View from here - Results up as school scaled down

18th September 2009 at 01:00
New York education complex shows the way to success with unpromising material. James Richardson reports

British politicians visiting New York could do no better than visit Julia Richman Education Complex on the Upper East Side, where they can observe six highly-effective schools working with the city's most disaffected students.

Julia Richman High, as it was a decade ago, became synonymous with gang violence. The New York school system, not known for its adventurous streak, cited it for closure and suggested it was divided into six autonomous schools, no bigger than 400 students each. The building, unchanged on the outside, caters for nearly 2,000 children, sharing facilities and expertise when necessary; all the economies of scale of a large school without the alienation.

The Urban Academy occupies the second floor, drawing its 140 children from the poorest parts of the Bronx, many of whom have been excluded from other schools. Some students are young mothers and value the health and childcare centre on site.

Year groups and standardised lessons have been abandoned and, instead of pushing students to graduate in four years, they allow them to continue to take classes, working on weaknesses and preparing for the college entrance exam. The results are staggering: 97 per cent of children attend university, many receiving means-tested scholarships.

Ann Cook, the school's co-director, attributes part of the success to its flexibility. She said: "The whole staff should be able to sit around a table and come to a consensus on school decisions."

She believes that when schools get too big to know every student, and staffrooms have to seat over 100 teachers, there is an anonymity that undermines the cohesion of the community.

It goes to show what can be achieved when teachers are invited to rethink school organisation and empowered to implement changes.

James Richardson is Thouron Scholar at Pennsylvania University and former head of humanities in an English high school.

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