Worst Schools Make the Grade, Get Off 'The List'

Ten New York schools raise their ranking by all-out focus on teaching

When Dahlia Carrasquillo enrolled her oldest son at New York Prep in the early 1990s, her friends spoke of gangs, shootings, and dismal math scores.

"But now," she says, "all the parents say, 'Can you talk to the director about finding a place for my son?' "

The turnaround marks a milestone in the East Harlem middle school's history. Targeted in 1990 by New York State as one the state's worst schools, New York Prep has just celebrated its removal from the hit list.

It accomplished this - as did nine other inner-city schools - with what a panel studying the issue calls a disarmingly simple approach: an all-out focus on teaching.

"We had expected it to be something very complex, but we were struck by how similar the schools were in their focus," says Noreen Connell, director of the Educational Priorities Panel and author of the recently released "Getting off the List: School Improvement in New York City." "These schools improved because principals, parents, and teachers were managing instruction, not just buildings," she says.

The effort puts the schools squarely at the center of a national shift toward tougher standards and better teacher training. Frustrated with poor student performance, many states have been pushing for more testing and accountability for schools. Some have also turned to charter schools and vouchers.

Inner-city schools in particular have faced daunting hurdles to better student achievement, many of which have prompted calls for more money and outside intervention. But these 10 New York schools - six elementary, two middle, and two high schools - turned instead to existing resources: teachers, administrators, and parents.

What school administrators discovered was the importance of lining up everyone - from the principal to the custodians - behind a coherent plan of action. Teachers started getting guidance on lesson plans. Administrators helped with discipline. Tests were used to monitor progress. Teachers of the same grade started coordinating on approach and choice of textbooks, paving the way for a predictable path of study for students.

Such changes are the goal of the "hit" list, which New York State's Education Department established in 1989 to target the schools with the lowest math and reading scores and push them to design plans for improvement. Connell's advocacy group is made up of 26 civic organizations and was created in the 1970s to monitor the impact of budget policies on schools.

Of the 102 schools from New York City that were placed on the list from 1989 through 1996, 24 came off. Most, like New York Prep and the Brookfield Elementary School in Queens (PS 181), are located in economically depressed neighborhoods.

For many, the findings of "Getting Off the List" validates an increasingly popular idea: Raising children's expectations leads to better academic performance.

"It's basically another piece in the puzzle: we've got to have standards, we have to hold people accountable for what students learn," says Ira Schwartz of the New York State Department of Education. "We need a unified, coherent, structured curriculum."

Monitoring student progress was one of the first items on the agenda. At New York Prep, for instance, fewer than a quarter of the students were at grade levels in math when Robert Nadel became principal in 1991.

"We sat down, looked at test scores, assessed where we were, where we wanted to be, and set goals," Mr. Nadel says. To meet his main goal of higher math test scores, he established a math lab to give slow learners time to supplement their regular work.

Dismal reading scores at PS 181 got the state's attention in 1989. The school then ranked last among 23 district elementary schools. It now ranks seventh.

The main problem, says principal Ronald Zimmerman, was the lack of continuity from what was learned from one grade to the other. "Teachers were working on their own," he says. "Lesson plans were never checked." He pulled parents, teachers, administrators, and custodians together to formulate a school plan to help teachers to "teach, not police."

"I had to build higher expectations for children," he says.

The problem existed at most of the 10 schools, Connell says. The lack of coordination between what was taught from grade to grade and from one subject to another, meant that what was learned was lost in the next grade.

"Teachers were given a catalog and ordered whatever textbooks they wanted," says Mr. Zimmerman of the situation when he arrived in 1990 at PS 181. Pupils were taught reading from no fewer than five series of textbooks; some emphasized a basal, others a literature-based approach. Zimmerman selected one series from one publisher, and now sticks with it from Grades 1 to 6.

To bring up test scores, he instituted a system of monthly tests to pinpoint where students' individual problems were so that "we knew specifically where children were," he says. He also mixed the lower and the top achievers into one group. Today, 55 percent of children read at or above grade level, up from in 33 percent in 1989.

"He actually went into the classroom and made sure children learned to read," says Pat Lawrence, then the PTA president, who says her son's scores improved considerably.

At New York Prep, in addition starting the math lab, Nadel hired teachers with a math background. He extended the day by 25 minutes from Monday through Thursday to let teachers dismiss students early on Fridays and meet as a group.

These sessions proved essential. Math teacher Ray Miles said he learned to integrate reading and English into math. "The two go hand in hand," he says, adding, "I saw I needed to spend more time on basic skills."

Teachers are now asked to call parents the day before a test. Some do so if a single assignment is missed or an absence is recorded. "Homework is part of the grade now, there's no making it up," says Ms. Carrasquillo, whose son's math scores have risen dramatically.

Schools on the list were given some extra financial assistance by their school district. At PS 181, for example, the district provided two teachers to set up a reading through the arts program, and at New York Prep, a teacher and a paraprofessional helped set up the math lab. But at both schools, the programs came to an end after a couple of years.

Connell's report found that there was no link between a school's improvement and the amount of money pumped into it. Neither was replacing principals a guarantee for success.

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