“Gabe came in and watched me and then I watched him, and together we set up a small group rotation schedule,” Schropfer explained.“It’s a no-pressure way to get help,” Culbert said. “It’s made a big difference, and things are so much better now.”
Like the rest of the staff at the Bronx school, the largest District 75 high school in the city, Schropfer and model teachers Michelle Fargnoli and Cassandra Baptiste face unique challenges. Ninety teachers, with the help of 300 paraprofessionals, work with 633 students with disabilities that include autism, moderate to severe mental and emotional disabilities and, in some cases, multiple disabilities.
Unlike teachers in traditional academic or vocational high schools, PS 811 teachers work with small groups arranged by disability. But like traditional schools, teachers are focused on academic success for their students.To that end, the three teacher leaders have created a collaborative, open-door support system to improve practice. At a recent, regular weekly meeting, all the teachers, grouped according to their students’ disabilities, met in three different classrooms. Breaking up into small groups at each location, they analyzed and discussed the work of specific students to see what had worked, what hadn’t worked and why.
To open the meeting that she headed, Schropfer started by encouraging her colleagues to share a personal story: “Tell us something great that happened, a personal happy.” As she outlined the meeting’s protocol, she alluded to the special bond that PS 811 teachers have with their students, which she described as a “mommy, daddy thing,” but she cautioned them to step back as they analyzed the work because “it’s about the lesson, about their work.”
At one table, ELA teacher Bushra Nasim, math teacher Myrna Quinones and social studies teacher Maria Cenabre profiled three students that they share. Armed with notes from the previous week, they talked about each student’s successes and failures.
They agreed that one student is bright but his work suffers because he “rushes, doesn’t read directions all the way through and is careless.” Together, they set goals for the boy and agreed to maintain daily records “to keep him focused.” They also agreed to use “praise and rewards” — such as permission to use the computer, which the student loves — as an incentive.
In a spirited debriefing session among the three-person team following the all-teacher session, Fargnoli said that the opportunity for each teacher “to see another teacher’s perspective of the same student” was the greatest benefit of the meeting.
The three teacher leaders have built trust and opened classroom doors by making it clear that their work is teacher-based, not evaluative or punitive, and does not involve administration. They have created a unique advertising campaign to encourage colleagues to visit their classrooms by posting on bulletin boards outside their rooms the skills and lessons they will be working on each week.
Teachers are also encouraged to invite one of the three teacher leaders into their classrooms to model a lesson. Eddy Janier, a paraprofessional at the school for nine years who left and returned this year after getting an education degree, said he was looking forward to a visit from Schropfer to demonstrate a lesson the following day. He called the team “a gold mine.”
“Rebecca has helped me with room arrangements and even donated furniture,” Janier said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Principal Rosa Nieves Greene credits the three teacher leaders for the jump in the school’s New York State Alternative Assessment rating from 85 percent last year to 98 percent this year. The freedom that teachers feel to ask the team for help has not only had a positive impact on student learning, Greene said, but has resulted in her rating more teachers Highly Effective.
For the teacher leaders themselves, the year has been instructive and productive. Schropfer said, “I have grown professionally and as a leader and learned many lessons.”
Fargnoli remembers her excitement when she saw the career pathway opportunities in the new contract. “I don’t want to be an administrator,” she explained. “Now I have an opportunity to do what I love, an opportunity to share. That’s what this role was created for.”
Baptiste returned last September, her 10th year in the classroom, “looking for a challenge” and found it.
“It’s kismet,” she declared.