'Innovation' Schools Get a Chance to Shake Up the Rules

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Starting this September, dozens of New York City public schools will have the flexibility to deviate from school regulations or contract rules to try out some new educational strategies. On the face of it, the changes may seem small in scale but they were heralded by city education officials and the teachers union on Monday as significant innovations.

The city encouraged a mix of high- and low-achieving schools across all grade levels to submit proposals through a program detailed in the new teachers contract that aims to foster outside-the-box thinking. Out of more than 100 proposals submitted for the fall, 62 were approved. The city aims to expand to 200 schools over five years.

Carmen Fariña, the schools chancellor, said the new program put common sense at "the top of the list" and encouraged collaboration among school staff.

"This is not something that comes from the bottom up or the top down," she said. "This is something where people met in the middle. Principals had to sit around the table with their teachers."

The approved plans include modifications to teacher evaluations, more varied work hours for teachers and changing up teacher-student ratios to allow a mix of small group instruction and larger lecture-style classes.

One school, Community Health Academy of the Heights in Manhattan, plans to make changes around school food and teaching students how to cook healthy options. In order to open up the kitchen, the school needed to get around "a bunch of small regulations," said Mark House, the school's principal.

"Kids should be allowed into the kitchen if there's a great kitchen in the school," he said, so that students can experience what is being taught in their health class. 

 "I think the way you improve education is to sit down and say what are the little barriers that we can remove, what are the little things we can do," House said. For example, some schools are changing start times for teenagers because they tend to sleep late. "If your 17 year-old is asleep at 8 o’clock in the morning, it seems a pretty small barrier to move the start of school back an hour." 

The schools submitted proposals to a joint panel comprised of representatives from the Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers. The proposals will last for five years, and schools will be expected to meet performance targets. The Department of Education will oversee the program.

Gwynne Hogan contributed reporting.