Thinking Out of the Box: Design Elements from Essential Schools

The Essential school designs that follow represent just a few of the wide array that characterizes the Coalition. For more examples, visit the CES Web site ( or call the national office (  510-433-1451    510-433-1451 ) or a regional CES Center.

Breaking large schools into several small schools.
Two formerly enormous city high schools, reborn as the Julia Richman and James Monroe Educational Complexes, now house a number of new schools affiliated with the Center for Collaborative Education (New York City’s CES Center). In Manhattan, Julia Richman comprises a K-8 elementary school and early childhood program (Ella Baker); a high school serving English language learners (Manhattan International); and two other small high schools (Urban Academy and Vanguard). The schools share resources, including a library and an infant day care center for student parents, and provide continuity for families from pre-K through high school. The redesign of the large building also prompted startups of four more small high schools nearby, including Landmark High School and the Coalition School for Social Change. In the Bronx, James Monroe houses the Bronx Coalition Community School for Technology, the New School for Arts and Sciences, a K-8 school, and two other small high schools. With a higher percentage of poor students than the rest of the city, the small schools have a higher graduation rate, proving the investment in small schools to be cost-efficient despite a somewhat higher cost per pupil.
Information on all, through CCE:    (212) 348-7821   (212) 348-7821 .

Using teaching teams that share a small group of students, or keeping students with the same teacher for several years.
Many Essential elementary schools have begun “looping” to keep teachers with their classes for long enough to know them well, and the practice is spreading to the upper grades. In Philadelphia, students at the Academy for the Middle Years (AMY-Northwest) remain from sixth grade through eighth grade with the same five-teacher team, which has broad flexibility in using time and creating group rosters. Information:    (215) 248-6664  (215) 248-6664 . At Walden III in Racine, Wisconsin, students stay in the same mixed-grade advisory group throughout their high school years. Before graduation, they present juried portfolios in core areas. Information:  (414) 635-5860  (414) 635-5860 .

Grouping students in multi-age, heterogeneous ways.
At San Francisco Community School, students spend two quarters of each year in core academic groups combining grades 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, and 7-8; the other two quarters they choose a sustained interdisciplinary project open to students from three grade levels. Seventh grade reading scores have skyrocketed. Information:  (415) 469-4739  (415) 469-4739 . Harmony School in Bloomington, Indiana divides its 125 students into four ungraded divisions: early childhood, elementary, middle, and high school; they move up by exhibitions of the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and habits required by each division. As well as working with teachers in core interdisciplinary academic groupings, students of all ages mix in elective classes emphasizing exploration, creation, and recreation. Information:  (812) 334-8349  (812) 334-8349 .

Changing the academic calendar or the length or timing of the school day.
At the Boston Evening Academy, 150 students ages 15 through 26 work toward a high school diploma on the campus of a college-level technical institute. During the days they work in supported positions in the community; classes take place four days a week from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m., with child care provided. Information:  (617) 635-6789  (617) 635-6789 . Though Metro High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa enrolls up to 800 students a year, only about 300 attend at any time because students attend only half-days, four days a week. Students choose whether to attend morning or afternoon based on space availability in the school, their personal schedules (many work or have children), or their personal habits. On Fridays the staff meets to discuss student problems, needs, and successes and to carry out team planning, committee work, professional development, and visits to students’ homes and workplaces. Information:  (319) 398-2193  (319) 398-2193 .

Situating learning in the community.
High school students come and go freely from School Without Walls in downtown Rochester, New York, on their way to classes at local colleges or the district’s multimedia studio, community service commitments, or internships. For two and a half hours in the morning, four days a week, they take year-long themed interdisciplinary classes; afternoons, they disperse to hour-long academic courses. If a course they want doesn’t exist they can create it – via a written proposal, including learning goals and evaluation criteria – by finding someone in the community to teach them or by signing up at a local college. The school grants Carnegie credits quarter by quarter to keep closer tabs on performance; for graduation, students present a year-long Senior Project and performance tasks demonstrating mastery in academic areas. Information:  (716) 546-6732  (716) 546-6732 . In Providence, Rhode Island, workplace “externships” form the heart of students’ experience at the Met school; up to nine teams of 100 students and five teachers arrange their time on a flexible and often individual basis to support those work experiences with academic coaching. Information:  (401) 277-5046  (401) 277-5046 .

Using technology to focus a school’s learning.
Cutler Ridge Middle School in Miami, Florida organizes all decisions around connected “infrastructures” – they include professional growth; digital technology in support of research, data-driven decisionmaking, and action; and parental involvement – that make up a connected system of continuous growth. It summons all the school’s digital resources to support the school community’s “data-driven decisionmaking,”supplying teachers, students, and parents virtually instant reports on any question they choose to investigate, from traffic problems on dismissal to students’ understanding of fractions. Information:  (305) 235-4761  (305) 235-4761 . Some CES schools have used “distance learning” to reduce elective course offerings, enabling small heterogeneous classes and lower teaching loads. Information: Distance Learning Resource Network (at WestEd in San Francisco),  (800) 662-4160  (800) 662-4160 ; on the Web at