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Critical Small Schools: Beyond Privatization in New York City Urban Educational Reform

reviewed by Karen Hunter Quartz - July 26, 2013

coverTitle: Critical Small Schools: Beyond Privatization in New York City Urban Educational Reform
Author(s): Maria Hantzopoulos & Alia R. Tyner-Mullings (eds.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1617356832, Pages: 268, Year: 2012
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Michelle Fine introduces this edited volume using the concept of pentimento, the layer of paint that an artist adds when she changes her mind.  With time, the layer becomes transparent revealing the artist’s original intention.  The authors in this volume, muses Fine, have added a “translucent gauze over the contemporary small schools to induce a conversation between then and now” (p. xi).  The “then” is New York City in the 1980s and 1990s, led by progressive reformers such as Deborah Meier, Ted Sizer, and Ann Cook.  The small schools they and others founded—Central Park East, Urban Academy, El Puente, Humanities Prep and many more—were intentional democratic school communities that launched a national Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) to advance personalization, inquiry, and social justice.  The “now” is New York City after a decade of small school proliferation and private investment, its current focus away from small and towards charter.  The volume’s editors, Maria Hantzopolulos and Alia Tyner-Mullings, argue that the abandonment of small schools as a reform focus is in part due to “a misguided emphasis on size only in a political context that privileges neoliberal and standardized educational policies over innovative school cultural reform” (p. xxxi).  The ten chapters they have assembled shine a light on the cultural reform work of “critical small schools” that have remained true to their roots.

Divided into three parts, the book offers a range of perspectives on the work of critical small schools.  The first section focuses on the start-up and sustainability of three schools in different contexts: City Prep (a pseudonym) in the Bronx that opened in 2002 under the Gates-funded New Century Schools Initiative; Bronx Bridges Institute that opened in 1994 as part of the Coalition Campus Schools Project that broke poorly performing comprehensive high schools into smaller schools; and, a “replication” small school, The James Baldwin High School, founded in 2003 by the faculty of Humanities Prep as part of the CES Small Schools Network.  Written by Jessica Shiller, Rosa Rivera-McCutchen, Jay Feldman, and Anne O’Dwyer, these school stories are well told, based on a variety of data, and together they offer valuable insights into the complexities of establishing new school cultures and keeping the original critical visions of these schools alive over time.  

Part Two of the volume focuses on the particular practices that define critical small schools.  Looking inside El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, Anthony De Jesus details what culturally relevant pedagogy looks and feels like from students’ perspectives, in the context of a set of norms and practices the school calls the “Holistic Individualized Process.”  Lesley Bartlett and Jill Koyama echo this strengths-based or additive approach to schooling by looking inside a newcomer small school, Gregorio Luperon High School, to detail the bilingual teaching practices and the deliberate efforts to create a family-like school culture.  The practice of student-led work is profiled by Liza Bearman and Nora Ahmed in a chapter on the TC Student Press Initiative, an effort to engage educators and students at Pablo Neruda Academy in studying the small schools movement based on student-generated essential questions, such as: “How are small schools preparing students when they do not offer a lot of opportunities like different types of classes?”  And the final chapter in this section focuses on the practice of assessment by describing the groundbreaking work of the New York Performance Standards Consortium.  This chapter, authored by Martha Foote, will be of particular value to readers interested in understanding or acting upon the assessment autonomy that undergirds the success of critical small schools and is especially timely given the alignment between the Consortium’s standards and the Common Core State Standards.

The final section of the book tackles the question of impact:  do critical small schools result in better outcomes for students after high school?  This question is reminiscent of the Progressive Education Association’s Eight Year Study, launched in 1933 to track the longitudinal outcomes of 30 “experimental” schools.  Despite a powerful set of findings about the success of graduates from these schools, the Eight Year Study failed to impact the course of public schooling.  Now, in this book, we have another set of findings, albeit much more modest in scope, about the success of critical small schools and their graduates.  And in this contemporary context, the findings, written by the volume’s co-editors as well as Janice Bloom, help articulate the school structures, norms, and beliefs that support first generation college goers, 21st century workers, and active and critical participants in society.  Will these findings impact the course of public schooling?

The work of New York’s critical small schools is rooted in a century-old struggle to create democratic, learner-centered schools in this country.  And while this book wisely “lifts up the filaments of justice and commitment that were the life blood of the early small schools movement” (p. xi) to use Fine’s words again, I am also left thinking about the culture of school reform that favors the new and improved over the complex and grounded.  This book is a collection of complex and grounded stories, rich in detail written by passionate and thoughtful authors who remind us that educational innovation is not just about size and structures; it’s about culture, beliefs, politics and the economy.  I hope that these chapters will capture the attention of those in search of the new and improved because they offer not just inspiration but also convincing evidence that critical small schools can impact the course of public schooling.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 26, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17193, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 11:01:13 PM

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About the Author
  • Karen Hunter Quartz
    E-mail Author
    KAREN HUNTER QUARTZ is the director of research for Center X, the home of UCLA’s professional credentialing and advancement programs for K–12 educators, and for the UCLA Community School, a public K–12 small school that opened in 2009 within the Los Angeles Unified School District. Her research focuses on the creation of democratic small schools, as well as the struggle to prepare and retain good urban teachers. Her recent publications include “Zoned for Change: A Historical Case Study of the Belmont Zone of Choice” (with R. A. Martinez in Teachers College Record, 2012), and “Educational field stations: A model for increasing diversity and access in higher education” (with H. Mehan, G. Kaufman, C. Lytle, and R. S. Weinstein, in Higher education: The past and future of Proposition 209, Harvard Education Press, 2010).
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