BBC News

New York schools enter the iZone

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

image copyrightReuters
image captionUncertain horizons: New York's economic fortunes are now linked to education

After the iPhone and the iPad, the iZone is a different kind of design experiment.

It's New York's attempt to reinvent an inner-city school.

The iZone project - or Innovation Zone - is challenging state schools in New York City to rip up the rule book.

They're being told to find new ways to provide a more individualised education, to change the shape of the school day, explore what technology can offer and even ask whether pupils need to be in school at all.

"The challenge we face is nothing less than transforming our schools from assembly-line factories into centres of innovation," said the city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who warns that the US school system is falling behind international rivals.

If the state schools are not improved, the fear is that the city will be entering the twilight zone rather than the iZone.

Global cities

The iZone project is a living experiment in how to confront some of the big questions facing school systems in major cities around the world.

In intensely diverse cities, with pupils from such a wide spectrum of ethnic, cultural and economic backgrounds, how can a school serve individual pupils?

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image captionPlanning for the future: Brooke Jackson, principal of the NYC Lab School in Manhattan

What are the skills that are going to be needed in an unpredictable, fast-moving modern economy? And when teenagers' lives are so suffused in information and technology, how should a lesson be delivered?

There are few more extreme examples of the global city than Manhattan in New York. Among the schools taking part in the iZone is the NYC Laboratory School for Collaborative Studies, a secondary school in Manhattan's Chelsea district.

Principal Brooke Jackson is part of what she calls this "pioneering vanguard".

"The fundamental problem, as the iZone sees it, is that most schools are not organised around individual student's needs," she says.

"We're supposed to push against some of the seemingly fixed boundaries."

"We're experimenting on behalf of the wider system. I like the idea that schools shouldn't exist in isolation, that this think-tankery, coupled with experimental innovative practice, could be shared out."

At the top of the list of barriers, she says is the idea of "seat time", in which schools are seen as places where children spend a fixed number of hours each week, credited just for being there.

Individual needs

Her radical plan is to get away from the idea of students going through the school day in fixed blocks of lessons, divided by age groups, and to create customised programmes, based on individual needs and abilities.

"We have students who are ready for graduate level work now - and we have students who will not make progress unless they're in a three to one staff situation. Having them in a class of 30 is not going to get results."

Brooke Jackson has ambitions for an alternative pattern, with many different schedules operating within the school, using it more like a college-style campus with staff able to give lectures or teach in small specialised groups.

It's also borrowing from the idea of individualised learning for special needs pupils.

Ms Jackson says it might even mean accepting that some teenagers work better after exercise so maybe a group might cycle alongside the Hudson River before coming back to their maths lesson. This remarkable city should be used as a classroom too, she argues.

Apart from challenges, such as making sure that academic rigour isn't lost in such an experiment, there are practical barriers.

No playground

The most immediate of these is a lack of physical space.

"Manhattan Island isn't getting any bigger," she says. The school, oversubscribed and overcrowded, has no playground. It shares a gym, canteen and library with two other schools.

"It's very hard to have 600 high school students in teenagers' bodies on one small floor of a concrete block, with tiny chairs and small rooms made for middle school students."

Sharing facilities with other schools makes it even more difficult to make changes to the timetable.

There are other areas where she is trying to experiment. If pupils don't have much space to run around, she says that they can still have exercise and she's encouraging the use of yoga, dance and drama skills in lessons.

If a class is running out of steam, she wants the pupils and teachers to try a few stretches to help wake up.

There is still that difficult question about what skills a modern school should be teaching.

'Moving target'

In such uncertain economic times, she says that this is a "moving target" but young people need to be "critical thinkers", able to adapt to an unpredictable future.

image copyrightReuters
image captionOccupy Wall Street protests in New York this month reflect worries about the economic future

She puts forward a checklist for preparing for the unforeseen. "Self awareness, social awareness, self management, the ability to tolerate ambiguity and persist in the face of the unknown."

This is a sought-after academically-selective school with parents' websites talking about its "stellar" results in getting students into college. But the principal emphasises the bigger picture of creating a positive environment and promoting values of "social justice".

It's not often, in the technocratic discourse of school management, that you hear school leaders talking about the need to promote "community and love".

There is also an interesting point made about technology. The school is working with near-neighbours Google and Apple laptops are visible in the classrooms, but Ms Jackson is keen that modernisation shouldn't be equated with technology.

"Throwing a laptop at a problem" isn't the way to improve school standards, she says.

Instead she says what really matters in her school is the quality of the teachers.

"What students like most about this school is access to the teachers. They know they would go to the ends of the Earth for them. They come before school to talk and we have to usher them out at the end of the day. They want to be near adults who are caring," she says.

image copyrightAP
image captionWashington Heights Expeditionary Learning School is another of the iZone's pioneer schools

The NYC Lab School is part of an initial group of 81 schools taking part in the iZone experiment, which has expanded to 160 schools and will grow to 400 schools by 2014. Schools will have a three-year roadmap to develop and then implement their plans.

While there have been structural attempts at reform, such as the expansion of charter schools, this is an attempt to renew from within.

There are three different strands to the iZone, looking at issues such as how to restructure the curriculum, how to integrate online learning and how to assess the impact of innovation.

Ahead of them is the challenge to raise standards in the polarised extremes of the city school.

Two stories this week suggest the canyon-sized divide. On the one hand, there were warnings of underachievement, with far too few New York high school leavers ready for college. And on the other, concerns from elite private schools that their skyscrapingly ambitious youngsters were at risk of burning out because of too much homework.

Arthur VanderVeen, until recently the head of innovation at New York's Department of Education, says the iZone is the next step forward in trying to find ways to improve inner-city schools, in all their complexities.

The idea of personalisation is "highly ambitious", he says. "It's a wholesale rethinking of a school and its cultural mindset."

"The 19th Century model is so deeply embedded with parents and pupils."

But such revitalisation is necessary to prepare for the future.

"We don't know what jobs are going to be there in 10 years," says Mr VanderVeen.

Knowledge hubs

The restless drive to re-energise education in New York is also an issue for universities.

image copyrightReuters
image captionNew York wants to become a Silicon Valley-style research base

As part of the aftershock of the financial crisis of 2008, the city authorities realised New York was overdependent on finance and lacking in the knowledge base that was driving the new hi-tech economies in areas such as Silicon Valley and Boston. The phenomenon of "knowledge clusters" was leaving the city behind.

As such New York is inviting universities around the world to bid to open a purpose-built science campus in the city, with the aim of importing a world-class research base. An announcement on the winning bid is expected by the end of the year.

There is also a mood of uncertainty, in which families worry about their children's prospects. It's also reflected in the Occupy Wall Street protests in the city this month, raising questions about the widening social divide.

The US has been slipping down the international school rankings - particularly behind the rising stars in Asia in China and South Korea - and this is inexorably linked to economic anxieties.

"By losing ground in our schools we've also lost ground in the economy," said Mayor Bloomberg, when he launched the iZone's plan to recover the sense of educational initiative.

"The economic challenges facing the middle class in this country, especially stagnating wages and the growing incomes gap, is directly related to the educational challenges facing our schools," he told New Yorkers.

"The only way we can remain an economic superpower is to modernise our education system and to do it right now."