Where Have We Come From?
History: The history of the New Bedford Leadership Academy is one of teacher-led initiatives intent on creating an autonomous small school within New Bedford High School. Instead of creating a plan within a binder, the design team has worked thousands of hours voluntarily over a year and a half to create a demonstration model of effective teaching, learning, support, and more. This model will serve as a transparent incubator of ideas and practices within the long term restructuring process of the high school. It is within the Restructuring Committee that the foundation of the Leadership Academy was built.
Restructuring Committee (September 2007 – December 2008): The Restructuring Committee was formed in the fall of 2008 by teachers, parents, students, community members and administration. We were charged with assessing needs and creating restructuring recommendations for the incoming Superintendent in July of 2008. Both of these tasks were accomplished by the end of the school year in June 2009. We facilitated a survey of 2000 + students and almost 200 faculty in issues from classroom instructional practices, school culture, technology, family involvement, student development, leadership and professional development and post-secondary and extra-curricular activities. Our recommendations to the Superintendent included research and suggestions on smaller learning communities, scheduling implications, instruction and assessment, professional development, business and community engagement, contract issues and funding needs. When we returned in the fall of 2008, we began working on a scheduling plan for an incremental move from block scheduling to larger issues implied in overall restructuring.
Restructuring Committee (December 2008 – June 2009): In December 2008, the Superintendent recommended a more comprehensive approach to our work, from addressing the schedule change to a exploring a complete restructuring of our high school. We began simultaneously 1) exploring research on different large urban high school transformation efforts around the country, 2) conducting site-visits to the local models such as the Boston Pilot Schools and Lawrence High School (built on thematic academies), 3) examining the data from our surveys (described above) done in March 2008, 4) creating a vision statement for our long term objectives and 5) beginning the work necessary to draft a strategic plan before the end of this current school year, so we can begin the design phase of our efforts in 2009-2010.
Designing New Academies (Summer 2009): Towards the end of June 2009, members of the Restructuring Committee decided that the most effective way to push forward the institutional and attitudinal change (necessary for our school to build capacity for change in September 2009) was to demonstrate various models of autonomous academies. Two groups emerged and took initiative. The focus of the first group was to design and implement an autonomous Alternative Academy for our most severe at-risk students while the second group created a Technology Academy within the school’s existing facility and schedule. Because of budget challenges, the district was not able to directly support either of these efforts for the summer of 2009. At this time, the Massachusetts Governor’s Executive Office on Education made available a series of planning grants throughout the state for districts that built autonomous small schools. They were called Readiness Schools. The Readiness Schools planning grant awarded funds during the summer of 2009 to design autonomous small schools that met the state’s performance contract while using new autonomy over schedule, curriculum, budget, staffing and other district policies (see Appendix 1). We applied for the Advantage School option within the grant guidelines in the end of June and were among 16 districts in the state who were awarded $10K to plan these academies.
The Readiness School Proposal (September 2009): While our initial focus was to create an Alternative Academy for students who had the greatest needs, we quickly began to see that our team’s vision was not simply to address the needs of one sub-group, but to demonstrate advanced teaching in an engaged community for all students. In essence, we sought to create an institute for advanced study for all students (especially those at-risk), accelerating their learning and providing a model of innovative teaching strategies. Our discussions developed naturally around the theme of leadership. We decided to develop the curriculum, scheduling, staffing, budget, governance, partnerships, and more around this theme. Leadership would not be simply a label. It would become pervasive in all relationships, all decisions and all learning. We would then broaden our population to the rest of the school in the following years, so that we could be a model for autonomous small school in the school’s broader transformation process.
