Rosa Rivera-McCutchen began her career in education as a high school Humanities teacher in a small Bronx high school. She then became interim director of DonorsChoose.org, an online charity that facilitates donations to classrooms, before earning her doctorate in teaching and learning at New York University. She is currently an assistant professor of educational leadership at CUNY’s Lehman College. Her research has appeared in Urban Education and in a new book entitled “Critical Schools: Beyond privatization in New York City Urban Educational Reform.”

What questions guided your research?

Having started my career in a small Bronx high school that was modeled after progressive educatior Deborah Meier’s Central Park East Secondary School, I was interested in better understanding the evolution of critical small schools, and the what challenges to the fundamental philosophy of “critical” small schools existed. I focused my research on “Bridges Institute,” a small school Bronx high school (different from the one where I had taught) that had, by a variety of indicators, remained true to its original vision of reform; it was still very much aligned with the philosophy of school advocated by prominent small school reformers like Meier and Theodore Sizer. In 1994, Bridges, along with three other small high schools, was founded to replace a failing comprehensive high school in one of the poorest sections of the Bronx. I wondered, to what extent was Bridges Institute actually aligned with the tenets of critical small school reform? How did the policy and community contexts influence the vision and implementation of the reform agenda? How did the leadership and staff respond to threats? And, most importantly, was it a good school?

How did you conduct your research? What were you looking for and how did you find it?

I spent a year and a half working with the principal of Bridges Institute to organize various professional development initiatives including a small schools conference. During that time, I was granted permission to collect data for my study. I wanted to get a thorough understanding of the history of the school — the challenges and successes — as well as document the teaching and learning practices. To do this, I interviewed the school’s founders, as well as current and novice teachers. I also interviewed alumni of the school, to get their perspective about the quality of the education they received while at Bridges. Finally, I spent two semesters observing classroom instruction, as well as professional and staff development activities.

What were your major discoveries?

Once I began my research, I realized how layered and complex the story was, and that at the heart of the story was the community Bridges served. At the time of the research, over a third of the community lived below the federal poverty line and educational attainment beyond high school was very low. With a community in crisis, Bridges aimed to provide a quality education to students that emphasized critical thinking and social action. Cognizant of the community needs, the school’s founders were still astounded by students’ lack of academic schools when they entered the schools in ninth and 10th grade. Because Bridges was a zoned school, students came to it from low-performing middle schools and prior to that, had attended low-performing elementary schools.

These challenges were compounded by an almost immediate shift in the policy context within which Bridges and other newly formed critical small schools were operating. Key allies in important leadership roles within the city and state education departments were pushed out or resigned their positions, and were replaced by individuals who were not favorable to the vision of critical small schools. This resulted in overcrowding within the first couple of years of Bridges’ opening, a critical juncture in the school’s development. At the same time, the standards movement took hold and ushered in an era of high-stakes Regents exams that were fundamentally at odds with Bridges vision of schooling.

In spite of these challenges, at the time my research was completed, Bridges Institute was far more successful at retaining and graduating struggling students than either its predecessor or its sister schools, even though their student population included a higher percentage of students who were behind to begin with when compared to the rest of the city. Alumni I interviewed credited their success to the caring environment the school’s leadership and staff created. They also felt well-prepared to write in college and noted that Bridges’ teachers ingrained in them the value of drafting. Founding and veteran staff members also spoke of the value of a collegial and collaborative community, and believed that this community was essential in maintaining their vision.

Still, the school struggled in some critical ways. Although the school was founded by veterans of small schools like CPESS, the rapid growth and overcrowding of the school led to the staff being dominated by novice teachers who had no experience in critical small schools. Professional conversations began to shift from being deeply reflective about practice and student learning to more basic issues that dominate novice teacher’s experiences (i.e. classroom management, effective lesson and unit planning, etc). This was compounded by frequent turnover among the newer staff members. More importantly, the shift in the staff dynamics made it difficult to cultivate an environment where ongoing critical conversations about race and class would inform teaching and learning. Consequently, my research revealed disturbing evidence of lowered expectations for students, or “soft” caring. This was manifested in lowered standards of work and behavior on the part of too many teachers that failed to be called into question. In this regard, Bridges’ success was severely limited.

What can policy makers learn from your work?

Small size is not a sufficient reform strategy to improve urban schools in low-income black and Latino communities. It has to be coupled with strong school leaders and teachers who understand their students have been historically underserved, and who are committed to educating students as matter of social justice. The conditions needed for this work to be carried out rely on the willingness of policy makers to create the conditions that would allow this to effective.

First, schools like Bridges, that serve students who have not had access to quality education in their prior schooling, need more time to help their students make up the lost ground. It is simply unrealistic to expect that students entering high school who are years behind in literacy and math can catch up in four years. Unless schools are relieved of the pressure to graduate kids in four years, corners will be cut. Another critical policy shift has to come in how schools serving communities like Bridges are staffed. Bridges was founded by a cadre of veteran small school teachers and leaders who were able to focus their energy on shaping the educational experiences of students to reverse years of educational neglect. But in later years, the school’s focus shifted because it was staffed primarily by novice teachers. The inexperience, coupled with frequent turnover, led to some of the challenges I discussed earlier. School communities cannot develop rich practices and reflect on their value when a majority of the teachers are struggling with the kinds of basic challenges that come with being a novice. Schools like Bridges need more resources to attract well-qualified veteran teachers, as well as retain novice teachers through meaningful and ongoing professional development and support. These are some of the basic conditions that are essential to provide the students living low-income Black and Latino communities with the quality education they deserve.

Are there further questions you are exploring?

One of the important questions that emerged from this research was the role of school leadership in sustaining school reform. One area that I’ve begun to explore is the idea of insider succession as a means for sustaining promising school reform. In the model of schooling we see in Bridges, tapping an insider who was a veteran of small schools had some obvious benefits in that she/he understands the vision and promise of small schools. However, the transition from teacher to leader can be challenging in that an insider principal has to manage both a relationship shift from “colleague” to “supervisor,” as well as effectively communicate a rationale for decision-making to former peers.

I’m also interested in exploring the concept of school leadership for social justice more deeply. I’m embarking on a study of principals working in schools that include social justice as part of the school’s vision to identify specific behaviors that are aligned with social justice leadership. In other words, what does it mean to “walk the walk” of social justice leadership?

Why is this of interest to GothamSchools readers? What is new and exciting here?

With the rapid-fire creation of (and subsequent demise) of small schools in New York City, particularly in the Bronx, understanding how to successfully implement small school reform is critical. In Bridges, we find the beginnings of a template for providing quality schooling for historically underserved low-income Black and Latino students. Bridges has been around for over 15 years in spite of a number of challenges. This is not a “boutique” small school; it serves a population of students that few want to serve, and they do surprisingly well given the challenging circumstances. There is so much to learn from this example!