Academy of Environmental Science High School

Despite being advised to not make too many changes, the new principal at AES leads his staff, students, and parents forward in the initial steps on a planned journey of change.

The ten “Beat the Odds” schools were selected after an extensive review of a Parthenon Group study and data from the New York City Department of Education. These schools’ innovative programs and outstanding leadership resulted in a higher than average graduation rate for students who typically either dropped out or did not graduate on time.

Background Study

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This playground replaced a battered parking lot that served as the school’s entrance.

Picture this scene: it is the first week of school and new principal David Grodsky finds himself confronted with a major safety and security issue at the Academy of Environmental Science Secondary High School (AES). All but one of the stairwells within the three-story building are shut down and condemned after a visit from the local fire department. Grodsky wonders why the stairwells have been allowed to reach such a state of deterioration.

Located in the community of East Harlem, AES was founded over twenty years ago as a science theme-based high school. During the course of its history, however, its academic focus and organizational structure have undergone many changes. The year prior to Grodsky’s arrival, AES was a K-12 school, operating as three distinct entities within the same building. Just before Grodsky assumed his new role, the school went through yet another transition, phasing out the elementary level.

As the new principal, one of Grodsky’s top priorities is connecting with the faculty, staff, students, and parents in the school community in an effort to gain an understanding of the challenges and opportunities presented within the school. By leading with questions and not answers, Grodsky is able to unearth the facts behind the major challenges creating a climate in which the truth is heard.

What Grodsky hears is that people are feeling demoralized, disillusioned, and frustrated. Over the years, a sense of complacency among staff members has developed, resulting in an attitude for many, “but this is good enough.” Grodsky understands that changing the school culture at AES will not be an easy task, and one that he cannot do alone.

Efforts to clean up the physical environment at AES are extended beyond the safety issue of the stairwells. In collaboration with Manhattan East, community groups, students, and parents, the principal begins to focus on other projects, including the creation of a new playground area in front of the school, the installation of a new auditorium, and upgrades to the overall cleanliness of the physical plant. To improve the overall safety, order, and security within the building, the principal is also successful in having a center for suspended students removed from the site.

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Providing coaches for classroom teachers is the focus of professional development at the Academy of Environmental Science.

In addition to addressing safety and security issues, Grodsky also directs his focus to understanding the professional development needs of his faculty members. In the past, the improvement of teaching practices has been left to individual teachers working in isolation or has been provided through one-shot or two-shot workshops. When he inquires about the staff’s previous PD and what impact it has had on their practice in the classroom, there is limited to no response.

Initially, Grodsky takes it upon himself, with the assistance of a few individuals, to plan, design, and implement PD for faculty during his first year, though recognizing that this is indeed a limited model. In his second year, he turns to a content-focused model of coaching and acquires the services of specialized teachers in science, math, and literacy to provide for ongoing professional development throughout the year. Coaching teams are set up to facilitate collaboration and sharing of ideas, and to provide feedback and assistance with their teaching practices to provide students with the most optimal situations for learning, achievement, and success in school.

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Opportunities for hands-on science help reinvigorate the schools’ focus.

During the multiple restructuring processes over the course of school’s history, the original academic focus on science has lost its direction. Before revisiting the mission statement of AES, the principal decides there is a bigger issue at hand, one that involves an internal restructuring of the school. Grodsky begins to focus on what he refers to as creating a “secondary school consciousness.” In an effort to break down the barriers between the middle and high schools and create a new organizational identity, teachers’ schedules are significantly rearranged. Teachers are scheduled a new class outside of their comfort zone—within the other level. For the first time in years, teachers are also required to use their professional duty period for the purpose of team teaching or instructional support, rather than as an additional prep period.

The structure of the delivery of professional development is also altered mid-year, in an effort to bring together the middle and high school teachers. Using a program designed to promote data driven decision making, faculty members are introduced to the tools designed to inform instruction through assessment. The focus on science in the curriculum is reaffirmed in that all students must now study a sequence of environmental science classes.

Despite the school’s name, practical work in science continues to be severely hampered by the lack of laboratories. Even though teachers continue to teach without proper labs, they acknowledge the luxury of having an exclusive science coach, and credit this individual in assisting them in their efforts to deliver a more hands-on approach to the curriculum. Efforts to improve this situation have resulted in a recent successful bid to have new chemistry and biology labs installed at AES.

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The neighborhood surrounding this school is in transition, and students come to the school with varying needs.

The Academy of Environmental Science Secondary High School has taken some significant steps forward in its efforts to improve student achievement. In the 2007 Quality Review Report, conducted by the NYC Department of Education, evaluators acknowledge that, “Budgeting, staffing and scheduling decisions are soundly based and the school is, step by step, moving from a very low base to provide a better education.”

Like most journeys of change, the initial steps involve assessing the current state of the school, identifying the direction in which the staff wants to go and of course, creating a plan of how to get there. Recent changes in staffing have allowed for the recruitment of teachers who are willing to reflect upon their instructional methods and realign them. Teamwork and collaboration in planning have become stronger elements of the way the school functions and professional development has been strengthened by a cadre of coaches, whose support is greatly appreciated by teachers.

The challenge that remains for AES is twofold: determining when and whether they reach their destination, and keeping the journey moving forward in improving student achievement.