High School of Telecommunication Arts & Technology: A Study of a High-Performing Organization

In an earlier post, Susan Fairchild argued that high schools are the last line of defense for ensuring students graduate college and career ready.   But, because of the cumulative effect of student learning deficits in the early grades, high schools are often not well equipped to teach the foundational skills that students need to advance.

Despite such significant challenges, some schools do manage to get many of their students who arrive below grade level (and, sometimes, far below grade level) to graduate college and career ready.  At New Visions, we’re interested to see whether these schools exhibit characteristics of high-performing organizations (HPOs), a topic Julia Ritchie, an organizational development expert, recently blogged about for us. 

We now turn to a particular school, Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology—or “Telecommunications” for short— to gain insight into how the school fits into the HPO model, particularly how well it aligns to the four dimensions of an HPO: strategy, adaptive leadership, evidence-based practice and resource capacity.

But first some context:  Telecommunications is a larger school with 1,285 students, of whom 80 percent are eligible for free or reduced price lunch (compared 67 percent citywide); 22 percent require special education services (compared to 15 percent citywide); and 62 percent are black or Hispanic (compared to 68 percent citywide).  A little over a quarter of students fall within the lowest 3rd of all city students based on their 8th grade math and ELA test scores. Six percent are English language learners (compared to 14 percent citywide). 

Despite significant populations of student groups that tend to struggle generally, students at Telecommunications have performed remarkably well.  For example, 86 percent of students graduated in four years (the citywide average was 66 percent).  In 2012, 82 percent of students earned a Regents diploma, and 52 percent of graduates demonstrated they were college ready by achieving sufficient mastery on key standards to pass out of remedial coursework at the City University of New York (the citywide average was 22 percent).  Also in 2012, 90 percent of first-time freshman earned enough credits to advance as sophomores.  And, for the past three years Telecommunications has earned an “A” rating on the DOE’s high school Progress Report

Organizing School for High Performance

Telecommunications’ leadership attributes much of their school’s success to the way the school is organized, particularly in the lower grades.  Freshman and sophomores are programmed into what the school calls “initiatives,” in which cohorts of roughly 150 students are assigned a common team of teachers who share common planning time every day.  Once per week, a grade advisor—solely concerned with academic issues—also meets with the teacher team to talk about student progress.  Students identified as needing additional support based on their 8th grade test scores are programmed into special classes that complement their regular 9th grade English or math courses to help keep them moving along with their peers.

The 9th and 10th grade initiatives are part of Telecommunications’ strategy to foster a small school atmosphere and more personalized learning environment for students, particularly younger students who can struggle with the transition to high school.  “We are here to understand the students that are coming in from 8th grade, that it’s a very new experience for them, and so to catch them here would be better for them,” explained assistant principal Christina Mednick. 

“Kids know very quickly that if something happens in one class the teacher from their other class is going to know about it, and that can work really well,” principal Phil Weinberg added.   “Teachers can tap into strengths that kids are demonstrating in one class versus another:  ‘I heard you’re a great artist, can I see that here?’  Or if a kid is acting up in one class but has a good relationship with a teacher in another they might say ‘come on, you’ve got to get it together in that other class, I know what you can do’.  The kids know that their teachers are watching them and talking about them and they know that the teachers meet every day.”

In addition to increasing accountability for students across their classes, this structure promotes increased collaboration and communication across school disciplines and departments.  Prior to the Initiatives, “the humanities and math and sciences in this building never spoke to each other,” explained Weinberg, “so we saw this as an opportunity for them to engage.  [Before becoming principal] I had just come from the faculty here and believed that the best work that we were doing was when teachers were talking to each other about their curriculum.  So we set it up.”

Teacher teaming also makes consistent messaging and curriculum alignment across the school easier.  According to assistant principal Xhenate Shepard, “we wanted to create a very clear curriculum for the kids, so that when they go from class to class the language we use doesn’t contradict something in another class.  You’re here to create a community for the kids, to meet and understand who they are, talk about their different experiences, and try to create a very clear inter-disciplinary experience for them.”

And Telecommunications has developed other systems for catching struggling students before it’s too late.  “Every semester the grade advisors will sit with their failure reports, and they’ll meet with every kid whose failed classes.  If they’ve failed multiple classes, they’ll meet with their parents.  So as soon as kid starts to fall a little bit off there are systems in place to make sure that we’re catching them before they do," said Shepard.

Looking at the way Telecommunications’ is organized it is easy to see the characteristics of a high-performing organization.  The school is organized around a strategic vision that views the early grades of high school as critical for student success and values collaboration and communication, and this vision is embraced at all levels of the school.

AP Christina Mednick explained how their teachers understand the broader strategy and are given latitude in carrying it out:  “The freshman and sophomore Initiatives are largely teacher driven,” she said.  “While the goals are clearly conveyed, the day-to-day is not micro-managed.  They are identifying what projects they want to propose and how they are going to do it; trips they want to take and so on.”

The importance Telecommunications places on its human capital is a key part of its resource capacity.  Weinberg reinforced this sentiment while describing his approach to distributed leadership:  “I think part of what has happened,” he explained, “is that over the years we’ve developed a very strong group of administrators in the building.  And one of the things that isn’t recognized or discussed very often is that schools, I think, succeed or fail based on the quality of their assistant principals.” 

Demonstrating Adaptive Leadership

High-performing organizations engage in cycles of continuous improvement. They are adaptive to both changes occurring inside and outside of the organization. 

Telecommunications’ recent success increased the school’s popularity and led to rising enrollment and class sizes. The school leadership saw this as a new problem to tackle and began to make changes. 

“We’re trying to reduce class size in freshman and sophomore year,” AP Shepard told us.  “But because of the initiatives, it makes it much more difficult to do.  So we have to restructure and reorganize them, which is a little scary for us because they’re working.  In order to bring down class size, which we think is going to be better for the kids, we have to change the initiatives slightly.”  This willingness to attempt changing a program that is largely seen as successful exemplifies the quality of adaptive leadership that is one of the hallmarks of an HPO. 

“We’re also trying to create a ‘light’ version of the Initiatives in the 11th and 12th grades,” Weinberg told us, “with the teachers having time to speak to each other that they don’t have now.”

This drive to always be improving can also be seen at the classroom level.  The school puts a high value on classroom observations of teachers, which enable assistant principals to take on the role of mentor.  “I’m coming in because I want to understand your teaching, I want to understand your day-to-day,” explained Shepard.  “I want to see more of what you do and I want to help you improve.” 

These characteristics—the way school leaders foster continuous learning throughout the organization, their willingness to tinker in a thoughtful and strategic way to bring about improvements, their continual search for ways to improve, their reliance on building staff capacity and providing structures that ensure everyone is working together towards the same goals—all point to a school that is an HPO. 

But AP Jeanine Boulay probably captured Telecommunications’ strengths best this way:  “Honestly, I think it’s that everybody is awake.  There are the grade advisors checking, there are the teachers checking, we do progress reports twice a term, there are meetings with the assistant principals if X number of students are failing.  It’s not about, ‘you’re doing the wrong thing,’ but rather ‘what’s going on? What kind of outreach have you made?’  There are regular checks put into place.  It really is that the school is alive and we are awake; we are regularly looking.”

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

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