Scrimp, avoid quick fixes, watch academic achievement rise

New York City's Osmond A. Church School adopted a curriculum approach that saved money by lowering teacher turnover and increasing collaboration.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Principal Valarie Lewis’s school continues to benefit from reforms enabled by a $784,000 grant it got 10 years ago.

For public schools receiving an infusion of economic stimulus cash, New York City's Osmond A. Church School (PS/MS 124) may be an example of how to make it a gift that keeps on giving.

Ten years ago, the school won a three-year, $784,000 state grant to carry out a plan for comprehensive reform. Rather than looking for money to reduce class size or try the latest fad, as is tempting for schools that feel chronically underfunded, two successive principals committed to a curriculum approach called Core Knowledge, one they hoped would unify teachers and students in high expectations for learning. The school is still reaping the benefits of their decisions today.

Success "has been sustainable, and it's become part of the culture and tapestry of this building," says principal Valarie Lewis, a former teacher and assistant principal there. When the grant ran out, the school consistently set aside a portion of its Title I money – federal support for low-income students – to keep Core Knowledge going. "Staying true to one program and giving it time to take root is the key," Ms. Lewis says. "Too many schools ... have tried to get quick fixes and they've brought in too many programs; they've spent too much money."

Core Knowledge integrates world history, civics, literature, science, and art throughout the curriculum. When second-graders study immigration, teachers have had them depict the Statue of Liberty in the style of Picasso or Matisse.

It's led to lower teacher turnover, increased collaboration, and achievement gains that prompted the K-6 school to expand through eighth grade in 2006-07.

Living near Kennedy Airport in Queens, virtually all the students qualify for free meals; some are homeless; many hail from new immigrant families. In 2000, fewer than half met state standards. Now they outpace many of their city peers. In state tests of English Language arts in 2007-08, for instance, 75 percent of the school's fourth-graders and 70 percent of its eighth-graders met or exceeded standards, compared with 61 percent and 43 percent, respectively, for all New York City public schools.

In 2007, the school received an award from Education Trust in Washington for exceptional performance in educating low-income students and students of color.

Some of the ways Lewis says she uses the money "wisely":

• Keeping class size near the maximum of 30. While other principals often use extra dollars to cut classes to 15, she says, her school needs fewer teachers but invests more in other supports for them and the students.

• Building a cadre of lead teachers and has them conduct professional development, rather than sending everyone out for expensive training. Teachers also substitute for one another, saving about $150,000 a year.

• Using outside expertise strategically. Last year she paid a data consultant $25,000 to show teachers how their students were doing so they could better focus instruction. That saved many hours that they could spend with children instead of "sitting by computers all day running data."

"It's always the kids first here, and what they need," says parent coordinator Cynthia Lapsley. She adds that Lewis shows the budget to teachers and parents and "is making the dollars stretch."

The budget is down about $1 million this year, which will mean fewer art classes and after-school offerings. But while neighboring schools lay off teachers or ask them to adjust to 30 students in a class, Lewis says her teachers are set. "Things are going to take a hit ... but we're ahead of the curve."

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