Stimulating Big Minds with Small Schools

Classrooms with less than 20 students create in-depth, hands-on learning, allowing students to grasp concepts more easily than in a traditional setting.

by Lai Saetern / February 24, 2009 0

When scientists presented a human brain and spinal cord to a class of approximately 15 ninth-graders, indicating the different components of the anatomical parts, student Angelica Modabber recalled being especially enthralled. She and her classmates took turns circulating the objects, touching them, studying the parts and absorbing everything the scientists taught them about the brain's anatomy.

From this presentation alone, Modabber said she is more advanced in knowing the brain and its capacity than most teenagers.

"I read in a brain biology magazine that 'most schools don't teach their students about the mind and its mechanics,' and I already know the parts and functions," she said. "Before, I would've never known what a hippocampus or an amygdale is; now, I would be able to tell you exactly where it is on the brain, and students from other schools wouldn't know what it is."

Modabber was taking part in a module titled "The Near Science of Learning," a nine-week interdisciplinary course at Manhattan, N.Y.'s iSchool (NYCiSchool) that focuses on enhancing students' leadership and critical-thinking skills.

Learning like this happens every day at the NYCiSchool, which has slightly more than 100 students. These students were selected from a pool of applicants in the fall of 2008 and were required to complete a questionnaire declaring their rationale for wanting to attend this unique, small school.

In theory, children in small schools can better interact with each other and their teachers. The NYCiSchool proves this by showing that teaching fewer students means more depth and intensity in learning.

Shrinking schools

When the Office of New Schools Development was created, New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE) Chancellor Joel Klein wanted to transform the large high schools, which were, for the most part, not graduating students at acceptable rates, said Julian Cohen, the office's director. Klein, he said, wanted to break them down into small schools that are more personalized and offer a more rigorous educational experience for students.

"The schools that were closed were the lowest performing schools and, typically, were serving the most needy students -- students that were, for the most part, in high poverty and under-resourced neighborhoods," Cohen said. "At the same time the chancellor announced that initiative, he also announced that he would create seven new selected schools to target the students on the highest end of their intellectual development."

The NYCiSchool is part of that initiative and is the fourth the Office of New Schools Development will create, Cohen said.

The NYCiSchool opened its doors in September 2008 as an embodiment of the small-schools concept: schools with small populations that ensure each student receives a more individualized education. This idea is derived from the small-schools movement, which holds that many high schools are too large and should be reorganized into smaller schools of no more than 400 students.

"What we're trying to do in the New York City iSchool is push the boundaries of what school is by including a lot more distance learning and a much richer use of technology," Cohen said. "[We're trying] to push kids to think about real-world learning, to open the world to the kids in the classroom through global connections and to have teachers plan together around interdisciplinary problems that would involve solutions to real-world problems."

According to the Chicago Public Schools' Web site, small schools create "a more intimate and personalized learning environment, and a cohesive vision among teachers characterize small schools. With no more than 350 students in an elementary school and 500 in a high school, small schools foster environments in which parents, teachers, and students get to know one another well."

Through the small-schools doctrine, the vision is to start with only a cluster of ninth-graders and add 100 to 120 students each school year, reaching a cap of 500 students or less by 2011 -- the year the first class reaches its senior year.

"The school has gotten a lot of interest from students who are looking for schools for next year," said Ted Brodheim, CIO of NYC DOE. "It is considered to be one of the hotter picks for students who have a choice on what schools they want to go to."

To attend the NYCiSchool, students are required to:

  • pass the New York State Regents Exam;
  • have competent grades and test scores; and
  • be accepted through a unique Moodle online activity, in which they answer questions about their character.

Once inside an NYCiSchool classroom, students will be on their laptops, typically working independently at their own pace. In their math groups, students work together closely, but progress individually, depending on skill level.

But NYCiSchool students aren't restricted to the classroom: The nine-week modules require them to do field work, meet with clients and participate in an internship.

Through these internships, NYCiSchool students are preparing themselves for life post-high school.

"We're not preparing students for future careers, we're preparing them to be successful college students and teaching them problem-solving and creative-thinking skills," said NYCiSchool Co-Principal Alisa Berger. "Whatever they decide to go into, they will have the skills necessary to do that."

NYCiSchool students can apply for a plethora of internships: They can be event planners and plan school dances; cashiers who work at the school store, iMart; and advisory boards members, to name a few.

