Perhaps ”’The Honolulu Advertiser’s”’ editorial two weeks ago said it best: “Schools should be given greater autonomy to educate in ways appropriate to their particular student body. That is, one-size-fits-all policies don’t work.”

Legislators in Hawaii have a unique opportunity to make positive change in our public educational system this year. We may disagree on the exact way to make that change but the important point remains — and the public agrees — changes are overdue.

Much has been written about the public schools in Edmonton, Seattle and Houston. UCLA Management Professor William Ouchi now works with the governor’s office, where he has made some valid points about a plan first introduced in the House called the Weighted Student Formula. The plan makes sure tax dollars follow the student and don’t get lost in the bureaucracy. The visit of Tony Wagner from the Graduate School of Education at Harvard has had little publicity. Wagner made excellent points about the value of small schools, giving students a feeling of belonging and empowering teachers and principals. He suggested we look at what is happening not in Seattle or Edmonton — but, of all places, New York City.

Because I have a granddaughter in New York City, I combined some recent trips to include grandmothering and a look at two quite different public schools that have recently opened there.

New York City has recently moved from a decentralized system to a central system supported by Mayor Bloomberg. Joel Klein (former prosecutor) has essentially been appointed as “public school czar.” The transition has not been easy, and the New York Times has reported daily on happenings in the city schools.

My first visit was made to the Metropolitan Corporate Academy, located in a low-income section of Brooklyn. After a short email exchange, Principal Mike Fienga graciously agreed to let me visit his school. Metropolitan Corporate Academy (a public school) was founded through a public/private partnership between Goldman Sachs and the New York City Board of Education.

I met Principal Fienga in his office after a security check at the door (all New York City schools have a security aide from NYPD). The school looked vaguely familiar — a bit like my old elementary school — with the same exposed pipes, steep stairways and brown paper window shades. It has no library, no gym and no science labs. There are 357 students from 9th through 12th grades. The student body is 99 per cent black and Hispanic. The school had a warm and friendly feeling and the old corridors, including pipes, have been painted in bright colors. Seventy percent of the graduates of this school go on to higher education. A certain percentage of them are mentored on a one/one basis by employees of Goldman Sachs. To make physical education possible, the company paid a nearby YWCA to open up its facilities to the school.

Mr. Fienga spoke at length about the good feelings between staff and administration. The size of the school allows this. Teachers are very dedicated. The school does not have all the “niceties” but teachers feel supported and “problems are solved through discussion.” Fienga has two assistant principals and there are three counselors. People take on many responsibilities and teachers go above and beyond the call. (The teachers are unionized.)

In addition to Goldman Sachs, there is a group of private benefactors who provide grants and who are part of the “Institute for Student Achievement.” The school has also received some help from the Gates Foundation.

Mr. Fienga says this school is successful because it is family oriented and the smallness prevents the anonymity present in so many large schools.

On the other side of town — in Manhattan — I had the opportunity to visit Bard High School Early College, again a public school. This school’s program started in 2001 as a collaboration between Bard College and the New York City Department of Education. Bard was designed to offer a rigorous curriculum to motivated students and accepts students at the 9th grade level through competitive exam. Students complete their high school diploma (Regents Standard) at the end of 10th grade and enter the college program in the 11th grade. They graduate with an AA degree and have transferred to many well-known schools and universities.

Principal Ray Petersen was a former professor at Bard College. College courses at his school are taught by Bard Early College faculty members, but distinguished writers and scholars are also invited to teach.

Intermediate college level classes are offered in many areas, including Chinese, Latin and Spanish. Early college provides the opportunity for bright youngsters to begin college work at age 16, yet the small school enrollment (500) provides the supportive atmosphere most need in their teens.

Bard High School Early College looks a lot like my old high school — but what is going on inside is amazing. I asked Principal Petersen if the recent centralization of the New York System has affected his school. He replied that although there are transitional issues — the distance between the DOE and the school makes micro-management less possible. He has a high degree of autonomy and the school is thriving. One member of the staff uses her time almost exclusively to write grants and look for additional support for the school.

These are only two of the many small schools in New York City which seem to be forging new initiatives. Can’t a large high school in Hawaii be divided into separate schools which take into consideration the needs of the community and of students with different levels of ability? I think we may want to look at New York’s small schools as another productive model.

”’Marilyn B. Lee is the Democrat Representative for the district of Mililani.”’

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