New schools, Part 2

By Merrill Wolf

Addressing underlying weaknesses rather than symptoms such as dropouts, gangs and poor teacher retention is key to a foundation-funded effort to improve North Carolina high schools, its executive director says.

“We have a pattern of trying to create many different programs to address symptoms,” says Tony Habit, executive director of the New Schools Project. “Many can be addressed by retooling high schools in ways that address the need for real support” of principals, teachers and students.

Backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the North Carolina New Schools Project emphasizes recruiting visionary leaders and giving principals and teachers more autonomy and opportunities for professional development.

A recent survey of high school teachers underscores the importance of these steps.

Teachers at low-performing schools reported much poorer working conditions than those at more successful schools, with lack of leadership and lack of empowerment cited as crucial factors in their dissatisfaction.

Teachers at the new schools reported much higher job satisfaction.

Other qualities that distinguish redesigned schools are their reduced size — the Gates-funded effort limits high-school size to about 100 students per grade – and their emphasis on learning activities that engage students and enhance their future college and career prospects.

All students take part in internships or other work-based learning, for example.

The schools’ higher academic standards “benefit [students] even if they don’t go on to college,” says Habit. “They get reading and writing skills that are needed for the modern workforce.”

A recent article in BusinessWeek magazine suggested that, nationally, the Gates program’s mixed record of success may not justify its massive cost – more than $1 billion to date.

Despite some compelling success stories – after just three years, for instance, 14 Gates-funded schools in New York City doubled the graduation rates of the schools they replaced – some revamped schools have utterly failed.

But such failures are to be expected, even welcomed, in an initiative that is “very, very engaged in learning,” says Habit.

The Gates program continually evaluates the impact of different interventions and adjusts as a result, he says.

“In the early stages of this work,” for example, “the foundation was not clear that they needed to do deep, deep teacher and principal training,” he says.

The program is “constantly evolving and it’s very intensive, but it’s also very exciting,” he says.

And one of the great benefits for North Carolina educators is the valuable opportunity “to connect with the best minds in the country” on school reform.

Besides, Habit says, North Carolina is doing some things differently than other states, including partnering more closely with local school systems and communities.

“We’re working to connect with as many different organizations and partners as possible, because we recognize that high schools are owned by their communities. It’s very critical that communities should be leading this work.”

The project is also beginning conversations with foundation representatives and others in North Carolina to explore ways to involve other members of the state’s philanthropic sector.

“The scope of this work is massive,” Habit says, and the Gates money “will only scratch the surface of what’s going to be required to create high schools as very strong, academically rigorous institutions.”

Other stories in the series:

Part 1: Higher stakes prompt new ideas for school success.

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