The Essence of an Improving School

Gary Stern
April 6, 2003
Principal of I.S. 311, Gail Gaines
Principal of I.S. 311, Gail Gaines

In District 19 in East New York, Brooklyn, one of New York City’s most impoverished school districts, success stories are hard to come by. But Intermediate School 311, the Essence School, which opened in 1997, has become the top performing intermediate school (grades 6-8) in the district. The school has earned the N.Y. City Department of Education's Breakthrough Award two years in a row for being in the top 5 percent of schools with improved student performance.

The Starting Point
In 1996, four educators—Carmen Alvarez, Melodee Kelly, Dania Vasquez and Peggy McNamara—designed the Essence School to offer students in one of the city’s worst-performing districts more individualized attention in smaller classes.

“We wanted an interdisciplinary curriculum, the family lodge (more about that later), a rigorous curriculum, and small classes,” said Carmen Alvarez, who is currently the United Federation of Teachers vice president for special education. The four put their plans together as part of their work with the non-profit New Visions for Public Schools. A year later, the Essence School opened its doors.

The Students
The school’s East New York neighborhood blends working-class, middle-class and poor families. Around the school, ranch style homes are interspersed among apartment buildings and tenements. Most middle-class parents send their children to parochial and private schools, which is why I.S. 311 has such a concentration of poor students. Over 90 percent of the Essence School's students are eligible for a free lunch. About 90 percent are African-American and Caribbean and the remaining students are Hispanics or recent immigrants from Bangladesh.

Students are drawn almost equally from four “performance levels” based on standardized test scores. (Students scoring at level 1 and 2 are performing below grade level; level 3 students are on grade level; level 4 students perform above grade level.) Just over half enter the school performing below grade in reading and math. Last year about 150 students applied for 70 available spots.

I.S. 311 occupies two floors in underutilized P.S. 190. Situated on the fourth and fifth floors, the school is like an oasis, set apart from the buzz of the elementary school below. Student work fills the bulletin boards: letters to authors S.E. Hinton and Judy Blume, reports on electrons and protons, and photos of the school's recent outing to the Greenkill Environmental Center YMCA Camp. There is no computer lab, but each classroom has two or three desktops or laptops.

The Essence School is funded by the New York City Department of Education. But New Visions offers continued support in several ways including helping the school choose the best available academic programs and running teacher/parent workshops.

Size Matters
Classes average 22 to 25 students, small enough to allow teachers to write detailed individual academic prescriptions. The school has 250 students in its sixth to eighth grades. Over the next two years it will reach its target size of about 375 students.

Principal Gail Gaines notes that middle school students are in the midst of adolescent turmoil. In poor neighborhoods, they face economic hardship as well. “But I know each student in this school by name, and know whether they live with their parent or grandparent,” she said. That personal touch can help students stay connected with school, and give them strength to deal with a crisis.

Small intermediate schools are showing signs of success with at-risk students, says Lydell Carter, a program officer with New Visions. Research demonstrates that these smaller schools “do a far better job at preparing young people, ‘at-risk of academic failure,’ for the transitions into high school,” he said.

A Leader Brings Results
From 1999 to 2002, Essence School students made strong gains in reading and math test scores. In 1999, only 7 percent of students performed at or above grade level in reading. By 2002, that figure had more than tripled, to 26 percent. In math, 1999 testing found 17 percent of students working at grade level or above. That figure rose to 28 percent in 2002.

Many academic studies attribute a school's success to one overriding factor: a principal who serves as an educational leader, holding teachers and students accountable for learning. Gaines, named principal of I.S. 311 when it opened in 1997, has been pivotal in the school’s performance. Gaines spent 20 years as a third grade teacher in New York City public schools. She has also worked as a day care center coordinator and as educational director of a private school in Manhattan.

Students treat Gaines like a respected friend. Gaines is professional, firm, and yet in control. It’s clear she’s educating all the time, like a concerned parent who sets limits.

“Gaines sets the tone, expectations and culture of the school. She is constantly raising the level of expectation. Now they're number one in the district, and she wants to be number one in the city,” says Carter.

Gaines bases her educational philosophy on the belief that “all children have the ability to succeed. Somebody in the school can tap into each child's success. We set high expectations and then show students how to get there.”

Sekinah Smith, a science teacher who has been at I.S. 311 since its inception, said Gaines “gives the faculty and its students a voice.” When sixth grade teachers weren’t pleased with their larger class size or schedule, Gaines suggested that they devise an alternative. They did, and Gaines implemented their plan. When students at a community gathering requested after-school homework assistance instead of remedial math or English, they convinced Gaines to make the adjustment. “At most schools, a principal dictates what goes, and that’s it,” Smith said. She believes that teacher empowerment is one reason turnover is low.

Gaines works to bring parents into the picture, too, though this is a struggle. “Principal Gaines is trying to get parents on the same page as their children,” said PTA president Gladys Simmons. Parents are invited to monthly evening workshops, and teachers contact parents at night to keep them apprised of their children's progress. Still, only about 35 parents attend meetings or workshops; most are too busy getting by to participate, she said.

“Most studies of effective schools pinpoint strong leadership as a key ingredient for success,” said Craig Jerald, a senior policy analyst at non-profit Education Trust in Washington, D.C. Schools with mostly poor students “must stay incredibly focused on what matters most for learning--a rigorous curriculum, strong teaching and extra support when necessary,” Jerald noted.

The Family Lodge
The Family Lodge plays an important role in setting the tone of the school. Every Monday afternoon, all three grades meet for Family Lodge. Led by coordinator Naomi Plotkin, the meetings aim to involve students in problem solving, rather like a family dinner-table conference. “We don't tolerate fighting in the sixth grade,” Gaines said. “Rather than imposing it, we ask students how they can resolve conflicts without fighting,” she said. “We want to hear their voice in the meeting and get them involved.”

The annual three-day retreat in December to the Greenkill camp strengthens the bond between teachers and students. Students engage in team building exercises such as ropes courses, hiking, studying wildlife, exploring the environment, square dancing and seeing a bird of prey exhibit at night. “It changes the way teachers look at children, and children look at teachers,” Gaines remarked.

For many students, this trip to the countryside near Port Jervis, N.Y. is their first one out of Brooklyn. When teachers and students sit down together for breakfast, the math teacher can see that a student who seems quiet is also interested in learning, and the student can see that his math teacher isn't a taskmaster, but someone who likes children and knows a lot about birds. “When they leave, teachers and children invariably view each other more positively,” Gaines noted.

Working Together
Interdisciplinary learning is another ingredient in the Essence School’s formula. At weekly meetings, English, social studies, math and art teachers meet to “connect educational issues and work in an interdisciplinary way,” Gaines noted. If a student struggles in social studies, but does well in English, what constructive suggestions can her English teacher make to the social studies teacher? The English teacher may know that the student is interested in nursing, and that fact can help her social studies teacher reach her.

Gaines recognizes that her students have a long way to go. She's proud of their achievements, but too serious about their success to celebrate when fewer than a third are on grade level. “Unless our students are 99.9 percent on grade level, there’s not success,” says Gaines. The Essence School has only two years to bring scores up for students who enter two or three grade levels behind in sixth grade. It’s a huge challenge, but Gaines embraces it.

The quotation on her door sums up her attitude: “If you think you are beaten, you are. But sooner or later the person who wins is the person who thinks he or she can.”


Talk Back

If you’ve got comments or questions about this story, we’d like to hear them. Send your response to Susan Phillips.


Gary Stern taught English in New York City high schools for over a decade and has written for a number of publications.






you&;re agood principal and i hope you are very good to earn a principle award

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