Approval Process (September 2009 – April 2010): While design work for the Leadership Academy continued, most of the 2009-2010 school year was occupied by the approval process within the New Bedford school district. In September, we presented our Readiness School proposal to the Superintendent, meeting with full approval. In October, she and members of the design team attended a statewide conference for other schools also applying for the Innovation (then a recently changed title) Schools initiative. The Superintendent directed us to complete a full prospectus according to the DESE guidelines by the end of November. We did so, and the Superintendent made major modifications. She did, however, direct us to continue to develop areas of autonomy, although there was much work still to be done clarifying those specifics. In January 2010, the Massachusetts legislature passed an Act Relative to the Achievement Gap (S2247), including language for Innovation Schools (Ch. 71, Sec 92) as part of Massachusetts Race to the Top application. At the end of January, however, the Superintendent made clear that this was not a path New Bedford would follow. By March, a new prospectus was published, and further modifications were made by the Superintendent. She then directed the design team to present the academy at the April School Committee meeting. Before that meeting, the Superintendent resigned. When the design team did address the School Committee, they voted their approval to continue our work, moving towards implementation in September 2010.
Decisions Concerning Implementation (May 2010): Challenges with the budget, schedule and contract made full implementation of the prospectus (outside the Innovation School model) in the first year of the academy difficult, and it was decided by the new Superintendent, high school administration, and design team, to incrementally develop the academy in the first year. This would be accomplished by teaching within one half of a House Freshman Academy team (plus Foreign Language), or five teachers. We would offer a schedule within the existing structure, but modify the classes and rotations. We would also introduce an Advisory Board – as experts and advocates, rather than a Governing Council, as well as a proactive, preventative behavior policy. Membership in the academy would be limited to a heterogeneous group of approximately 80 students. A thematically based curriculum and additional supports for parents and students would provide many incentives for various stakeholders. A fully integrated team approach to instruction and behavior would create and sustain positive and successful relationships between teachers, parents, and students. In all, the vision of the Leadership Academy would be realized through incremental implementation. In effect, the restructuring of the high school, through the NBLA as incubator, would begin.
Return to Innovation (September – December 2010): A few days before the beginning of school year in September 2010, the headmaster of NBHS informed the Design Team that 1) the NBLA would not be able to change the schedule due to the limitations of the IPASS data-management system, 2) the NBLA would only be able to have one of its design team members teach in the Freshman Academy team, and that 3) due to staffing limitations, the NBLA would not be able to offer a foreign language teacher as an integrated member of the team. The NBLA was also restricted from modifying the existing curriculum or curriculum map. It was suggested that the NBLA integrate ‘leadership ideas’ into the existing Freshmen Academy seminar and use different strategies in lessons aligned with the approved curriculum. In essence, the NBLA would be a Freshmen Academy team, and not differ from any other team in any structural way. Two of the four teachers (Math and Science) were assigned to the FA team. One teacher (English) was moved into the team at the request of the Design Team. In the 2010-2011 school year, absent any structural change, the NBLA Design Team has agreed to achieve as many recognizable goals as possible, given the existing circumstances.
Progress has been made, however, in returning to the Innovation Schools model. With the support of the Mayor, some members of the School Committee, and Secretary of Education Paul Reville, the district is beginning to explore moving towards an Innovation School at New Bedford High School, and using the Leadership Academy potentially as a pilot model for overall high school restructuring. With Massachusetts’ successful Race to the Top program, Innovation Schools have now received extra support in terms of funding (design and implementation grants) and program development. The Superintendent asked for, and the Design Team provided, a revision of the prospectus by December 2010. That prospectus would then be reviewed by a Screening Committee in January 2011.
Where are we now?
At NBHS (September to February 2011): It is important to note that the prospectus is not being implemented now, due to some of the constraints and decisions from administration stated above. Within the constraints of the current Freshman Academy model, two teachers on the team have put to work numerous strategies and lessons/activities geared toward developing collaborative based leadership experiences for our students. They are being assisted by the other two teachers on the team. Currently, one of the teachers is no longer offering Academic Seminar as a simple “work period” but rather a detailed and planned series of activities that encourage students to be creative, work in groups, discuss and brainstorm as a class, analyze topics or issues and reflect on their work. Seminar has been used to also teacher life skills that leaders must master. Monthly Summits have been designed and implemented, geared toward problem solving, literacy skills, and generating collaboration. For example, students must follow precise directions while accomplishing a task that relies on group efforts and a general leader to direct and guide the group. Most importantly, we have designed ways to develop community. In homeroom, Perfect Attendance Charts track which homeroom has the most successful daily attendance; Monthly Birthday Cake celebrations are provided by the teachers; A field trip was attended and debriefed in seminar; and a Thanksgiving Meal at two long tables was enjoyed by all students. Teachers, working with the housemaster, have also volunteered one day a week after school to conduct their own detention periods in their classrooms – seeking to effectively deter and decrease the number of conduct card offenses.
