In 1996 Cynthia began her work in New York City schools as a consultant to the W. Haywood Burns School, a K-8 public school in the Inwood section of Manhattan. She supported teachers in implementing a whole-school literacy education model organized to support social interaction. Over the course of more than two decades in more than 20 Pre-K through 12th grade schools, Cynthia has refined the Learning Cultures model through a process of action research.
Learning Cultures is a master plan for school success that involves 'first order' changes in classroom practice and 'second order' changes in school management. ‘First order’ changes, structured around the Learning Cultures formats, are spelled out in concrete procedures and practices that teachers of every grade level and content subject can implement immediately and with ease in order to catalyze student learning and achievement and transform classrooms. These practices provide enough support to help teachers replace competing conventional practices with a curriculum that centers students in cooperative activities that foster engagement, independence, motivation, and social interdependence.
The model design includes ‘second-order’ organizational changes that converge around the values of educational innovation, academic achievement, collective civility, and professional learning. An ambitious and comprehensive leadership agenda is spelled out in the domains of assessment, curriculum, school culture and student behavior, professional development, community education, and academic intervention for low-achieving students. In order to achieve this agenda, a comprehensive system of distributed leadership is established that is directly linked to improvements in learning and teaching. Teacher leads in each domain are assigned with job descriptions that detail roles and responsibilities. As leads execute their responsibilities, they activate leadership roles within a system that functions to 1) stage planned institutional change; 2) engage the whole school community as participants in the change process; 3) actively monitor and adjust the course of change; and, 4) maintain and sustain the momentum of change. Working together, the school leadership and the team of leads enact the Implementation Guide and restructure the bureaucracy of the school in ways that optimize decentralized institutional operations and power growth and renewal.
School leaders follow the Year-long Learning Cultures Implementation Guide (see downloadable pdf, below) that is used in complex and challenging education settings to successfully implement the model and improve schools. When the guide is used repeatedly on a yearly basis, a powerful culture of learning continues to grow throughout the school.
The Learning Cultures model has been implemented on a school-wide basis in several schools. Profiles of these schools are featured below. School performance data illustrates the impact of the program and school quality review reports contextualize how the Learning Cultures program was used.
The Family School is a K-5 school located in the South Bronx. In 2012 Cynthia began work with the school to implement Learning Cultures in a single kindergarten classroom, conducting lab sites to demonstrate the practices to other K-2 teachers. By the end of the 2012-2013 school year all primary grade teachers elected to implement the program. In 2013-2014 the reading and writing formats were implemented in some 3-5 classrooms. In 2014-2015 the Learning Cultures program was being implemented in all classrooms.
The High School of Language and Innovation opened in 2011 starting with 9th grade, adding a new grade each year. The poverty index at the school is 97% and 81% of students are English language learners. Cynthia worked with the school to develop its academic programs in all classes and subjects around the Learning Cultures model. The first cohort to have had the Learning Cultures program for all 4 years of high school in all of their classes graduated in 2015. This group had a 73% graduation rate, outpacing the city average by three points and outpacing demographically similar schools by five points. 52% of the students were deemed to be ‘college ready’ compared to 35% of students city-wide and 19% of students in demographically comparable schools. The school formally implemented Learning Cultures through Spring 2015.
The Jacob Riis School is a public Pre-K through 8th grade school in Lower Manhattan. Cynthia began working with the school in Fall 2007 to implement Learning Cultures. The methods were initially demonstrated in PK-8 classrooms. In Spring 2008 the model was implemented in elementary writing classrooms and in Fall 2008 the model was implemented in middle school classrooms. The Learning Cultures reading program was implemented in both elementary and middle school reading classrooms beginning in Fall 2008. Learning Cultures continued to be implemented in all PK-8 reading and writing classrooms through 2011.
In a delayed time series analysis, in which reading and math scores of students in grades 3-8 were compared to 5,000 students in 10 other demographically similar schools, students in Jacob Riis demonstrated statistically significant gains in both math and reading the first year of implementation, and effect sizes of these gains remained strong throughout the five-year implementation period. Comparisons with control schools with similar demographics show that Jacob Riis student’s achievement equaled or bettered those of the comparison control schools. Specifically for Elementary School Mathematics: Only 1 of the 4 comparison schools reported significant gains and no significant losses, the pattern reported for Jacob Riis. For Elementary school English: No schools reported significant gains comparable to Jacob Riis students. For middle School Mathematics: Only 1 of the 6 comparable schools showed a pattern of systematic gain over the four testing cycles equivalent to that for Jacob Riis. For Middle School English: Two of the four comparable schools showed comparable gains.
In 2013 the Urban Assembly High School for Green Careers was the fourth lowest performing high school in New York City. The graduation rate was then 38%. This was the year the school began to implement the Learning Cultures program in every subject and in every grade. After one year of implementation, graduation rates climbed to 49% and the school received a “well developed” on its school-wide quality review, one of only 7% of schools city-wide to receive that rating.
In 2017 the school graduated its first cohort to have had four years of the Learning Cultures program with a graduation rate of 84%. The school implemented Learning Cultures through Spring 2019.
In 2015 Cynthia collaborated with Shira Wrightman to submit a proposal for a Learning Cultures charter school to the New York State Department of Education. Ours was one of 13 teams invited to submit an application. However, the State rejected all 13 applications, and we consequently ended our initiative. Our proposal for 'Education for Tomorrow Bronx Charter School' appears below.
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