Carving out costs

Splitting students into smaller groups means more schools, and therefore facilities, are needed -- which means more funding is also necessary. In a report by the Commission on Property Tax Relief, approximately 28 percent of school districts statewide have fewer than 1,000 students.

Cities such as New York City, Chicago, Milwaukee and San Diego have embraced the small-schools model, which is often made possible by funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

With a $136 million grant from the Foundation in 2003, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced to the city that the state would make a commitment to replace larger schools with smaller ones.

Prior to the NYCiSchool's inception, the NYC DOE considered why and how the school would prosper, the theory behind the school's development and its projected growth rate and success.

"We received multiple applications for the new schools compared to the actual number of schools we can open in a given year," Brodheim said. "Anyone that's going to say, 'Here's my idea for a new school,' whatever it is -- iSchool or otherwise -- they're going to have to have done their homework if they're going to have any chance of getting the funding and building a real school."

iSchool support

Funding for the NYCiSchool came from billionaire Mort Zuckerman and partnerships with multiple organizations and vendors, including Cisco, a key partner in the financial and infrastructure support for the establishment, Berger said.

"We sat down with technologists from Cisco and the New York Department of Education's Division of Instructional and Information Technology and said, 'Here's our vision for how people will use technology,'" she said. "They used that as user requirements and built a backend system that supported our needs."

The NYCiSchool was planned from the ground up with the objective of being a small school minced with a technology-based learning style, where students take online courses using their laptops.

"We wanted a school that uses technology since it is so much a part of children's lives," Brodheim said. "And [we wanted] to begin to rethink curriculum and how we do integration of interdisciplinary topics. Leveraging technology is a way to help deliver the message."

The students and teachers use Moodle, an online management system, to present and submit assignments and exchange discourse.

Social networking, education-style

Using another online resource, the Achievement Reporting and Innovation System (ARIS), teachers have access to students' educational records. With the data, they can assess their pupils' academic progress and take timely corrective measures to increase their chances of success in school.

Through ARIS, teachers can receive relevant details about their students, including enrollment history, diagnostic assessment information, credits accumulated toward graduation, test scores, special education status and family contact information, according to the NYC DOE's Web site.

Put simply, ARIS is an online library merged with a social networking site that allows discussion and idea-swapping among educators across the city.

The system was launched in September 2007 and was initially only available for principals and small teams of teachers and administrators. But in November 2008, Klein granted access to all New York City teachers. Beginning in fall 2009, parents will also have access to ARIS.

Role modeling

The NYCiSchool is the only one of its kind in New York, combining virtual education, modules, internship programs, fieldwork and miniature-sized classrooms in one learning domain.

Having already proved itself, the iSchool is a model the NYC DOE would like to replicate in the future.

"What's exciting about the iSchool is that for New York City, it's the first time we've done it," Brodheim said. "The goal for the iSchool is not that it's going to be the only one, but we will begin to develop this as a model that we can apply to other schools."

From an academic standpoint, this type of education offers students hands-on experiments that develop their problem-solving expertise, helping them to actively participate in what they're learning.

"If you want to learn how to play golf, you can't learn how to play golf out of a book, you have to go to a golf course," said Katherine Tsamasiros, director of strategic planning at the NYC DOE. "The iSchool's curriculum -- the way it's designed and the experience that these children will have over the next four years -- [enables them] to go on internships, be individualized and have a stake in how they learn."

Prophecy for iSchool and beyond

The NYCiSchool is moving swiftly; additional courses and modules will be introduced as more students arrive.

By the 2009-2010 school year, the number of students will double, and the modules will become more inventive. For example, the school is implementing a 9/11 module, where students can help gather information for the memorial museum that will be built on Ground Zero.

NYCiSchool students are learning about imperative issues that reflect their communities and others, and to further grasp the meaning of how tragedies affect everyone, they will partner with schools that were victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"It's monumental in many different ways," Tsamasiros said. "It's meaningful to them."

While students at the iSchool are receiving an ultramodern education, the NY DOE is hoping to pioneer this model statewide. It aims to offer students more than an education and leadership skills -- its goal is to prepare them so they're ready for any task thrown their way.

There are seven more models slated to open for fall 2009, Tsamasiros said, adding that they're not all called iSchool -- but each will have a different theme, such as storytelling through cinema and green careers, to name a few.

"It's really all about this kind of innovation," Brodheim said, "and looking to seek out new ways of reaching to students, retaining students, keeping them engaged and ensuring that we graduate our students who are ready for the next stage of their growth."

*This story is from Converge magazine's Winter 2009 issue.

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