In New York, a dramatic shift in the state’s education policy statement has directly involved Essential schools as key exemplars of school change. In fall 1991, as part of their ambitious “New Compact for Learning” reform agenda, the state’s Regents adopted a “Partnership Schools Program” aimed at getting schools to try bold new alternatives to traditional schooling. The first group of schools named to the program consisted entirely of members of the Coalition of Essential Schools.
“This puts us squarely in the center of the state’s reform movement,” says the CES regional coordinator for New York, Joan Carney. “This program not only gives public recognition to the New York Essential schools that have come so far; it will also allow their work to proceed and go deeper.” Carney and a number of New York’s Essential school leaders met often with Education Commissioner Thomas Sobol and State Education Department people over the past several years as they drafted the New Compact for Learning.
Each school in the partnership will work with a state liaison person to obtain waivers from state policies and practices, such as curriculum mandates, that have made restructuring difficult. “Even more important,” says Carney, “we’ll be working toward defining new learning outcomes and developing alternative assessment practices, perhaps including waivers from the state’s Regents exam requirements.”
For their part, New York’s Essential schools will provide key guidance to State Education Department people, as well as a vision of how future schools might look to those that follow them in the Partnership Program. Coalition school people from the region will also sit on the state’s oversight committee for the new program.
“This is a loud and clear message from the state to those schools that might have regarded Essential School ideas as somehow aberrant,” says Carney. “The state has given us its imprimatur; we are in the mainstream now.”