By Sharon Otterman, New York Times, January 10, 2011
This was the early stages of an audacious public education experiment taking place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, one that its founder hopes will revolutionize both how students learn and how teachers are trained. Instead of assigning one teacher to roughly 25 children, the New American Academy began the school year with four teachers in large, open classrooms of 60 students. The school stresses student independence over teacher-led lessons, scientific inquiry over rote memorization and freedom and self-expression over strict structure and discipline. The founder, Shimon Waronker, developed the idea with several other graduate students at Harvard. It draws its inspiration, he said, from Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite boarding high school in New Hampshire where students in small classes work collaboratively and hold discussions around tables.
But Mr. Waronker decided to try out the model in one of the nation’s toughest learning environments, a high poverty elementary school in which 20 percent of the children have been found to have emotional, physical or learning disabilities. The idea, he said, was to prove that his method could help any child, and should be widely used elsewhere. “I didn’t want to create an environment that wasn’t real for everyone else and then say, look at my success,” he said.
The challenges have been considerable. Faced with out-of-control classroom situations, Mr. Waronker, 42, had to rethink his idea that his model could work for even the most disturbed children. By January, three children who were violent had been moved to more-structured environments; seven other first graders moved away or withdrew, reducing the class size to 50.
The school was founded with the strong backing of Joel I. Klein, the former schools chancellor, who frequently lauded Mr. Waronker for his efforts as the principal of a tough middle school in the South Bronx. They found a space in an elementary school three blocks from Mr. Waronker’s home in Crown Heights, and in a special deal with the teachers’ union, he won the right to pay teachers on a scale that considered performance.
While the model flies against efforts to keep class sizes low, Mr. Waronker notes that the teacher-student ratio is lower than in most schools. At its heart is the idea that the teachers, not to mention the students, will collaborate and learn from one another, rather than being isolated in separate classrooms. He hired one $120,000-per-year master teacher per class. Most of the others are novice early childhood teachers, which recreates the staff composition in typical high-poverty schools.
New American Academy opened with 126 kindergartners and first graders and at least eight adults per classroom, including intern principals and paraprofessionals assigned to disabled children. It will expand by one grade per year until it reaches the fifth grade, and the teachers will stay with the same children every year, to build accountability for their learning. There is no assistant principal, dean or art teacher, saving money for classroom salaries.
Lessons are a series of complex choreographies. In the 2,000-square-foot kindergarten, for example, each child is assigned a “university”— a grouping by skill level — and another group by color: blue, red or green. Every 40 minutes or so, the children regroup in a different part of the room. During a visit in November, an observer noticed that each move led to the children’s standing up, running, talking, and then having to quiet down again.
Large number of students, and multiple teachers will, of necessity, generate more collaboration, co-operation and also more opportunity to interact with different groups, thereby creating more and different learning structures.
While laudable, and still to be fully researched over the long term, innovation, including tying teacher remuneration to performance, needs to have some empirical evidence both for support and for rebuttal. With all unions in bad shape, when it comes to public respect, and with American schools suffering from both derision and an erosion in funding, new approaches will be necessary.
Let's dial back in on this experiment in the next few months, and see what has happened.