Parents and teachers alike were in uproar last week over the New York State legislature’s decision to cut $1.3 billion dollars in education spending.
Mayor Bloomberg also noted that the budget cut will likely result in more than 4,000 teacher layoffs, raising concerns about how an already struggling school system will cope with new financial challenges. While the cuts are bad news for educators everywhere, some schools are using turbulent times present to re-assess practices and develop smart ways to provide quality education.
The Bronx Charter School for Excellence (BCSE) is no stranger to re-evaluating its practices. Under the leadership of a team that has turned around under-performing traditional public and charter schools, BCSE implemented a number of strategies that have resulted in being named the third top charter school in NYC and one of the highest-performing schools in the state. At the same time, the school reports a 95%+ teacher attendance and retention rate while saving nearly $400,000 in yearly expenses.
So how did a small school in the Bronx that – according to some experts had little chance of succeeding – end up out-performing district, city state-wide public and private schools, without burning out its teachers and realigning costs? Ironically, it was not through the methods that many education advocates recommend.
“We don’t focus on cost-cutting, but rather quality-enhancing activities,” said BCSE school principal, Charlene Reid. “It all comes down to the environment you create and aligning resources to support that environment.” Reid notes that one of the biggest success factors is the responsibility and respect that parents, teachers, staff, leadership and students have for each other, with a clear understanding that they are responsible for one another, not simply accountable for themselves. These principles are evidenced through the school’s practices.
BCSE teachers benefit from competitive (but not unheard of) salaries, with instructional time from 8:15 a.m. – 3:00 p.m., are not on call 24/7 and welcome performance pay. School days were shortened, not lengthened, and a traditional summer school program was cut in favor of a required summer-long family project. This method integrates and introduces ways for BCSE scholars and family members to apply learning, while also providing teachers the necessary time to rejuvenate, reflect and plan. Substitute teachers are never used. Instead, certified, grade-level teams of teachers, who understand the environment and scholars, are responsible for covering when a teacher is absent. While technologies like Kindles are desired, BCSE generally operates with more traditional classroom resources.
The results? Last year, BCSE’s 5th graders achieved an 88% proficiency level in English Language Arts and a 96% proficiency in Math, far outperforming district schools and making the 5th grade class the highest-performing class in the entire city. For the 2011-2012 school year, BCSE has nearly 1700 applicants vying for a limited 31 available slots.
“To be absolutely clear, we don’t agree with the budget cuts,” said Reid. “For the nearly 431 scholars BCSE will educate next year, more than 1600 will literally be left out in the cold. That is a tragedy and doesn’t need to be the case.”
“The reality is I still need to educate my kids. We’re going to have to pull together and focus on inspiring students to learn. We do that by focusing on quality-enhancing initiatives, not simply cost-cutting measures. If you do the right things, the test scores should take care of themselves.”