Teaching Matters, a nonprofit that encourages innovation in education, gave out the Elizabeth Rohatyn award last week at its Summer Forum for Principals. The winner of the $15,000 prize was the Staten Island School of Civic Leadership. The public, pre-K-8 school, located in Graniteville, beat out almost 100 other entries with its “triad teaching mode.” The triad approach allows three teachers to collaborate on the comprehensive instruction of two classes. The school plans to extend the model to middle school classrooms for the first time this coming year. They will use the money to implement the technology component of the program.
“This was like manna from heaven,” said the school’s principal, Rose Kerr. “It was the right thing at the right time.”
Teaching Matters started the Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize last year as a way to recognize principals who had created rigorous and innovative learning environments in their schools. Executive Director Lynette Guastaferro said that as Teaching Matters has shifted its focus away from technology and more towards teacher effectiveness, the organization has realized the importance of strong school leadership in developing good teachers.
“There is this myth of the hero teacher,” Guastaferro said. “But having worked in schools for 19 years, we very much believe that schools need strong and effective leaders to put in place systems that allow teachers to grow.”
This year, 100 schools applied for the award and 10 were chosen as semi-finalists. Five schools moved to the final round after a period of public voting on social media outlets. A panel of judges, including last year’s winning principal, reviewed the applications and chose a winner.
The judges were impressed by the Staten Island school’s model because it allowed for more collaboration among teachers without increasing the amount of resources the school used. In a traditional elementary school, one teacher is responsible for teaching all of the core subjects to a single group of students. In order to give that teacher time for lunch and planning periods, a “relief” teacher is scheduled to come to the class to teach a non-core subject like art.
When Principal Kerr opened the Staten Island School of Civic Leadership three years ago, she decided to try something different in the elementary grades. She placed teachers in teams of three and made them responsible for the overall instruction of two classrooms of students. This format did away with the need for a relief teacher whose time was split between several groups of students. It also allowed teachers to plan collaboratively, to specialize in teaching their best subjects and to lower the student-teacher ratio in their classrooms.
“It’s not always, but there are many more times than in the conventional model when there are two teachers in the room,” Kerr said. “I think this approach has really contributed to the culture of collaboration in our school.”
So far, the model seems to have worked. Although the school only opened in 2009, the percentage of students who scored proficient on state reading and math tests in 2011 was far above the city average. According to InsideSchools, 60.8 percent of students scored proficient in reading, compared to the citywide average of 43.9 percent for 2011; 82.7 percent scored proficient in math, compared to the citywide average of 57.3 percent. The school also received the highest numerical score of any school in the five boroughs on its city progress report, earning a raw score of 97.2 out of 100 points.
In spite of this success, Kerr was hesitant about applying the triad model to the middle school grades. At this level, she reasoned, the content was more specialized and the testing came with even higher stakes. When two experienced seventh grade teachers approached Kerr this spring with a plan to do just that, however, she decided to let them try — as long as they agreed to add a math teacher to their team.
Michael Parise and Matthew Valia will implement the triad model in the seventh grade this upcoming school year. They have spent the summer collaboratively planning a multidisciplinary curriculum. Their students will study all of the core subjects this year, but they won’t do it in traditional, 45-minute subject classes. Rather, the subjects will be integrated through learning about a single topic.
For example, the students will study Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” by reading and translating sections of the text, learning about the historical time period in which Shakespeare was writing, discussing political philosophy and eventually writing and staging their own performance. The math connection may sometimes be more philosophical. In the case of the “Macbeth” unit, students might study the idea of natural limits — both in equations and in life.
The teachers’ aim is to help students see the connections between what are traditionally thought of as different subjects.
“We want them to realize that information, ideas and facts are beautiful and naturally connected,” Parise said. “And that with a little bit of guidance and a few tools, anyone can teach him or herself.”
That is where the $15,000 in prize money comes in to play. The school will use the money to purchase iPads for the two participating seventh grade classes to facilitate the independent learning, or autodidactic elements, of the curriculum.
Kerr is hopeful that this middle school trial will go well and she will eventually be able to extend the triad model to all of the grades.
“If this works, we’ll be able to expand it to focus on natural learning in our middle school. We can finally remove some of the barriers that come up in traditional learning models that prevent our kids from looking at problems holistically” she said. “Twenty-first century skills are what we’re going for here.”