Big Fix Weekly Update: Chelsea High

How do you improve a failing school? This fall, WNYC has been looking at that very question in a series we're calling The Big Fix. It's a collaboration with the Web site GothamSchools. Together we're following three low-performing high schools to see what they're trying. Two of them received federal grants to make improvements and the third did not. WNYC's Beth Fertig is covering Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School in Manhattan, which did receive one of the grants. She answers questions here on progress so far.

1) Last time we heard from you about Chelsea High, the school had just gotten almost $1 million in federal funds and the principal was going to use the money to improve instruction. How are things going?

The principal used more than half of the money to extend the school day. So four days a week, teachers come in at 8 a.m., a half hour before their first class, to work on instruction. And they stay an extra 45 minute class period (four days a week) with the kids to give them more time to go over things they did during the day or to catch up on certain subjects.

2) That is a longer day. But don't a lot of teachers already come in early before the official school day begins?  What's the big deal?  

Yes, teachers do come in early to plan their lessons. So if school normally starts at 8:30, they'll arrive at 8. But now they have to go to meetings at 8 which means they have to arrive at 7:30 to plan their lessons. They're working with someone inside the school -- and consultants from outside -- who are helping them figure out how to target different kinds of learners. These meetings happen in the morning but also throughout the day so sometimes they're running late if they have to meet with students. And then they're teaching an extra period -- even though it's set up to be a smaller class. That's why teachers say they're feeling burnt out. Principal Brian Rosenbloom told me he sent a memo to the teachers recently because even though he says his staff is fantastic, overall, he thinks not all of the teachers were showing up early enough. 

"Some staff are coming late continuously when they shouldn't be," he said. "And it's not a lot of staff its just very few. Nevertheless I believe every staff member should be made aware of it. Which is what I did the other day."

3) What about the students? How do they like the longer school day?

They don't like it, but attendance has been pretty good so far.

4) How are the grades so far? They just finished the first marking period, right?

Principal Rosenbloom went over the grades with me. More than 60 or 70 percent of the kids in each grade are passing which is typical. He's watching the seniors very closely because many of them are missing a lot of credits. This is a school with a graduation rate of just about 50 percent. So far, 76 percent of his seniors passed their classes this first marking period. That doesn't include some of the ones taking credit recovery classes, though.

5) What does that mean?

Students need 44 credits to graduate -- so these are kids who failed at least one class and won't have enough credits by June unless they make up their work. Credit recovery programs have been offered before in high schools. But this year, Chelsea's taking part in a new experiment with online learning. Kids who need to make up science or history classes, for example, can take them online. They read chapters from an online textbook and then take quizzes. And they do this in class, with a teacher watching, but they can also work at home if they have their own computers by logging into the program. This lets them work at their own pace. But this software program has had a few quirks. Some kids have had trouble logging in. One boy lost all the quizzes he passed in a certain topic. The software company's had a representative helping the teachers and the students. It's been a bit of a learning curve for everyone.

We'll hear more about that later this week in our series.