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Multiple Pathways to Success: NYC's Transfer School Institute

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By Laurie Gagnon, Educational Designer at reDesign, in collaboration with reDesign team members Dixie Bacallao, Tracy Bauer, Morgan Hildesley, and Antonia Rudenstine

There are lots of school networks out there, but not all of them are getting the results we want to see. In NYC you can find a network that is proving it is possible to build adult capacity and increase opportunities for young people. The NYC Transfer School Institute (TSI) supports schools that exclusively serve the city's opportunity youth who are often described as 'over-age and under-credited.'

What makes it work? It is designed to intentionally create the structures for schools to receive high-touch, goal-oriented, site-based support in conjunction with powerful opportunities to connect with similar schools, learn together, and share their work. It is a recipe powerful enough to rebalance the equation for disenfranchised students.  

The TSI Network was started in 2012 by the NYC Department of Education Multiple Pathways team in the Office of Postsecondary Readiness in partnership with consulting organizations reDesign and Eskolta. NYC transfer schools apply to participate in a robust community of practitioners, receiving three years of intense professional development tailored to each school's needs and plans. 

  • Leadership support. The Director of the Multiple Pathways team, Lynette Lauretig, is fiercely committed to and supportive of principals. She speaks with them regularly, advocates for their work, and creates multiple opportunities for them to meet with each other, work closely with coaches from reDesign and Eskolta, and receive active support from the Office of Multiple Pathways to Graduation. The commitment and engagement of leadership are essential ingredients in the network's design.
  • School-based capacity building and sharing within the broader community. Teachers develop long-term, collaborative, goal-oriented relationships with coaches. They invest significant time honing new skills and piloting tools, which are then shared with colleagues at biannual symposia and the Transfer School Conference. Participation in an authentic community of practice is an essential part of the capacity-building effort, but ultimately, we know that practice improves when the network is coupled with careful, classroom-based coaching.
  • Mentoring: As schools progress through the Institute they become mentors for schools beginning their journey by hosting site visits and facilitating learning sessions during the symposia.

TSI is transformative for participants. As Tanell Pendleton reflects, "I wouldn't be half the teacher I am today without [TSI's] support and encouragement. My first year as an appointed teacher was rough; I wasn't confident in my ability to provide my students with an appropriate education. [The] support, feedback and co-teaching helped me to experience multiple successes." 

Essential ingredients in TSI's secret sauce

Schools establish a tight focus and goals for their work, aligning it to research-based practice areas. Over six years, TSI's own action research, coupled with larger research in the field, has surfaced three practice areas that are proven to be high leverage with opportunity youth: speaking and listening skills as a pathway to improving academic discourse and writing; conferencing and feedback as a vehicle for the development of deeper learning; and mastery-based learning as a system for increasing learning opportunities by meeting students where they are

Each school that applies to TSI articulates how their work fits into one or more of these areas and the work is framed through the school's lens, rather than as a prescriptive set of practices. For example, at mentor school Metropolitan Diploma Plus High School (Metro), Principal Meri Yallowitz had a hypothesis that if students talked more and teachers talked less, their academic discourse and writing skills would improve. Over their tenure in the Institute, Metro has led this work and recently posted a Regents ELA passing rate of 93 percent.

Network structures support connections and sharing among schools working on similar topics. At the core of the network-wide activities are opportunities for schools to leverage their work in a focused practice area by learning from and with others on the same pathway. Network symposia, site visits, and coordinated site-based coaching (one coach working with all of the schools in one focus practice area) foster a deeper layer of collaboration than typically happens in more general practice networks.

The network didn't always have focused practice areas. In the early years, each school chose their own completely individualized path. But by year three, network trends emerged. Dixie Bacallao, reDesign's lead for the TSI network, has repeatedly observed that focusing on a common practice and working in smaller groups of schools has significantly increased the impact of the network on individual schools. These groups created lit pathways that were still personalized while also leveraging the learning, tools, and practices emerging at the network level. 

Through participation in a practice area:

  • North Queens Community High School saw Regents Algebra scores increase from 31 to 70 percent.
  • Bronx Arena's college acceptance rate rose to 65 percent, and their college persistence rate soared to 82 percent.
  • Professional Pathways' US History scores grew from 45 to 70 percent, while their ELA passing scores increased from 72 to 100 percent.

While there is room to grow here, it's important to remember that every student at a transfer high school has experienced significant school trauma and failure, and their similarly situated peers attending regular NYC high schools have less than a 20 percent chance of graduation (unfortunately, this data is from 2005, and hasn't been updated). 

A three-year learning arc with customized, site-based support allows schools to both try and master new practices in the classroom in sustainable ways. The fact that NYC's Office of Postsecondary Readiness commits to providing three years of intense support demonstrates their understanding that learning takes time, particularly given the many competing priorities that teachers and leaders juggle each day. As Claire Sheehan, the principal at Cascades High School notes, Network activities have provided "great opportunities to work in big chunks of time. This has helped move [our] practice in ways that school-day planning time can't." In exchange for the DOE's commitment, schools commit to their own improvement and need to demonstrate shifts in instructional practices in addition to adjusting and adopting new goals each year. If progress is too slow in the second year, schools are typically advised to step out of the Network until they are more ready to take on the work.  

Three years allows for time to do the work needed to implement new ideas, which usually involves deep work in examining one's beliefs about teaching and learning and understanding one's self as an adult learner. As a result, it typically takes several months for a school to have their aha moment and find their focus. By year two, most schools have hit their stride. In years two and three, schools' affiliation with TSI grows, sparking a desire to reach out to others in the network, codifying emerging instructional practices. 

Deep, asset-based, district leadership in the design and implementation of the Network. The Multiple Pathways team is the linchpin in this project. Unlike many networks where external intermediaries 'own' the network, Lynette and her partner Eve Bois assume primary responsibility for TSI's success. And their approach has taught reDesign about the invaluable power of district partnerships when leaders take on an unwavering strengths-based approach to the development of a sustainable network.

For TSI, the power of the network lies, first, within the Multiple Pathways team's commitment to building strong relationships with each school leader and their faculty. These relationships become the initial links that bind the network together. Enough so that school teams of five or six educators consistently give up Saturdays to attend symposia; school leaders regularly allocate per session funds to ensure that teachers have time to do their work; schools organize coverage so that groups of teachers can leave the building to see peer schools in action; and for several years, schools contributed funds to ensure that the Institute could be fully funded. These activities can strain the lean operations of small transfer high schools, but they undertake them because of their high degree of trust in the quality of the network Lynette and Eve have created and sustained.

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