Path to an Innovation School Begins (January – February 2011): The Design Team has decided to apply for a planning grant from the state to form an Innovation Plan Committee. This Innovation Plan Committee has specific duties and responsibilities, according to the statute (Chapter 71, Section 92), but its purpose is to articulate the autonomies written into the prospectus. This prospectus was approved by a Screening Committee (Superintendent, School Committee designee, and local union president) by a 2/3 vote on January 11th 2011. The district has 30 days to form an Innovation Plan Committee and begin planning the implementation of the prospectus that was approved.
Where are we going?
Innovation Plan (March 2011): The next step in the approval process is to form an Innovation Plan Committee. This committee will build a comprehensive plan from the prospectus, actualizing for implementation the autonomies specified in the design work. More specifically, it will:
An Innovation School will operate according to an “innovation plan” which describes the areas of autonomy and flexibility and specific strategies that will be implemented in the school. An innovation plan must include, but is not limited to, the following elements:
- A curriculum plan that includes detailed information about how the proposed curriculum will improve student achievement and school performance;
- A budget plan that includes detailed information about how funds will be used differently in the proposed school;
- A school calendar and schedule plan;
- A staffing plan that includes detailed information about how the principal, teachers, and other staff members will be recruited, employed, evaluated, and compensated in the proposed school and if applicable, a detailed description of any proposed waivers from or modifications to collective bargaining agreements;
- A plan that includes information about the unique instructional focus and operational policies and procedures that will be implemented in the school, and how they will support student achievement and school performance; and
- A professional development plan that describes how the proposed school will provide ongoing and high-quality professional development opportunities to administrators, teachers, and other staff members.
The innovation plan must also include measurable, annual goals that assess factors such as student achievement and school performance. In exchange for authority to operate the school with increased autonomy, Innovation School operators will be held responsible, under a contract with the local school committee, for advancing student learning and meeting these annual benchmarks.
Once the Innovation Plan is completed, it goes to the local union to determine if any changes to the collective bargaining agreement need to be negotiated. Then it heads to the School Committee for a vote. The Superintendent would be able to annually measure and evaluate the school to determine its progress and level of success. The Innovation Plan Committee should finish its work in order to apply for an implementation grant on June 30th 2011. These funds will be used to assist funding for the school’s first year of operations and instruction.
Behind the whole approval process, this teacher-led initiative holds strongly to the vision which brought us here in the first place. It is to help students be more successful, provide supports for teachers, and lead by creating and implementing an autonomous small school model that can pilot innovative lessons, strategies and policies for our community as it moves boldly into the 21st century.
Withdrawal of Participation (March 20th 2011 – ): The Design Team held its first, and only, meeting with the Innovation Plan Committee on March 16th 2011. The agenda for that meeting is available online here. According to the guidelines of the Innovation Schools statute, dates and deadlines were established to begin work to create an implementation plan – but that did not occur. Instead, it was not possible to reach consensus on a number of vital issues with the stakeholders present for many various reasons. Realizing this, the Design Team withdrew its participation from the Innovation School process and dissolved. Over two years of voluntary work to reinvent the idea of education in New Bedford is not in vain, however, and the plan to model effective instruction around small autonomous schools continues. As teachers, we know the need has not vanished. We still care deeply about our school and community. Our vision remains. Solutions will come when the conditions, capacity, and culture shift to support them.