While the network's local profile remains low, education leaders out of state are paying close attention. Educators as far afield as Kentucky and Vermont have imported consortium practices, such as developing individual education programs for each student and adopting the portfolio model in lieu of multiple-choice, one-size-fits-all exams. One hundred school districts in Kentucky now follow portfolio-assessment models, says consortium network co-founder Ann Cook, and Vermont's legislature recently voted to reconfigure all of its high schools along the portfolio-assessment model.

Consortium schools differ in other ways from garden-variety high schools. Because New York City principals maintain control over their budgets, they can opt for small class sizes and the experienced faculty to teach them by rejecting other expensive investments (well-equipped science labs and sports teams, in some cases). Classrooms look and feel more like college seminars than traditional chalk-and-talk schoolrooms: Discussion is the norm, not the exception. Curricula, often developed by teachers in response to student interest, address specific areas of study — semester-long studies of Gothic literature or the civil rights movement, for example — and go deeper than a conventional approach permits.

"It's the difference between studying World War II two periods a day for a month and 'covering' World War II in five days," explains Lori Chajet, co-director of College Access: Research and Action, a New York–based group that advocates for students who are the first in their families to attend college. If that tight focus necessarily means that some content gets short shrift, says Zingmond, it can be worth it to develop "deep knowledge in some subjects to the exclusion of others."

"There's a real difference in the way kids are taught to think and the way they approach learning," says Chajet. Students learn how to approach any topic, she says, using the case-study approach. "It's antithetical to Regents prep."

The schools themselves are often filled with the sounds of busy young people — sprawled on sofas eating sandwiches in a common meeting space; practicing mock Q&A sessions with classmates ahead of a panel review; making models of honeycomb cells to see how they fit together in a hive, as part of a lesson on geometry in nature.

"The consortium approach is not for every school, and not for every student; it's not a cookie-cutter kind of thing," says Foote. "We never said it is for everyone. But it works."

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