New York schools chancellor Carmen Fariña continues to unfold her big vision, which calls for more professional development, more arts, more guidance counselors, more best practices shared between schools -- and returning "joy" to the classroom.
In a speech before principals last week, Fariña said the massive district had already "turned a corner" and was on its way to becoming the "best public urban school district in the country."
Maybe, but it is striking that her turnaround program ignores one of the most powerful tools available to her, a tool scores of cities around the country are using to spur rapid improvements: collaborating with high performing charter schools.
New York City is blessed with some of the best charter schools in the country, schools that every day achieve what Fariña says she wants for her schools. Take Icahn Charter School 2 in the Bronx, rated a 10 -- the top score -- by greatschools.org, a school that draws a high-poverty, high minority student body.
Consider another, South Bronx Classical Charter School, which draws an even higher poverty student population, but still ranked a 10. Those schools have valuable lessons to pass along.
Fariña already launched a school-to-school mentoring program called Learning Partners. Next year the program might expand to include some charters. That's fine, but to reach her goal of making New York the country's best urban district she needs to go much farther. She needs to reverse engineer the 116 charter-district schools in the city that are co-located, making them true "compact" schools where the schools are designed to learn from one another.
Drive-by mentoring is insufficient; it has to be formalized. Helping with that formalizing is the Gates Foundation, which funds compacts around the country -- a task they would gladly take on in New York.
In the Spring Branch schools in Houston, both KIPP and YES Prep work closely with their co-located district schools to improve instruction and channel more students into a college track. As the partnership has matured, the collaborators are tackling other challenges. "It has moved beyond student programming to leadership development and shared problem solving," said Spring Branch Superintendent Duncan Klussmann, who designed the collaboration.
In Denver, the district/charter compact is the reason student achievement continues to rise in that city, concluded one foundation study. Compacts can take many forms. In Oakland, Aspire Public Schools works with Oakland Unified to improve literacy instruction and principal training.
In the Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose, Superintendent John Porter invited several charter schools into his district, which has led to improvements in both his district schools and the charters. "Joining forces," said Preston Smith, co-founder of Rocketship charters, which now has two schools in that district, "has allowed us each to be even more innovative -- from instruction, to technology, to facilities -- and most importantly, brought more resources to the school district and community."
In those places, charter schools play dual roles, reaching more students with rich instruction and also acting as laboratories of innovations for traditional schools, which was the original reason for creating charters. There is no reason why this can't happen in New York.
To be blunt, it won't be easy to reverse engineer charter/district co-locations in New York, where typically there is almost zero interaction between the charters and district schools. Much of that separation comes from the charter operators, who raise these kind of questions: How can we schedule lunch with the district school when our children must follow whisper-only rules and the district kids are running from table to table and shouting? And when the collaboration questions turn to academics, things only get more complicated -- and important.
But for the chancellor to reach her goal, it has to be done. There are ways to make this work.
First, start with a successful charter operator that already has experience with collaborations. Achievement First, which runs some of the top charters in New York, would be a good starting point. In Connecticut, for example, Achievement First runs a principal training program for both its schools and district schools, where principal-candidates from the district spend half a year in Achievement First charters. There's no reason it couldn't do the same in New York.
In New York City, it would appear that a close collaboration with the many Achievement First schools in Brooklyn would be helpful: 43 percent of Achievement First fourth graders are proficient in math and reading, compared to 17 percent in the local Brooklyn district schools. Among eighth graders, 52 percent score proficient, compared to 14 percent of district students.
It would be best to start small, maybe observing one another's professional development sessions. Okay, we know what the charter teachers are thinking: We have nothing to learn from the district's ill-regarded professional development. Perhaps, but those district teachers probably know a whole lot more than you do about the surrounding neighborhoods. And they have a lot to pass on about family engagement. There are, in fact, mutual interests.
Maybe, after a year or so, when the adults in the two schools start feeling more comfortable with one another, you move to the next step: student culture and academics. Teachers in district schools will be pleasantly surprised about the potential benefits from taking that leap.
In Spring Branch, where a middle school houses both a district school and a YES Prep charter, a sixth grade district math teacher described the shift from having the YES Prep student culture seep into her classrooms. "Before, kids were not so keen on doing well academically," she said. "They would call each other nerds. Now, it's the norm to know the answers, to not be labeled. It's cool to know the answers."
That's a good thing, which leads to better things. It's a path that if pursued aggressively just might make the chancellor's dream come true.
Richard Whitmire is author of On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope.
A version of his appeared in the Hechinger Report.