At New Visions for Public Schools, It’s All About Continuous School Improvement. How’s That Going?

At New Visions for Public Schools, it’s all about continuous school improvement. The organization supports a network of 70 district and 10 charter schools in New York City serving, all told, 40,000 students. (When you include individual district support, those numbers increase to 440 schools serving 230,000 students.) Jefferson Pestronk, Vice President of Strategy and Development at New Visions, says that the organization’s strategy isn’t just about measurement but about supporting and enlarging its members’ ability to put students on track to succeed in college and the workplace.

This focus on “keeping students on track”  is the core of New Visions’ project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Networks for School Improvement Initiative — grants totalling $93 million to 21 organizations in 13 states — which just completed its first year. (See here for last week’s coverage.) New Visions is primarily focused on high schools because that’s where the rubber hits the road: If a high school doesn’t have the capacity to carefully track student progress, it may be too late for that student to leave high school ready for college and/or career. So New Visions helps create a graduation plan for each and every student, which means honing in on thesort of diploma a student is trying to acquire. That differentiation requires an array of new resources and continuous instruction on how to best use them.

To that end, New Visions divides its work into four buckets: Building core infrastructure; developing core curricula to set up kids for success on Regents exams; supporting teachers and leaders to build capacity; and supporting parents, school communities, and other partners to build stakeholder engagement. These buckets are linked by indicators for success: After all, if a student doesn’t have an 80% in math and literacy in 8th grade, he or she will never make a successful transition to high school (or meet the CUNY requirements for avoiding remedial courses). If a student aims for an Advanced Regents diploma but hasn’t taken Algebra 1 before high school, he or she won’t be able to attain the level required.  So New Visions builds routines for the use of management tools through, again, continuous school improvement and continuous learning.

How does one get to that place, I asked Pestronk?

“You have to monitor progress,” he said, but the schools New Visions work with often don’t have the school management tools to do that. The NYC Department of Education has data systems in place to monitor input but if a school is determined to keep students on track, you must meticulously measure output — student growth and proficiency– as well. So, for example, New Visions will go into a school and help them set up an extensive data system that lets it track students one by one through tools like the New Visions Data Portal as they move forward.

Concurrently, New Visions partners with the school to develop course content for Regents courses like algebra, geometry, and earth science. It also provides teachers with the resources they need to meet New York State standards while reflecting the school’s diverse enrollment and pre-service professional development aligned with instructional materials. “It’s not enough to just hand curricula to teachers,” said Pestronk. “You need to offer coaching too.”

The context for this, Pestronk explains, is that 30 years ago when New Visions was founded, graduation rates among the  schools it served was 50%. The non-profit set a goal: To raise graduation rates to 80%. 

How’s that going? This past school year graduation rates among New Visions schools were in the mid-80’s, the fourth year in a row that the organization has beaten that goal.

Pestronk is proud of New Visions schools’ graduation rate but insists that the network must aim higher. “We want to make sure that all our schools are well-positioned,” he said. “We’re focused on students getting off to a strong start and positioning them for success.” The goal, he says, is to set students off on a relatively predictable path with procedures in place like the “Freshman on Track Toolkit” to support students who struggle. “That’s basic administrative management.”

What’s not to like? Here’s NYC Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza:

“I congratulate New Visions for Public Schools on this grant, and I’m excited to work with them to make our vision of College Access for All a reality in New York City. Our goal as educators is to graduate students who are ready to succeed in college and careers, and address historic disparities in college access and success. I thank New Visions and the Gates Foundation for their partnership towards that goal.”

And closer to the ground, Carl Manalo, principal of Queens High School for Information, Research, and Technology (QIRT) sings New Visions’ praises:  “QIRT’s improvement has been the result of large and small changes. Partnering with a group of colleagues dedicated to achieving more equitable outcomes is critical work, and understanding what has and hasn’t worked for peer schools will help all of us learn faster and work better.”

In other words, the keys are data infrastructure, support, procedures, and most critically, continuous learning and school improvement to ensure that students under New Visions’ purview stay on track and meet their goals.

What do you think?

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