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« Considering 21st Century School Libraries

From Edutopia comes this striking story of one large historical school in NYC being re-designed as 6 different ’small schools’/academies that has had remarkable success long before the small-school movement took hold An excerpt:

What first strikes you upon entering the Julia Richman Education Complex (JREC), in the heart of New York City, is how neatly the past intersects the present.

Rows of yearbooks from previous decades line the high beige walls as today’s students whiz by on their way to class. The students of 2005 bear little resemblance to the photographs gracing the old annuals, though. It isn’t just the clothes and the hairstyles that have changed. The building that was once a high school for thousands of adolescent girls is now home to six schools, serving students from prekindergarten through high school.

It’s past:

Built in 1923, Julia Richman (named after the city’s first woman district superintendent of schools) was a thriving all-girls high school for 50 years. It began to founder in the mid-’70s, battered by budget cuts, overcrowding, low student achievement, and crime.

The turn-around…

In 1993, when the school’s graduation rate hovered around 35 percent, the school board voted to close it. Instead of giving up, however, they decided to reconfigure one large failing high school. It was a radical move — well ahead of the high school reform efforts that have since taken root countrywide.

And when they talk about a community by design, they mean precisely just that:

JREC is an eclectic mix of schools and students, as well as a sterling counterargument to the typical large public high school. The complex, home to 1,900 students, comprises four small high schools, an elementary school for students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, a school for autistic children, and First Steps, an infant and toddler center for the young children of students. Also on site are the Mt. Sinai Student Health Center and the Center for Inquiry in Teaching and Learning, a professional-development institute for JREC’s teachers.

Each school has its own staff, schedule, curriculum, and dedicated space, but they also share several critical facilities, including a mini theater, an art gallery, sports facilities, dance studios, a distance-learning lab, an auditorium, a cafeteria, and a library. By using common spaces, schools save money and foster community.

The complex is governed by a building council, which consists of all six principals and a program director. Their actions are guided by six fundamentals: multiage communities, autonomous schools, dedicated school space, shared services, and common spaces and governance. These goals have contributed to low staff turnover and high graduation rates — more than 85 percent, on average, for all the high schools.

Some schools do markedly better. “Ninety-eight percent of our students graduate,” says Phyllis Tashlik, director of the Center for Inquiry and an English teacher at Urban Academy, the first high school to move into the converted space. That’s an astounding statistic, considering that most large urban schools typically graduate only about two-thirds of their students. The rate is even higher than at other multiplex schools, which claim 90 percent student graduation.

Educator and author Deborah Meier (see “All Aboard”), one of JREC’s planners, says that multiplex schools work because of the critical sense of community they create. “Most schools, even suburban schools, are not communities,” she says, “because they’re too large and anonymous.”

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