
Student performance is critical. [But] I think that student performance happens in the context of healthy schools and what that looks like is schools that are able to retain strong teachers, and create conditions where teachers are deeply invested in working at those schools. Those schools are places where parents want to send their children and feel welcome. All of those things ultimately need to be in place for a school to be successful.