The Network for International High Schools: Islands of Excellence in the Turbulent World of Public Schools

On her twelfth birthday she was a yak herder in Tibet; she walked across the Himalayas with her father, spent endless hours in a corrugated box on a truck being smuggled into Nepal, and, a year later showed up at an International High School in New York City knowing not a word of English: she is now a graduate of Middlebury College. Student alumna told their stories, how they traveled across the world, with no English skills and were lucky enough the find an International High School.

The first International High School opened on the La Guardia Community College campus in 1985, there are now 19 International High Schools, 15 in New York City and schools in San Francisco, Oakland, Virginia and Washington DC with others in the planning stages.

All the schools are public schools and operate in school districts with labor contracts.

The New York City International High Schools have an 80% six-year graduation rate … across the state ELLs have a 31% graduation rate!

Tuesday night I attended the 10th Anniversary Celebration Benefit of the Network for Internationals for Public Schools, honoring Chancellors Farina and Tisch and CEO of Deutsch Bank North America Jacques Brand, all three grew up in households where English was not the dominant language.

The Network, funded totally by grants and contributions, creates the new schools and supports the current schools, by support meaning participating in the selection of school leaders, continuing mentorship for the schools leader, a rich professional development agenda for the staffs and continuing advocacy for issues impacting English language learners: in New York State fighting for the Dreamer Act legislation which would include undocumented students in the state Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) and fighting for unaccompanied minors, to assure timely proper school placements and additional funding for impacted school districts.

The extremely impressive data raise eyebrows and I have met many cynics, after all others schools look to avoid ELLs, they pull down school data. You can peruse the Network website which describes the approaches, or, visit one of the schools. Over the years I have visited Internationals many times, yes, the team approach, four core subject teachers and 75-students staying together for two years. An instructional model that teaches English through ESL modeling in the content areas; however, the key to the Internationals are the core principles that are not slogans on a wall, the principles are embedded in the culture of the schools.

More than twenty years ago the principal and the UFT chapter leader came before the UFT Executive Board, they asked for an exemption from the seniority transfer plan, all staff would be selected by a committee made up of a majority of teachers selected by the staff, a few years later the school wanted to involve teachers in the assessment of colleagues.

I just re-read two documents, one entitled “The International High School Approach to Leadership: Student Empowerment Through the Professional Development of Their Teachers” (1999) and “Personnel Procedures for the Peer Selection, Support and Evaluation” (2002), examples of core principles in practice.

In 2005 Claire Sylvan, a teacher at International at La Guardia wrote a grant, and, unexpectedly the Network sprung to life. Over the last decade four schools became nineteen.

In the early 2000’s the charter school law allowed for public schools to convert to charter status and continue to operate under the labor contract, one of the International schools asked me to facilitate a meeting. The chart paper was up, one page for”+,” one for “-” and one for “?” A lengthy discussion, we set up sub committees to explore the question marks and set a timetable. I was curious, what did the principal think? I asked, “Sara, why haven’t you been part of the dialogue?” Sara replied, “I don’t want to influence the process, the staff has to own the outcome.” (Eventually the staff decided there was too many unanswered question marks and demurred). Leadership means trusting the staff.

A couple of years ago I took a leader of a school in formation to meet an International principal to discuss school scheduling – some of the Internationals utilize “open flexible block scheduling,” the teams decide how to schedule the time within a block. The principal said they were planning a new master school schedule. The new visiting principal asked, “Why are you changing the schedule for next year?” The International principal responded, “Because the kids change.”

I am frequently asked, “Are the Internationals teacher-run schools?” Absolutely not, the principal is clearly the school leader; however, the principal respects the staff, the staff fully participates in every aspect of school life, once again, core principles in action.

Cynics say, “They’re all new teachers, overworked and easily led.” While the new schools have younger teachers other older schools have senior teachers, in fact, the original schools have the strongest cultures.

The Network is not part of the Department of Education, it functions alongside the Board of Education, it is a unique organization, a 501 (c) 3 that raises its own dollars to create and support schools.

Eric Nadelstern, the founding principal moved on to lead the small school creation process and eventually to the number two in the Department under Joel Klein. Claire Sylvan, created the Network and led the growth in New York City, and now across the country.

Claire has been extremely cognoscent of the complexities of scaling up and has moved slowly and carefully. Unfortunately the current vogue, the test-driven, teacher evaluation driven ideologies are antithetical to the student driven cultures of the Internationals. I suspect most school districts are too wedded to the testing cultures. School districts with brighter leaders understand that flitting from “new thing” to “new thing” ultimately is disastrous. Too many schools and school districts are run with a paramilitary rigor, the district leader orders and the staffs salute. Of course, after the officer turned the corner we griped and cursed and always figured out ways to bypass the latest ukase.

In spite of the plethora of ineffective school leaders there are shining islands, schools with highly talented leaders, schools in which the entire staff is on the same wave length, schools with vibrant cultures.

The Internationals, for thirty years, have been a lifeline for generations of new Americans. Today over 6.000 student attend International High Schools, the future of America.


One response to “The Network for International High Schools: Islands of Excellence in the Turbulent World of Public Schools

  1. Nice piece. The original International schools in NYC were among the initial groups of schools in the New York Performance Standards Consortium ( in which students graduate through extent performance tasks (they do have to pass one Regent, ELA). More Internationals in NYC have joined the Consortium in its recent expansion. So deep, project-based learning is also part of what at least some of them do.


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