New Dorp High School: A Case Study in School Improvement through Inquiry

New Visions recently unveiled a new interactive tool that visually maps the aggregate performance of a cohort of students across eight semesters of high school.

Based on our College Readiness Metric, these maps divide students into various color-coded performance groups—on track for college; on track for graduation; almost on track; and off track—and show how students move between categories from semester to semester as they meet (or fail to meet) certain benchmarks, such as appropriate credit accumulation and Regents exam scores.

The maps provide school leaders with a visual snapshot of school-level student performance.  If large numbers of students drop to a lower performance category at a particular moment in time, this might prompt a school leader to investigate why and design an intervention to address the problem. Conversely, large flows of students from a lower to a higher performance category might provide evidence that a particular intervention is succeeding, justifying its continuation or expansion.

While a previous post describes the tool itself, we also want to provide some real-world context to highlight the connections between school-level decision making and student performance.  What follows is a brief history of the recent reforms undertaken at New Dorp, a high school in Staten Island which has undergone a remarkable transformation from a struggling school to a high-performing one.  We’ll show how these reforms are manifested in the related stock-flow maps.

The New Dorp Transformation

In 2005, New Dorp was a large high school that was struggling, consistently failing to make adequate yearly progress per No Child Left Behind.  Recognizing an urgent need to change course, principal Deirdre DeAngelis applied for and received grants from the federal government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to turn her large school into a system of eight smaller learning communities (SLC). 

The SLCs are organized around different curricular themes and function like schools-within-a-school, where teachers and students select a program based on their interest.  These smaller programs provide students with more personalized learning experiences, where teachers and counselors develop more meaningful relationships with a smaller number of students. This re-organization was meant to address some of the structural challenges common among large, high-need urban schools by establishing more personalized learning environments for all students.

That same year, New Dorp embraced a new strategy for improving student outcomes.  DeAngelis, along with a group of teachers, guidance counselors and school aides from each of the new SLCs, took part in a formalized teacher inquiry program run in partnership between New Visions and Baruch College (click here to read more about this program).  Expert facilitators guided the new inquiry teams through a process of identifying barriers to student learning and devising solutions to those barriers.  Inquiry teams were established around particular focus areas such as vocabulary, writing and math computation.

By 2006, the first cohort of SLC students were entering New Dorp and a culture of inquiry was beginning to take hold.  Survey data demonstrated strong gains in teacher leadership and a cultural shift towards assessment and collaborative practices to improve instruction among those in the cohort. These practices were beginning to spread outward.  The teachers involved had come to see themselves not only as teachers, but as learners.  They were engaged in figuring out what their students’ specific needs were and adjusting their curriculum to meet those needs. 

"There was a recognition that it wasn't the students who had deficiencies," explained DeAngelis, "it was us. It was the school."

By 2007, after two years of inquiry, team members found their experience to be so powerful that a decision was made to expand the program school-wide, with every faculty member at New Dorp participating.  Through the inquiry process, New Dorp identified poor writing as an area where students were struggling and which was having an outsized impact on overall student learning, since poor critical thinking and writing skills were hindering student growth across multiple subjects. 

So in 2008 the school decided to refocus its efforts on student writing and embraced Judith C. Hochman's program for teaching expository writing.  In what has come to be known as New Dorp's "Writing Revolution" (see Peg Tyre's excellent profile about this in the Atlantic), this school-wide emphasis on expository writing across the disciplines led to impressive student gains across all subjects.

In addition, all teachers at New Dorp were required to administer midterm exams so they could assess mid-way through the semester how their students were progressing.  "If you're administering a fall midterm," DeAngelis explained, "and you're analyzing how your kids did, now you know what you have to provide them for the second half of the semester in terms of support or content or instruction, so you don't see those same results in January."

New Dorp Student Performance as Stocks and Flows

Our new interactive tool provides a visualization of how a school's student performance changes over time.  Large flows of students in one direction or another suggest whether a school's systems and supports are working or not.  The figure below compares New Dorp's incoming 9th grade performance with student performance at the end of first semester over the years 2008 through 2011. 

The maps show how a relatively large proportion of students were falling from on track for graduation (green) to almost on track (yellow) in 2008, but by 2011 more 9th graders were staying green or even rising to on track for college (blue).  Also, over these years the proportion of students ending their first 9th grade semester off track (red) was reduced. 

The tool can show how interventions potentially impact everyone in the school, not just the targets of those interventions. It captures how the shifting of resources and focus towards one group of students may affect the remaining student population. 

But the tool also suggests a different way of thinking about which students are "at risk." We recognize that it’s not just the lower performing students who are in danger of dropping out or not graduating, it's also the students who begin high school on track for college and fall to lower performance categories because they lacked adequate support.  By seeing the big picture, school leaders can put these types of relationships and tradeoffs into perspective and remain focused on longer term improvement. 

"Too many leaders are reactive," DeAngelis explained. "They think, 'Something’s wrong, let's implement something to make it right,' but that’s not sustainable. And if it's not sustainable it doesn't really work.  They don't understand that when you're pushing a heavy load up a hill, sometimes it's going to slip back because you'll get tired, and you might have to push it up a different way.  But that's the piece that's lacking sometimes.  If you don't have people who are committed, you really can't do this kind of work in only four or five years."

Despite all of the reforms at New Dorp, it is possible that the biggest change of all was cultural.  The inquiry process acted as a catalyst for new ways of thinking and opened the door to teacher self-reflection. The instructional focus changed from what the teacher was teaching to what the students were learning. 

The stock-flow maps provide school leaders like DeAngelis with a tool for conducting high-level inquiry around school-wide organization and programming.  A comparison of New Dorp's stock-flow maps over time suggests a school on the rise, with fewer students falling from higher to lower performance categories in each semester, and more students moving from lower to higher. "We have fewer kids giving up if they don't graduate in 4 years," she told us.  "The kids are staying, and they're finishing.  In the past, they just put their hands up and said 'the hell with it,' but they're not doing that now."

But as any organization dedicated to learning would agree, there is always room for improvement.  Now confident about her school's approach to improving student writing, DeAngelis says the school is ready to tackle the next hurdle facing her students: math.  "Kids who don't know math just shut down, and the teachers can get frustrated," she said.  "How about we do a three-week boot camp for incoming kids next year?  I'm talking teach the calculator for one straight week."

Whatever course of action DeAngelis and her teacher leaders decide, it will no doubt be guided by strategic inquiry into student learning.

Jared Carrano is policy coordinator at New Visions for Public Schools. You can follow him on Twitter: @Jared_Carrano.

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