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Working for future of city’s high schools

New York Teacher
UFT Vice President for Academic HS Janella Hinds addresses chapter leaders
Miller Photography

UFT Vice President for Academic High Schools Janella Hinds (standing, right) addresses chapter leaders in the Bronx on Nov. 13, bringing them up to date on topics ranging from teacher evaluations to what to expect from Bill de Blasio's election as mayor.

Dec. 31, 2013 cannot come soon enough. It’s not that I expect with the dawn of a new year and a new administration that education — especially in our high schools — will change overnight; I am, after all, a realist. But I am optimistic about a new day.

New York City parents, educators, students and community leaders are eager to take leave of the high school battles that have consumed us for over a decade. We welcome the opportunity to take ownership and responsibility for student outcomes as we forge a genuine partnership with the new administration. We believe we will now have a seat at the table, and we stand ready to engage in meaningful change across the system.

I have long been a critic of the Bloomberg administration’s approach to redesigning the city’s high schools. Our high schools need real curricula, substantive professional development, smaller class sizes, more arts education and extracurricular activities, small-group and individual tutoring, and additional supports for students with special needs. Instead, they were given test prep. Our large neighborhood high schools were overloaded with high-needs students, starved of the resources to help these students and then labeled as failures and dismantled when the scores didn’t measure up. Neighborhood high schools have disappeared from large parts of central Brooklyn, South Queens and the Bronx while comprehensive academic high schools have become endangered species.

Over the past 12 years, the number of high schools in New York City has increased from 230 to more than 500. An astonishing number of new schools were created in rapid “pop-up shop” fashion without the supports necessary for these schools to thrive.

Amid all this upheaval, there are high school success stories that support a different vision. I invite you to consider how the Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School in East Flatbush advances teaching and learning and shared voice.

An outgrowth of its founding partner New York City Outward Bound and Expeditionary Learning, known nationally for its wilderness education experiences, the Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School places a premium on accountable, participatory learning and offers students myriad out-of-school experiences. According to its mission statement, the school “emphasizes the interdisciplinary, in-depth study of compelling topics which develop students’ abilities to creatively solve problems and think critically.”

Chapter Leader Dana Lawit says it all starts with the great leadership of the school’s founding principal, Matt Brown. “Teachers take responsibility for the classroom and the experience,” she says. “Students take responsibility for their learning.”

Student-led conferences are the centerpiece of the school’s student advisory structure. These conferences are in lieu of the standard parent-teacher conferences where students, if present at all, play a passive role. Participants in these conferences include the student’s advisor, called a crew leader, who works with the student throughout high school; the student’s parents; a staff member; and another student from the same advisory team.

School secretary Lori Blitzer, who is one of 10 original school staffers, participates in the conferences and plays other decision-making roles. She says she’s not viewed as “just the secretary” or less valuable than the teachers — it’s shared voice in action.

In addition to their standard coursework, students in each grade work throughout the year on that year’s topic or project, which include career choices and higher education, culminating in a presentation. Seniors are able to choose and design their own expedition into learning for that year’s presentation.

Lawit underscored a tenet that our union promotes: If you’re serious about what you claim, you’ll build a structure to support its proper implementation and success. In her view, it’s about the allocation of resources. “There has to be a vision for parent engagement beyond just having them show up. We need to support them in a real way by having better conversations.” It wasn’t just talk; I witnessed parents engaged in the student-led conferences.

The Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School offers one pathway for how our high schools can be places where parents, communities, students, educators and other stakeholders can collaborate to achieve the best outcomes for students, whether they are pursuing college or entering the workforce.

We as educators need to be given the time, space and professional respect to make the best instructional decisions about our students and classes. We need to listen to and work with our students so they receive the education they want and need as they transition from adolescents to young adults.

Our goal is to ensure that

every high school will be an excellent one;

every high school will receive the support necessary for continuous improvement; and

school size, type and offerings reflect the diversity of our students and communities.

We are committed to working together as UFT members with the new DOE to create this new reality for all of New York City’s high schools.

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