School Support Networks More Responsive Than Ever

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On a recent Thursday afternoon, Eugenia Montalvo, principal of P.S. 106 Parkchester in the Bronx, popped into more than a half-dozen classrooms. She leaned down to ask students what they were learning, and she listened to teachers to get a sense of how they were progressing with one of the school’s instructional priorities, engaging students with challenging questions and discussion.

Montalvo is responsible for the learning and professional growth of dozens of educators and hundreds of students. In order to effectively do her job and meet increasingly high standards, she readily admits that she has to keep learning, too.

That’s why Montalvo was joined that afternoon by Petrina Palazzo and Dena Carroccetto, two members of the school support network that provides instructional and operational help to P.S. 106. Palazzo, a former principal and district administrator, and Carroccetto, an achievement coach, were helping Montalvo give teachers feedback on the rigor of their questioning.

After the classroom visits, Palazzo, Carrocceto and Montalvo compared their observations with results on the school’s recent progress report and began making an action plan. “Who are these students?” Palazzo asked, referring to a group of struggling second-graders. “And what are we doing or not doing with these students to get these results?”

Palazzo and her 15-member team are there for Montalvo and 24 other principals — in person, by email or by phone — when they need help with a myriad of issues such as interpreting state regulations, tackling a budgeting challenge or assisting a family that recently arrived from another country.

Each of the 1,500 district schools is supported by a network, comprised largely of former principals and teachers who specialize in areas like instruction, special education and human resources. The city's Department of Education has always had field offices to support schools but over the last few years, as part of broader efforts to empower principals, the structure has evolved into one that is more dynamic and responsive to individual school and community needs.

Instead of having to contact a different office for each issue, principals like Montalvo receive support from a team that knows their schools well, allowing them to spend more time supporting staff with its most critical work.

Some networks are managed in collaboration with universities or community-based organizations. Some are organized around an area of expertise, such as data analysis, or philosophy, such as distributive leadership.

Some networks serve mostly elementary schools or schools in particular geographic areas, and some networks have instructional models to support particular groups of students such as English language learners or over-aged high school students. The idea is to offer principals an array of high-quality, integrated school support options and let them determine which will best serve their school.

Just like schools, networks are held accountable for their performance. We support struggling networks and, when feedback from principals and student results dictates, will make changes to ensure schools are receiving the supports they need.

The approach is working. Principals are able to review a menu of networks each year in an open enrollment period, but 92 percent choose to stay with their existing networks. On the 2012 Principal Satisfaction Survey, 86 percent of the more than 1,100 principals who participated said their network helps improve student achievement and 90 percent said they were satisfied with the overall quality of support provided.

This setup is also cost effective: the city spent 32 percent less on school support in 2011 than in 2006, which allowed more money to go directly to schools.

The networks also provide opportunities for teachers, students and parents. For example, Sandra Litrico’s network brings together a representative from each school once a month to discuss how to strengthen their teacher teams. Julia Bove’s network organizes parent coordinators to share best practices on increasing parent engagement, and Kathy Pelles’ network holds an annual student poetry jam. The camaraderie created by these types of gatherings and the networking that takes place benefit the schools.

Just ask Ramón González. As principal of M.S. 223 The Laboratory School for Finance and Technology in the Bronx, González could have elected to join a network of middle schools or Bronx schools. Instead, he chose a network that primarily includes principals with a similarly progressive bent who place an emphasis social justice issues. That most of these schools happen to be in Manhattan did not deter him.

González said his decision was based partly on the network leader, Marina Cofield, whom he called a “real thought partner,” and partly on the caliber of other principals in the network.

“If anything, I wanted to be challenged by schools that were stronger than we were at the time,” he said.

González credits the opportunity to engage with this self-selected group as instrumental in improving his school.

“I’m surrounded by peers that have similar belief systems that are also trying to cut down the achievement gap,” he said. “I feel blessed by the quality of the schools that I’m around.”